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10 Vaccine Myths -- Busted!

  • Don't bet on this one. Despite relatively high vaccination rates in the U.S., many American communities still have outbreaks of diseases like measles and pertussis, a respiratory illness characterized by spasms of coughing that can last for weeks or even months. In 2003, 13 children died of the infection. Unvaccinated children can also spread infection to vulnerable family members, such as an infant sibling or an elderly grandparent living at home.

  • Skipping shots puts your baby at greater risk for potentially life-threatening diseases. "The ability of immunizations to prevent the spread of infection depends on having a certain number of children immunized," says Dr. Thomas Saari, professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. The level required to stop diseases like measles from spreading? A whopping 95 percent. In studies from Colorado, where residents claim high numbers of vaccine exemptions for medical, personal, and religious reasons, unvaccinated kids are 22 times more likely to come down with measles.

  • Concerns about a link between a combination vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR vaccine) and the developmental disorder autism got kicked up by a case report from England seven years ago. The report has been roundly discredited, but the belief has persisted because autism tends to emerge around the time the vaccine is given -- about 1 year of age. "There have been 14 studies that show your risk of getting autism isn't any different if you got the MMR vaccine or if you didn't," says Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The fear that vaccines and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) are related is similarly unfounded, say experts.

  • No doubt about it, the immunization schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) can seem daunting. Your child can receive up to 23 shots by the time she's 2 years old, and as many as six shots at a single doctor visit. But there's no need to worry. Studies have shown that, in theory, a healthy infant can safely receive up to 100,000 vaccines at once. Bottom line: It's safe to give your child simultaneous vaccines or vaccine combinations.

  • Until recently, many vaccine concerns centered on the safety of thimerosal, a compound that prevents the vaccine from being contaminated by bacteria and contains a form of mercury called ethylmercury. Mercury in large quantities is known to be harmful to a child's developing brain. Worries about thimerosal's effect on children prompted its removal from nearly all childhood vaccines in 1999. (Thimerosal is still present in some flu vaccine -- though you can ask your doctor for a thimerosal-free shot.) Yet it's become clearer since then that ethylmercury does not pose the same health hazard as its cousin, methylmercury, a metal found in the environment that's known to accumulate in the body and cause harm to developing children. "The body is able to eliminate ethylmercury much more quickly than it can eliminate methylmercury," says Dr. Offit.