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Vaccines: Fact and Fiction

When Katie Shutters's 13-month-old daughter, Averie, was born, she followed the recommended vaccine schedule for two months. Then she did some research and decided to hold off on additional shots until Averie turned 9 months old. "I liked the idea of my breast milk giving her the immunities she needs and allowing her body to work for her instead of some medicine," says the stay-at-home mom from Indianapolis. "She isn't in daycare, and we don't travel overseas. I had concerns about injecting her for no reason."

Eventually Shutters found a doctor who would immunize according to her schedule: "We broke up the MMR [which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella] into three separate shots spread out over a year, and we're skipping the chicken pox shot," she says. "Instead, I'd love to find a kid who has chicken pox so we could expose Averie naturally."

If Shutters's approach to vaccination sounds familiar, that's because it is. In fact, most moms don't have to look far beyond their circle of friends to find a family with serious concerns. It's not difficult to understand why. For one, it can be torture to watch your child get jabbed repeatedly with a needle. Combine that discomfort with a steady stream of negative publicity -- celebrity diatribes, alarmist news and Internet reports, ripped-from-the-headline TV shows -- and the wariness seems warranted.

Yet underneath all the debate and impossibly good intentions (after all, everyone hopes to be doing the best for their child no matter how or whether they immunize), there are some solid facts about the benefits of shots that cannot be ignored. "We live thirty years longer now than we did a century ago, thanks to purified water -- and vaccines," says Paul Offit, M.D., chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. But as soon as compliance wanes, the protection we have against many devastating, and sometimes fatal, diseases wanes right along with it. This year's measles outbreak -- the biggest in nearly a decade -- may be the first warning shot, says Dr. Offit. Nearly all of the 131 people affected so far, many of them children, were purposely not vaccinated against the disease, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in Atlanta. "We have to take this seriously," says Anne Schuchat, M.D., director of the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. "I do not want to see the day where thousands of kids get this disease and die when we have the tools to prevent it."

So what's a worried mom to do? Between the scary claims about shots themselves and the scary news about what can happen without them, you might feel like you need a Ph.D. in immunology, toxicology, and biostatistics to make sense of it all. The good thing is you don't -- that's what Parenting's here for. We've highlighted four of the concerns we hear regularly and dug through the science to get the facts for you. The bottom line: No medical intervention is 100 percent risk-free, and no one but you can choose what's right for your child. Our job is to help that decision come a little easier, so here goes:

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