August is National Immunization Awareness Month. To celebrate, we are going to tackle a myth about vaccination every Monday throughout the month. See previous posts here.
Before we dive into this week’s myth, can we take a moment to recognize something? The human immune system. It’s pretty amazing.
From the very moment you enter this world, your immune system is tasked with protecting you from, well, the world! There are countless pathogens (disease-causing agents) in your environment, microbes that you encounter everyday. And for an infant, all of those microbes are brand new.
Just think of all the wonderful things in this world that a newborn has never been exposed to before: sunshine, daisies, the scent of the ocean, cronuts, season two of House of Cards, parents, grandparents, siblings, the list goes on. Many of those can be conduits for germs that cause colds, diarrhea, or whooping cough– even if they are well-intentioned conduits.
This brings us to today’s myth: claims that the current pediatric vaccine schedule is too much for a baby’s delicate immune system.
However, the truth is that babies encounter tons of microbes everyday and their immune systems are up to the challenge, capable of churning out massive numbers of antibodies to prevent those viruses and bacteria from causing illness.
The part of a pathogen that the immune system must learn to recognize and fight, by vaccination or natural infection, is called an antigen. The immune system forms antibodies that match a specific antigen– think of puzzle pieces fitting together. A baby probably encounters somewhere around 2,000- 6,000 antigens in a single day, just by going about their normal, adorable, baby business: playing with toys or siblings, putting anything and everything into their mouths, even just breathing in the air around us. Yet, if you add up the entire vaccine schedule from birth through age 15 months, it contains just 150 antigens.
This is entirely thanks to advances in science in recent decades. Vaccine manufacturers can use fewer and smaller proteins or even genetic material to induce the same immune response that previously required more antigen exposure. Vaccines are safer today than they have ever been.
All this makes the idea of “too many, too soon” a truly dangerous myth.
New parents might be surprised when they see the current vaccine schedule, which includes 10 vaccines against 14 diseases spread across 24-25 doses. In the mid- to late- 1980s, (when many of today’s first time parents were born) the vaccine schedule only included 5 vaccines with protection against 9 diseases. This leads some parents to think of the additional vaccines as “new” and question whether their addition to the schedule is too much for a baby.
But we know an infant’s immune system is no shrinking violet. No, your little one’s immune system is a powerhouse, ready to respond to environmental antigens and vaccinations.
Lately, some parents have turned to an alternative schedule that spaces out or delays certain vaccines. There’s really no scientific evidence behind any alternative schedule (as opposed to the rigorous testing and evaluation of the pediatric schedule recommended by the CDC). Separating combination vaccines (like the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella) into individual vaccines similarly has no proven benefit, and ultimately just means more shots. Alternative schedules leave children unprotected from disease for longer without any benefit to the child.
If you’re no longer a newborn, you already know that the world isn’t only sunshine, daisies, and cronuts– but fortunately, there are safe, effective vaccines that, combined with your child’s amazing immune system, protect him or her against some of the nastiest and most dangerous diseases out there.
Jane manages the Vaccine Finder project at Health Map, the host site of the Disease Daily. Robyn is a contributing writer for the Disease Daily and works as a health educator for a non-profit focused on vaccine education. Both are fully up-to-date on their immunizations.