Risks of Not Vaccinating Your Children

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February 6, 2009
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February 6, 2009
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Risks of Not Vaccinating Your Children

From 1958 to 1962, over a half a million cases of measles are reported each year. 432 measles-related deaths occur on average each year. But in 1963, the measles vaccine was licensed. By 2000, only 81 cases of measles are reported in all of the U.S.! And, most of those in the children of parents who chose not to immunize their kids. In fact, it has just been announced that measles cases in England and Wales have risen by more than 70 percent in 2008 from the previous year, mostly because of unvaccinated children.
More Information:
Consider the history of Hib meningitis. Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) disease usually strikes children under 5 years of age. Hib can cause blood poisoning or meningitis.
The first Hib vaccine was licensed in 1985. In 1998 fewer than 10 Hib deaths are reported. And, most of those in the children of parents who chose not to immunize their kids.
Polio, caused by a virus, was once America’s most feared disease, causing death or paralysis. Its most famous victim was President Franklin Roosevelt.
From 1951 to 1954, paralytic polio struck nearly 20,000 Americans every year, killing nearly 1,900. In 1955, the first polio vaccine was licensed. Today there are no reports of polio in the United States, but the disease still exists in some parts of the world.
Whooping cough, chickenpox, and other diseases still exist in the United States, causing serious illness and even death. When children aren’t immunized, diseases can return.
In Great Britain, people stopped immunizing for pertussis (whooping cough) in the early 70s. Within just a few years, a pertussis epidemic occurred—100,000 cases with 36 deaths.
In Japan similar events occurred: a decline in childhood pertussis vaccinations during the 70s, was followed by a pertussis epidemic—13,000 case and 41 deaths—in 1979.
A Disease Is More Than An Illness.

  • Sick children are kept out of school.  A child with chickenpox, for example, can miss one or more weeks of school.
  • A child with a vaccine-preventable disease can experience physical pain, discomfort, trauma, long-term disabilities, or even death from an illness that could have been prevented with a vaccine.
  • A sick child can also infect parents, sisters, brothers, other family members, friends, and classmates too!
  • A sick child with a prolonged illness can impact a family’s financial resources. Parents must be there to care for a child, meaning loss of pay or use of vacation time.
  • Sickness drains other financial resources. For example, for every dollar invested in the Diphtheria/Tetanus/Pertussis (DTaP) vaccine, the United States saves $27 in costs such as work-loss, death, and disability.

Key Facts 

  • Measles, Hib and polio are diseases that used to kill or handicap many young children. All have been controlled with vaccination.
  • But when vaccination rates fall, epidemics can occur, because disease-causing viruses and bacteria still exist in nature.
  • Immunizing protects the health of children and the emotional and financial well-being of their families and communities.
  • Immunizing also protects the health of children who cannot be vaccinated, such as children with immune deficiencies or weakened immune systems due to medical treatments like chemotherapy.

Additional Resources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website: Click “Vaccines & Immunizations,” then click “NIP Home Page” in the right column or go directly to the site here
  • National Immunization Hotline: 1-800-232-2522.
  • Parent’s Guide to Childhood Immunization: Publication available online here
  • For information on vaccine testing and licensing go to the FDA website here
  • For information about local health care resources go here: or look under “public health” in the blue pages of your local phone book
  • For information on children’s health insurance go here


  1. Kelly says:

    Hello, I was just wondering if you could answer a question for me. I run a day care out of my home. I was recently inquired about watching a girl who is 2 and has never been vaccinated or seen a doctor. I was wondering if this was any risk to myself or the other children in my day care? Thank you for your time

  2. Dr. Walt says:

    Hi Kelly,
    Thanks for the note. And, yes, unvaccinated children create a risk for other children and adults.
    As Dr. Paul Offit writes (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-a-offit-md/dont-risk-going-unvaccina_b_160018.html):
    This past year the United States witnessed a measles epidemic that was the largest in more than a decade. About 135 people, mostly children, were infected with measles; some of those children were hospitalized with severe dehydration and others with pneumonia caused by the virus.
    Why did this happen? The answer can be found in a study published in December 2008 in the American Journal of Epidemiology that received little attention from the media. The authors, epidemiologists from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, examined school children in Michigan whose parents had chosen not to vaccinate them. They compared clusters of unvaccinated children with clusters of documented whooping cough (pertussis) outbreaks. Not surprisingly, the clusters overlapped. The authors concluded: “Geographic pockets of vaccine exemptors pose a risk to the whole community.”
    This is exactly what had happened during the measles epidemic in 2008. Almost all of the children who caught and transmitted measles were unvaccinated. The authors of this study had provided an insight into the obvious. If parents choose not to vaccinate their children, not only do they put their own children at risk, they put others at risk. Because no vaccine is 100 percent effective, some vaccinated children can still get pertussis. Others at even greater risk include children who haven’t completed the entire series of pertussis vaccines or those who can’t get vaccines because they are receiving steroids for asthma or chemotherapy for cancer.
    The findings of the Hopkins researchers would have been somewhat more tolerable if the choice not to vaccinate was because of legitimate problems with vaccines. But the reason that some parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children is based on the mistaken notion that vaccines cause autism; or that vaccines cause diabetes or multiple sclerosis or asthma or allergies; or that vaccines weaken or overwhelm the immune system; or that vaccines have not been adequately tested. Many studies have addressed these concerns and should have reassured parents. But there appears to be a rift between studies that exonerate vaccines and the public’s knowledge of those studies.
    This latest study is not the first piece of evidence that a choice not to vaccinate is not a risk-free choice. In 2005, a 17-year old unvaccinated girl visited Romania, caught measles, returned to her home in Indiana, and proceeded to infect at least 34 more people, most of whom were also unvaccinated.
    These outbreaks have not, apparently, been sobering. If anything, the number of parents choosing to delay or withhold or separate vaccines is increasing. So what will it take? Certainly, as more and more children contract measles and pertussis, deaths from these diseases will follow. And it’s not a leap to believe that we could see other deadly diseases, like polio and diphtheria; both of which still occur commonly in some areas of the world; and both of which are only a plane ride away from causing outbreaks in relatively unvaccinated communities in the United States.
    We can only hope that parents have not been lulled into a false sense of security by the success of vaccines — or that our inattention to history will not cause us to relive it.
    Hope this is helpful information for you.
    Dr. Walt

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