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Easing Vaccine Fears

Immunization rates in the U.S. are at an all-time high, but parents' concerns about vaccine safety are also on the rise, according to a recent survey published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Below, answers to questions raised by parents in the survey.

? Will too many vaccines overload my baby's immune system? We see our child getting his shots, but we don't see the billions of bacteria colonizing his body that he handles just fine, says Paul Offit, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Consider this: The entire 11-vaccine schedule includes about 125 immune "components," pieces capable of triggering a reaction. Compare that with 200 components in a single 1920s-era smallpox shot  -- or the 3,000 that are in your average ear infection-causing bacteria. The shots kids receive (even when they get several at once) are less than a drop in the bucket in terms of what their immune systems can handle, says Dr. Offit.

? Is there a way to control the pain? Studies have shown that babies cry less when given a shot if they're sucking on a pacifier dipped in sugar water or a bottle containing sweetened water. Nursing or being held by a parent afterward can also help stop the sting. Topical numbing creams like EMLA may be helpful too, though they can take up to an hour to work and therefore require some advance planning. Acetaminophen is usually recommended for discomfort from any related soreness or fever.

? What reactions should I expect? Side effects can range from fever and fussiness to extended napping, depending on both the vaccine and the child, says Gary Freed, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. (For lists of potential reactions, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) Rare reactions include fever-related seizures (which are terrifying to witness but don't cause harm, doctors say) or allergic reactions to vaccine ingredients such as eggs or gelatin (which require immediate emergency attention). Note: Parents of a baby who is at high risk for an egg allergy should talk to their pediatrician before their baby receives a flu shot.

? Can vaccines trigger autism? Serious ethical problems have come to light regarding the controversial 1998 study that first suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. What's more, six studies of hundreds of thousands of children have found no sign of an MMR-autism connection. Two recent studies also showed no link between the mercury-based preservative thimerosal and autism.

? Does my child need to be vaccinated? We don't see a neighbor's child paralyzed by polio or our own wracked by whooping cough. But these devastating diseases remain a threat and could resurge if immunization rates drop. Making sure your child is immunized not only protects her; it helps ensure the health of all children. To learn more about vaccines, visit www.immunizationinfo.org .

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