Amid a growing measles outbreak, more parents are choosing to alter the recommended vaccine schedule for their children in hopes of not overwhelming their immune systems, a practice doctors say could be just as risky as not vaccinating at all.
Dr. Paul Offit, a physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases and Director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told the Washington Examiner he has seen an uptick in parents asking whether they should alter the vaccine schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
He tells parents that delaying vaccines doesn’t lessen any possible side effects from vaccines themselves, but rather that “it increases the amount of time that your child is vulnerable.”
Measles complications, which include swelling of the brain and measles pneumonia, most often occur in children under 5 years old. The CDC recommends the first dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine be administered when the child is about 1 year old, followed by the second dose between the ages of 4 and 6. By delaying those vaccinations, Offit said, parents put their children at considerable risk of contracting the virus when they’re most susceptible to infection.
Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, has also seen an increase in parents asking about delaying vaccines. He told the Washington Examiner that spacing out doses is “all risk and no benefit.”
“The bottom line is that in spacing vaccines apart, parents only increase the likelihood that the vaccines won’t work,” Hotez said. “A lot of it is based on a theory with no evidence that giving vaccines close together overwhelms the immune system.”
Infants’ respiratory systems and gastrointestinal tracts, Hotez says, see “dozens if not hundreds of antigens” daily, and vaccinating them would not “overwhelm their systems.”
Still, parents, often young ones, are asking about spacing vaccines out. The vast majority, 93%, of pediatricians are asked about delaying vaccines in a given month, according to a 2012 study in the journal Pediatrics. Most of the 500 physicians surveyed believed varying from the CDC schedule was dangerous.
While the results show that a large majority of primary care practitioners are apprehensive about spreading vaccines out, there are some outliers. One of them is Dr. Robert W. Sears, a pediatrician and proponent of alternative vaccine scheduling who is on probation by the Medical Board of California for wrongly writing a doctor’s note exempting a 2-year-old boy from all vaccinations. Sears says parents have every right to be skeptical of immunizing their children against 14 diseases, about 29 shots, before 6 years of age.
“They worry that it’s too overloaded. There’s too many shots at too young of an age, and parents simply are looking for a safer way to do it, something they’re more comfortable with,” Sears said in 2015, in the midst of a measles outbreak that saw 855 confirmed cases. Sears enjoyed a form of modest celebrity-status that year, answering questions online about vaccine scheduling and advising hesitant parents not to “overload” their babies with shots.
The CDC, though, is still in the dark about how many parents have actually taken his advice.
When asked about any data showing how many parents spread out vaccines and what the CDC is doing to educate parents deciding between vaccinating on schedule or not, CDC spokesman Jason McDonald said, “Vaccinating children according to the recommended schedule is one of the best ways to protect them from 14 harmful and potentially deadly diseases before their second birthday.”
Despite several requests for further comment, the CDC did not elaborate on whether the agency is keeping track of parents who space out vaccines or what outreach efforts to educate hesitant families entail.
To gather information the CDC doesn’t have, Hotez said, pediatricians will need to study their subjects after it’s too late to treat them. To figure out how many children received vaccines at the wrong times, he said bluntly, “we will have to take a postmortem look.” Altering the schedule, he added, could even render the vaccine completely ineffective.
Hotez and Offit said they are seeing firsthand that parents are more interested than ever in changing the vaccine schedule, and each has spoken to parents many times about the dangers of putting off vaccines, especially the second dose of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine. Both say that, while probably not contributing to the measles outbreak as much as choosing not to vaccinate at all, spacing out vaccines is a risky trend.