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Vaccines: What's Right for Your Baby?

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate -- that was the dilemma Katie McBride* faced when her daughter Jenna was born. On the one hand, she knew moms who questioned the safety of childhood vaccines; on the other, she knew scientists who trusted the testing behind them. "Obviously I didn't want my child to die from some horrible disease," says the Evanston, Illinois, mom, "but I was uncomfortable not knowing the risks and benefits of the vaccinations either." McBride ultimately chose to have Jenna vaccinated but opted to stagger a few of the shots.

Today's children are immunized by age 13 against some 16 diseases (or 53 vaccine doses), including measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus (lockjaw), pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis A and B, meningitis, pneumonia, polio, chicken pox, flu, rotavirus and the human papillomavirus (HPV). Whew! That's more vaccines than ever -- 30 years ago, children received only seven -- but it doesn't necessarily mean babies have more injected into them than they used to. "Immunizations today are more purified than those of the past," says pediatrician Ari Brown, M.D., a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and co-author of Baby 411. For example, the DPT shot (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus) that children received in 1980 was made from a blend of more than 1,000 bacteria, or antigens (substances that prompt the body to make disease-fighting antibodies). Today's vaccine, DTaP, delivers only three to five antigens. And whereas the polio vaccine at one time had a live virus that would trigger a minute case of polio for the body to fend off, the newer shot has no live virus. "It's a win-win for babies because they receive protection from more diseases from a smaller number of antigens," Brown says.

This year alone, the shots will prevent some 14 million cases of illness and 34,000 deaths from disease, according to research estimates by Fangjun Zhou, Ph.D., a health scientist in the Immunization Services Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To ensure safety, all vaccine-manufacturing facilities and products are licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and every vaccine lot is tested by the manufacturer. The FDA then reviews those results and requires a sample of its own to test.

Yet some parents still choose not to vaccinate. They have doubts about the safety of the vaccines, or they believe the threat of the diseases has passed. But recent outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, which were ultimately traced to unvaccinated children who traveled to other countries, suggest that immunization may be as critical as ever. "There are lots of myths about vaccines, but the reality is that they are one of the most important things you can do to protect your kids against serious, sometimes life-threatening, infections," says Brown. "As a mom and a pediatrician, I vaccinate my own kids for that reason."Pediatricians immunize children as part of routine care using guidelines devised by the AAP, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), and the CDC. Here's what you need to know to help you make informed decisions about vaccinating your child.