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The Vaccine Debate

Living With an Avoidable Tragedy

Two years ago, Shannon Duffy Peterson of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, lost her first child, Abigale, to an infection that might have been prevented. Her pediatrician assured her that her child didn't need a varicella (chicken pox) vaccine or a pneumococcal vaccine, Peterson has testified before the Minnesota state legislature. (While both of these immunizations are recommended by health experts, not all states legally require them.)

When Abigale was almost 6, she caught a severe case of chicken pox. The disease so weakened her that several months later, she picked up a second infection, a form of pneumonia that the pneumococcal vaccine protects against. She died in her parents' arms on the way to the hospital. Last year, Peterson -- now an advocate for vaccination -- pushed for a law that requires varicella and pneumococcal immunizations for enrollment in daycare or grade school. (It was passed and goes into effect this September.) "No parent should have to go through what we went through," she says. "Our hearts broke the day we lost our daughter."

It's rare that a middle-class family in America faces the loss of a child to an infectious disease. Thanks in part to the CDC's "Vaccines for Children" program, which has been effective in immunizing un- and underinsured kids, the average vaccination rate by the time a child enters kindergarten in this country is 97 percent.

Many parents understand that connection. "I do acknowledge the risks of vaccines," says Barb Waugh, a mom of two fully vaccinated children, ages 6 and 4, in Houston, "but they're minimal compared with the risk of the diseases themselves to public health, and with the risk of my own kids getting sick." Whichever choice a parent makes, she's only doing what all good moms do: trying to protect her child. But in this case, private actions can have public consequences. There's no doubt that a high vaccination rate is one crucial way to keep the nation's kids healthy. In a sense, each decision we make for our own children is a decision for all children.