The nation's leading group of independent medical experts on Thursday weighed in on the debate over vaccine side effects, releasing a report that found few serious health problems are linked to immunizations.
After reviewing more than 1,000 scientific articles, experts at the Institute of Medicine found the controversy over certain vaccines and autism was completely unfounded. It also rejected any link between immunizations and Type I diabetes, Bell's palsy and asthma.
The report did find evidence of rare vaccine-related adverse effects that can range from mild seizures to fainting. For most of the more than 150 possible reactions studied, experts found there wasn't data to know if there is a link to vaccines.
Local physicians welcomed the rigorous, 667-page report, saying it reflects their own clinical experience and should reassure parents.
"If parents were given more balanced information saying, well, there are always possible side effects from vaccines, but most of them are mild — and the rare, more severe side effects are nothing compared to the severity of the illnesses we are trying to prevent — then this report will offer no surprises," said Dr. Juan Dumois, chairman of infectious diseases at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg.
The topic of vaccine side effects is so high-profile that Dr. Rick Wilde fields questions from parents daily in the Lutz office of the Pediatric Health Care Alliance.
"The common reactions are really essentially harmless," he said, citing mild fever, redness and swelling at the injection site.
Still, many parents want to know if he would vaccinate his own children according to the recommended schedule. (The answer is yes — and he has.)
Wilde hears fewer worries about vaccines and autism since a now-retracted British study linking the two has been thoroughly debunked. But parents often fear that the many shots given today could overload a baby's immune system.
"Even though we give more vaccines, we actually stress the immune system less than previous-generation immunizations did, so we can say very comfortably that we are not overstressing the immune system," said Wilde, who co-chairs the vaccination committee for the pediatric practice with offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.
After learning the risks and benefits, he said the vast majority of parents vaccinate on time.
Yet across Florida, the number of kindergarten students receiving "religious exemptions" to avoid state-required immunizations continues to rise, increasing nearly 12-fold since 1991. Experts believe the real objection often is not religion, but fear of rumored vaccine adverse effects.
Last school year, nearly 2,400 kindergarten students received such exemptions — roughly one percent of the class, according to state records.
The rise worries state officials seeing this year the most measles cases in 14 years. Pertussis (whooping cough) cases also are up nationally.
Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton, chair of the IOM panel and a pediatrics professor at Vanderbilt University, noted that the number of children dying from chicken pox has declined dramatically since vaccination became routine.
"People need to think about what the disease is like. Vaccines are a victim of their own success in this regard, because we don't see these things as much."
The live virus used in the varicella (chicken pox) vaccine can cause adverse effects, but almost always if the immune system is compromised by conditions such as HIV. Doctors are familiar with this issue, and know when to avoid vaccinating. "For a regular, running around kid, this is a great vaccine," Clayton said.
The panel found the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine can trigger febrile (fever-related) seizures, which pass quickly and don't cause long-term damage or epilepsy.
Six vaccines — MMR, varicella, influenza, hepatitis B, meningococcal and the tetanus-containing immunizations — can result in an allergic reaction soon after injection.
But this is a rare reaction physicians are aware of and can treat quickly.
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com.