The Truth About Vaccine Injuries

MarianVejcik/Getty
MarianVejcik/Getty

You’d think that it would be easy to interpret the data from the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System (VAERS): how many people claimed to be hurt by what vaccines, and how did they claim to be injured? Unfortunately, the answers are much more complicated than that. And it’s not because of some massive conspiracy on behalf of Big Pharma, so hold back the conspiracy theories.

It’s because there’s so much data to wade through, so many variables, and such a low burden of proof that talking about vaccine injury is a seriously complicated subject.

According to the Johns Hopkins Bloomburg Institute for Public Health, there are about 11,000 reports received by VAERS each year. The FDA states that 85% of these reports include mild reactions ranging from “mild fevers or redness and swelling at the injection site,” but 15% include more serious issues, like “hospitalizations, life-threatening events, and deaths.” That means that, in any given year, approximately 1,650 children in the entire United States are reported as legitimately vaccine injured.

Moreover, as the FDA says, every year, “More than ten million vaccinations per year are given to children less than one year old, usually between 2 months and 6 months of age … naturally occurring events include fevers, seizures, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), cancer, congenital heart disease, asthma, and other conditions. Some infants coincidentally experience an adverse event shortly after a vaccination. It is usually not possible from VAERS data alone to determine whether a particular adverse event resulted from a concurrent condition or from a vaccination — even when the event occurs soon after vaccination.”

But if you get on the internet and into the anti-vaccination groups, you’ll find piles and piles of angry parents claiming their children are vaccine injured. Again the burden of proof is low, and most of this is opinion and conjecture, versus legitimized medical diagnoses. While having a child experience any adverse medical event is terrifying, these parents are often ready to pounce on anyone who disagrees with them.

ENOUGH. Vaccines are safe and they work. Period.

First, let’s differentiate between vaccine reactions and vaccine events: vaccine adverse reactions happen, according to Dr. Celina Moore, who did her residency at Miami Children’s Hospital, and currently practices in Boca Raton, FL, there’s “an undesirable effect following an immunization.” These include soreness, redness, and fever. A vaccine injury, she says, “is a little different” and the CDC official vaccine injury table can be found here. These are the “officially” reported ones, and include things like anaphylaxis and Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Dr. Moore tells Scary Mommy that in her entire time practicing — a whopping 14 years — she has seen two vaccine-injured patients, and one during her residency. That teen was injured by an earlier formulation, now changed, of a DTP (now DTaP) vaccine, which caused encephalitis as an infant. Another child, she says, developed “idiopathic thrombocytopenia purpura (ITP) about ten days or so following his MMR vaccine. Even though [he] recovered completely within a week of the ITP, that qualifies as a vaccine injury as per the CDC Vaccine Injury Table.”

At the same time, Dr. Moore says that if you count newborns, she sees immunocompromised patients every day, since children under the age of 28 days cannot be vaccinated. Other children with compromised immune systems in her practice include organ transplant recipients, those receiving chemo, kids born with immunodeficiency disorders, and medically fragile infants. Infection with vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles, pertussis, or chicken pox, could hospitalize or kill these children.

Scary Mommy also talked to Dr. CharlRe’ Slaughter-Atiemo, M.D., F.A.A.P., a pediatrician in Waldorf, Maryland  and founder of CayTer 2 You Baby, told Scary Mommy that in her 11 years of practice, she has never encountered a child who was vaccine-injured or had a serious adverse reaction to a vaccine. She has, however, “witnessed several cases of children who do did not receive their childhood vaccinations and ended up with a serious vaccine-preventable illness.” While she stresses that many immunocompromised children can receive at least some vaccines, the best protection for them is for the people around them to be vaccinated — especially in the cases of children with cancer, those taking long-term steroids, or those who have problems with their immune systems, for whom vaccines simply won’t work. One of her worries is also the exposure of vaccine-preventable illnesses, in pediatric waiting rooms, to those too young to be vaccinated against them.

Dr. Slaughter-Atiemo reminds people that the risk of a serious vaccine injury is one in a million (literally): the same, she says, as “those from other types of medications or therapeutic treatments.”

Both Dr. Amy Baxter, a pediatric emergency MD, and Dr. Dr. Rob Darzynkiewicz, MD, Chief Medical Officer at Hazel Health, told Scary Mommy that they have never encountered a vaccine-injured child in the emergency room. However, Dr. Baxter says that she has “directly cared for” one child who died from chicken pox, three children who died from meninogoccemia, and two from H flu. Both doctors have said they have encountered many immunocompromised children — Dr. Baxter numbers them “in the thousands” — and the number of pertussis cases “in the hundreds.”

So while actual vaccine injuries do occur, they’re rare — exceedingly rare. This isn’t to say they don’t happen. But when their risk is one in a million, when their risk is, as Dr. Slaughter-Atiemo says, the same as any other treatment or therapy, they aren’t really a reason to deny vaccination — especially when so many children can’t be vaccinated, and rely on the vaccinations of others to keep them healthy.

When you vaccinate your kids, you’re not only making the decision to keep them healthy. You’re making the decision to keep all the people around them healthy, too. The risk of true vaccine injury is small. The need for herd immunity is paramount to protect the most vulnerable among us. When my husband got pertussis, my son was four months old. He and I were vaccinated. Despite living with my husband, we didn’t get sick.

My husband cracked a rib from coughing. Nine years later, he still suffers debilitating asthma attacks. The disease could have killed my son. He was fine. So was I. Vaccines protected us. One of my other sons had a vaccine reaction to the measles: he developed the full rash and 105 degree fever symptomatic of the full-blown disease. We still gave him his second MMR shot. Because this was a vaccine reaction, not an injury —a rare one, but one nonetheless, one from which he suffered no ill effects. Now he’ll never get the measles.

Totally worth it.