Let’s begin with an important take-away: People who are vaccinated are less likely to be sick, less likely to need medicines, and less likely to be hospitalised.
Most people vaccinate their kids but, for some of those who opt out, the decision is part of a broader aversion to medical intervention. It is, according to one expert, part of a ‘pursuit of purity’ which embraces clean living, healthy eating and, sometimes, alternative health.
I get this, at least in part. My own kids, if you’re interested, were born at home (with midwives, I hasten to add). Maybe there are too many caesareans in some countries, maybe we use too many antibiotics, maybe some medicines are overused. (I still follow my doctor’s advice and take all recommended medicines.)
But our kids are fully vaccinated.
Because if you want to avoid medication, vaccines are – perhaps counterintuitively – part of the solution.
It’s not easy bringing a small child to a nurse or doctor to have an injection. But we still do it because the benefits are so great.
Consider the measles vaccine. The obvious benefit is that it prevents measles, keeping kids out of hospital. One in 10 confirmed measles cases results in hospitalisation. In a recent outbreak in France, that figure was 22%.
But measles vaccines also reduce overall infant mortality because it indirectly protects against other infectious diseases. It seems that children who catch measles and recover are still vulnerable to other diseases for two to three years.
Fighting off a measles infection takes a lot out of the immune system. Boosting the natural immune system through vaccination primes the body to respond to infection without weakening its capacity to fend off other bugs.
Flu vaccine reduces the need for intervention
Data from Public Health England shows that vaccinating children significantly decreases their risk of needing to see a doctor or of being hospitalised. It also protects those around them from needing urgent medical attention.
In children aged 5-10 years vaccinated against flu, GP consultations for flu-like illnesses were down 94% compared to areas where a pilot childhood flu vaccine programme was not in place. Attendance at emergency departments was down 74% while hospital admissions fell by 93%. The need for admission to intensive care units (ICU) and high-dependency units (HDU) was down 76%.
To put it another way:
- For every 16 children vaccinated, 1 GP consultation was avoided
- For every 317 children vaccinated, 1 influenza-related hospitalisation was prevented.
- For every 2,205 children vaccinated, 1 confirmed influenza-related ICU/HDU case was averted.
As many patients with flu-like symptoms are (usually incorrectly) given antibiotics, this also helps to indirectly reduce the risk of antibiotic resistance (AMR).
Vaccines also help to directly reduce AMR. Pneumococcal infection, which can cause everything from ear infections to pneumonia and meningitis, is the most common vaccine-preventable bacterial cause of death. Vaccines protect against these illnesses and reduce the use of antibiotics.
A 2014 US study showed that the pneumococcal vaccine recommended for young children “not only prevents illness and death, but also has dramatically reduced severe antibiotic-resistant infections”
And there’s more: The pneumococcal Haemophilus influenzae protein D conjugate vaccine (PHiD-CV10) has been shown to reduce outpatient antimicrobial purchases, while a pneumococcal conjugate vaccine programme in Finland reduced the need for antimicrobials and tympanostomy tube placements.
Rotavirus vaccination also significantly reduces the likelihood of children needing to be hospitalised. An Austrian study showed 74% fewer hospitalisations after introducing the vaccine. In babies under 1 year of age, hospitalisation rates fell by 88%.
Vaccination: an ethical, minimally-interventionist choice
The science is clear – a few trips to the clinic early in life can avoid treatment for illness later.
But for some people, health decisions are a matter of identify and values – even personal politics. This was the dilemma Katie Attwell faced when she became a parent.
A self-identified ‘crusty’ (which I’m told is Australian for something like a ‘hippy’ who lives an alternative lifestyle), Katie was in favour of breastfeeding, home-birthing, cloth nappies and clean living, but she also wanted to protect against infectious diseases.
This was tricky because the default approach to healthcare in her community was to have the minimum contact with doctors and hospitals, avoiding medication unless it’s really needed.
After exploring this issue in depth – she wrote a paper on it and is now a political scientist – Katie launched a campaign to tell others it was okay to vaccinate. In fact, she argued, it was an ethically sound option that was entirely in keeping with the communitarian values that defined the group.
It’s worth remembering what vaccination is. It is a safe and effective way to boost the body’s natural immunity system. A small piece of a virus or bacteria is given to the immune system to trigger a response, preparing it for any future exposure to the bug.
So, if you want to keep kids healthy and away from hospital, vaccinate.