Spacing Out Kids' Vaccines Isn't Actually A Good Idea, Despite Persistent Myths

Even if you don't consider yourself to be a parent who is against vaccines, it can sometimes feel difficult to trust your doctor's advice when the internet seems full of immunization horror stories. And while some anti-vaxx arguments have been thoroughly debunked (no, vaccines really don't cause autism), others, like the idea that children get too many vaccines at once, can actually sound completely reasonable. A study published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association, however, found that vaccines don't overload kids' immune systems, and that children who received more vaccines weren't any more susceptible to infections than those who followed a delayed vaccination schedule, according to NBC News. In other words? Parents have no need to fear the idea of "vaccine overload" — but they should be concerned about leaving their children unprotected against vaccine-preventable diseases.

If you're a parent who spends any time at all on social media, you've probably come across at least one meme, blog post, or online article arguing that children today receive far more vaccines as infants than ever before, and that, as a result, their vulnerable immune systems are being overwhelmed by possibly-unnecessary immunizations (and, according to some, toxins and chemicals pushed by doctors who are just shills for Big Pharma). To be fair, there is at least some truth to the argument, at least in the sense that children really do receive more vaccines today than they used to. But that isn't actually a bad thing, and there's plenty of research to back it up.

The recent JAMA study certainly isn't the first to determine that the current childhood vaccine schedule is safe, but researchers noted that, even despite the scientific evidence, "some parents are concerned that multiple vaccines in early childhood could weaken their child’s immune system." That has led some to advocate for spacing shots out more than what's recommended, and in some cases, skipping some of them all together.

But is there any value in actually doing that? Lead researcher Dr. Jason Glanz of the Institute for Health Research at Kaiser Permanente Colorado and his team set out to answer that question by studying the health records of 944 kids between the ages of 2 and 4 to see if the children with increased exposure to vaccine antigens were more likely to get sick than those who don't (the rationale being that, if vaccines were indeed overwhelming their immune systems, they'd be getting sick more often, according to Science Alert). But the results showed no significant difference between the antigen exposure in kids who got sick and those who didn't, suggesting that it's not vaccine load that makes a child more or less prone to illness.

Vaccines might not result in a weakened or overwhelmed immune system then, but is there anything else about the "too many, too soon" argument that actually holds up? Not really, according to experts. For one, the reality is that an infant's immune system is exposed to thousands of foreign antigens just by existing in the world on a daily basis, according to Science magazine, while vaccinating a child according to the immunization schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control would exposes a child to only a few hundred in total. What's more is that experts estimate that giving an infant 11 vaccines at once would still only "temporarily 'use up'" about 0.1 percent of their immune system — which certainly doesn't suggest an overload.

In other words? If you're worried that your child is getting too many shots, you don't have to be. Children are actually given more shots now than ever before: the CDC currently 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." But the number of antigens is lower than it was 30 years ago (perhaps around the time that many of us were getting our childhood shots). Back then, children received seven different vaccines, which contained a total of more than 3,000 antigens. These days, according to CHOP, there are only about 150.

Even though it might seem scary to allow your child to receive so many shots, there's no evidence to suggest that it's actually dangerous. But skipping out on shots, or delaying them just in case, really can put them at risk. It can be hard at times to ignore the scary-sounding "research" touted by vaccine skeptics, but time and time again, the medical conclusion is the same: vaccines are not only safe, they're literally life-saving.

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