Vaccine Safety

This is part 2, continued from Vaccines

There are two main concerns about the safety of vaccines:  the MMR vaccine, and the preservative thimerosal.


For years, there has been some controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine.  Responsible parents don’t want to hurt their kids, so if the vaccine causes health problems, we don’t want to subject our kids to it.

In 1998, a respected medical journal, The Lancet, published a paper suggesting a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism.  Then in 2004, The Lancet published a retraction by ten of the paper’s thirteen authors – a retraction because those authors wanted to make it clear that there was not evidence that the vaccine was unsafe; people were misinterpreting the small study’s write-up.

In 2010, the entire paper was retracted.  It simply is not true that the MMR vaccine causes autism.  Both the “research” and paper were fraudulent.  For some truly shocking information, read How the case against the MMR vaccine was fixed and Wakefield’s article linking MMR vaccine and autism was fraudulent.

The MMR vaccine, like any medication, can have side effects.

  • 1 in 6 kids get a temporary fever
  • 1 in 20 will get a temporary mild rash
  • on rare occasions, kids will experience mild swelling of the neck/cheeks about a week after getting the vaccine
  • 1 in 3000 kids will have seizures due to fever (vs. 3-6 in the same sized group who will die from the disease)
  • some people have joint pain due to the vaccine; it is temporary
  • 1 in 30,000 people have a temporary low platelet count due to the vaccine
  • Less than one in a million people vaccinated experience a severe allergic reaction due to the vaccine

The alternative is much scarier.  Survivors blind, fighting pneumonia, maybe sterile; hundreds of thousands of children dead.


The MMR vaccine isn’t the only safety question regarding childhood immunizations.  The other big issue is that of preservatives, mainly thimerosal.

Obviously it doesn’t help to prevent a given disease (diphtheria, for example), only to have the patient die of a different infection because the medicine was contaminated.  If a doctor’s office has a vial that holds twenty doses, then twenty different times a needle will be inserted into the vial and a dose drawn out.  In a perfect world, this would always remain sterile; here in the real world, as a safeguard to keep fungi and bacteria from growing in vaccines, small amounts of an antiseptic/preservative were added.

When very few vaccines were available, this wasn’t a significant problem because kids got very little of that preservative.  As more and more vaccines became available, the amount of preservative given to young children increased.  People became concerned that the accumulated doses might be harmful.  The evidence appears to say no, but to err on the side of caution, pharmaceutical companies were asked to stop using this preservative.  Some vaccines contain only trace amounts, others have none.  For those vaccines that still contain small amounts of this preservative, patients can specifically request thimerosal-free vaccines (single-dose vials as opposed to multi-dose vials).

A look at the data on individual vaccines shows that the vaccines are much safer than the diseases.

  • Hib
  • Hepatitis A – my two oldest have had this vaccine, the younger ones have not
  • Hepatitis B
  • Chickenpox – since I’ve never had chickenpox, I made sure my kids got this vaccine
  • Pneumococcal
  • Meningococcal
  • Rubella (German Measles) – part of the MMR vaccine
  • Mumps – I remember having mumps as a child, and am happy to spare my kids the experience
  • Measles
  • HPV – no matter how confident I am in my kids’ ability to make good choices, there are no guarantees that a person’s future spouse will have always made good choices
  • Diphtheria
  • Pertussis
  • Tetanus
  • Rotavirus – this is new; none of my kids have had this vaccine

For more information:

Written for a friend who asked my opinion on vaccines.
Possibly one more vaccine post in the works, but that’s not going to be the focus of this blog.

4 thoughts on “Vaccine Safety

  1. Rotavirus is vaguely interesting (discussion wise) as it’s a mild, but very common illness, and the vaccine (a live one) has mild, but very common side effects.

    I don’t quite understand why the attenuated-live-vaccine for the milder illnesses (chickenpox and rotavirus) aren’t better accepted… nothing mysterious about a live vaccine, and if you’re sure to get either the vaccine strain or the wild one, well, I know which I want.

    I guess I have a better understanding of the cognitive error that goes into relying on herd immunity for the rarer illnesses.

  2. Dr. Oz did a show on autism last week. The conclusion is out of 23 studies for vaccine safety…18 were financed by Bigharma. Autism seems to have a genetic predisposition (studies on twins prove this)…so indeed, the shot may be safe if your child is not predisposed…if they are….your heart will break. There used to be thimerosal in levels more than the daily allowed dose…but those pesky moms screamed amd got it removed…after injuries. Now there is aluminum.

    But the outcry is helping…a bit too late for some..because now one in 70 boys has autism (boys are more susceptible), and new brain scans and genome projects are identifyimg predispositions and brain activity (an amazing video on GMA last week showing the simple hand test for ADD and the lack of brain activity in those with it)

    It just seems so obvious….but researchers aren’t honest enough to do it…..take unimmunized kids and immunized kids and see which group has more autism. We already know the answer. In the Amish groups that do not immunize (many do, and they use hospitals a lot because, sadly, they are susceptible to blood diseases from marrying within a small group) and compare the groups as they did long ago with smokers and non.

    I think the combo shots are a problem. Do what my doctor did. He ordered the shots without preservatives, you give them one at a time, and only the most important, and delay them until your baby has a stronger immune system.

  3. You are a brave woman to take on this subject. I have worked with individuals who have developmental and intellectual challenges for 30 years. Do I believe vaccines cause autism… I think a change in classification coupled with better testing and standards has something to do with the increase in autism spectrum that we see. I think that it is very important that children still get the vaccines.

    Just my 2 cents. Each parent needs to make their own decision but they should be sure they are getting truthful and scientific information that is not slanted by someones personal view.

  4. WS,
    Thanks for the review and your perspective(s)as mother, consumer, friend. As a family physician, I believe that, after medical input, parent and patient communities via the internet can share and clarify for each other how they perceive the vaccine-preventable diseases. Civic mindedness and friendship can reconnect people for the best overall prevention strategies. As people share their caring perspectives, the conversation moves ahead. The line about 1 in 3000 having a febrile seizure compared to 3-6 dying without the immunization is a great clarifier of relative risks. Thanks for pushing the parent/ patient conversation forward.

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