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Vaccine safety report should reassure parents

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture

Vaccine safety is a highly charged issue, polarizing parents on the debate about autism, asthma and autoimmune disease causes. Fears that vaccines can cause various side effects have led to a decline in childhood immunization rates in recent years and a re-emergence of preventable infectious diseases such as whooping cough and measles. Today’s report from the Institute of Medicine should be reassuring news for parents and medical professionals alike.

The report, issued Thursday by an independent panel of medical experts, points out that vaccines rarely cause serious side effects. When problems do arise, they most often occur in people with preexisting immune system disorders.

The report is used to help administer claims through the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. That program was established in 1986 to provide financial compensation to people who were harmed by eight recommended vaccines.

"The utility of this report is enormous," said Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, the committee chairwoman and director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University. "Claimants and the government and the vaccine court will now have available to them the best analysis that has ever been done about the potential adverse events caused by these vaccines."

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The committee reviewed more than 1,000 scientific articles to assess vaccine safety. The report, the first comprehensive review of the issue by the Institute of Medicine since 1994, supports once again s everal previous analyses that failed to find a link between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. The panel also said they could find no evidence showing the diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis (known as the acronym DTaP) vaccine causes type 1 diabetes or that the flu shot worsens asthma or causes Bell's palsy, a nerve disorder that causes temporary paralysis of the muscles in the face.

Committee members did say that vaccines caused numerous minor side effects such as soreness at the injection site and fainting. These brief consequences are widely known among those who undergo routine shots, and are not a cause for concern. The MMR and DTaP vaccines are also sometimes associated with a high fever reaction and febrile (fever-related) seizures in children, although such seizures do no ordinarily cause any permanent disability.

Six vaccines, including MMR, influenza, varicella, hepatitis B, meningococcal and tetanus can cause an allergic reaction as well anaphylaxis, a sudden, life-threatening allergic reaction, according to the report. The varicella vaccine can cause rare cases of pneumonia, meningitis, shingles, chickenpox and other conditions in people with immune-system disorders as well as some people with healthy immune systems. It is important to keep in mind, however, that catching the disease itself – on account of being unimmunized – can lead to those very same complications.

The jury is still out on Gardasil, a vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV) which has been associated with the development of cervical cancer in women. Gardasil, in turn, has been linked in isolated case reports to blood clots and even some deaths. But the report says there is not enough scientific evidence yet to determine whether HPV vaccines can cause side effects.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons