How Vaccine Guidelines Have Evolved Over The Years, & Why Those Changes Matter

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Being a parent often feels like an incredibly-high-stakes endeavor, and there's good reason for that. As a parent, you are literally responsible for caring for and protecting another human life — a life that may have also actually formed and grown inside of your own body. But when it comes to issues like vaccination, sometimes the desire to protect our children can actually lead us to inadvertently put them in harm's way. Despite plenty of solid medical evidence, many well-meaning parents read unfounded (yet totally scary) stories about risks and injuries from vaccines, and they often look to how vaccine guidelines have evolved over the years as one example of why they are right to be concerned. But there's so much more to the debate over vaccine guidelines and recommended schedules than what's presented in some viral anti-vaxx memes — and if you look beyond the fear-mongering images, the reality is much less alarming.

When my twins were both in 2012, I got an involuntary crash course in the value of life-saving advances in medical technology. I gave birth at 25 weeks — a gestation at which the odds of survival aren't exactly fantastic — yet doctors and nurses and machines and medicine kept them both alive, and after four months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), we got to take our children home. Even after everything we'd seen though, and after all of the medical interventions that allowed our babies to live and thrive, I was still scared when it came time to take them for their two-month shots. I knew that they needed to be protected from life-threatening preventable diseases, and I trusted the many doctors and nurses I'd asked who told me that avoiding vaccines was straight-up dangerous. But I'd also seen a lot of very scary "research" online about autism and mercury and so-called vaccine injuries, that I couldn't help but silently worry if I was doing the right thing.

One of the arguments I'd heard that didn't seem entirely unreasonable, was that infants today are overloaded with too many vaccines, and that not all of them are immediately necessary. I looked at my tiny infants — children who'd already been through so much poking and prodding — and wondered whether the jarring images I'd seen circulating around the internet could be true. After all, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the current immunization schedule for children recommends as many as six different vaccines given by two months of age (seven if you consider that the hepatitis B vaccine is given in two doses). And, according to the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), children can now receive "as many as 26 inoculations by 2 years of age and up to five shots at one time."

That's likely something that would make even the most easy-going parent bristle — especially if you've read the Facebook comments about vaccines being "toxic." But there are are a number of important reasons why the current guidelines shouldn't concern you (and why they definitely shouldn't keep you from vaccinating your children).

There's no question that 26 shots by age 2 seems like a lot, and, according to CHOP, it's actually true that based on the current guidelines, children today receive more vaccines now than ever before. But that doesn't mean their little bodies are being bombarded with ingredients — in fact, it's quite the opposite. According to CHOP, 30 years ago (perhaps around the time that many of us were getting our childhood shots) children received seven different vaccines, which contained a total of more than 3,000 bacterial and viral proteins to make them work. These days, the number of vaccines has actually doubled — which sounds scary — but by comparison, the number of immunological components in these vaccines is much less (about 150). The reason? Medical advances in the past three decades have allowed for vaccines to become safer and more pure, while still remaining totally effective.

What's more though is that the increase in the number of vaccines recommended to children is actually a really good thing — it means, after all, that more diseases that could once literally kill children are now able to be prevented. If you're older than 22, for example, you likely grew up without the option of getting the varicella vaccine (aka, the chickenpox vaccine). It was introduced in 1995, and has meant that most kids today won't know what it's like to catch the miserable, itchy virus that was for many of us a kind of childhood rite of passage.

But the real impact is much greater than that: according to the CDC, the advent of the varicella vaccine has meant that there was finally a way to easily protect children from a virus that sent approximately 11,000 people in the United States to hospital each year — and that ultimately killed about 100 of them. As for the risks associated with getting the shot? Well, they're much lower: while some children will develop a rash or a fever, the CDC notes that you're at a much higher risk for side effects if you actually get the chickenpox, and that those side effects will likely be more severe. The most likely vaccine reaction you'll experience, if any? Localized soreness or redness (in other words, your arm will be sore because you just got a shot).

Other additions to the vaccine guidelines that weren't around in years past? Rotavirus, hepatitis A, and pneumococcal vaccines were all added in the late '90s and early '00s, according to CHOP, while the oral polio vaccine was discontinued. More options have also become available for combination vaccines (that is, more protection with fewer jabs), a pretty valuable advancement, given that research has found that spacing out vaccines is actually more stressful to babies and young children than it would be to give them all in one go, according to NPR.

Vaccine guidelines in the United States have definitely evolved, and they now look quite a bit different than they did in previous decades. There are more of them now, and it might seem like it's a lot to give a little baby, but the reality is that vaccination is much safer today than it once was (both because children are offered more protection than ever before, and also because the vaccines themselves are purer and safer).

But that also isn't exactly a surprise: thanks to continuing research and medical breakthroughs, scientists are constantly improving upon existing methods, and 30 years from now, the recommended vaccines could look very different than what our children are getting today. Ultimately that means that fewer children are at risk for suffering from preventable diseases (or dying from them), and that's a really positive thing — no matter how scary internet memes might make them sound.