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Increasing numbers of Western parents question childhood vaccines, but why? SteadyHealth asked an Indian doctor and an American pro-vaccine campaigner to share their views.

India was officially declared polio-free this year, in one of the most remarkable global health successes of recent times. The disease crippled more than 200,000 people a year when the polio-eradication initiative was started back in 1988. The polio-eradication program was a huge success in the end, but there were many problems along the way. Poor sanitary conditions and many people living in close proximity made India one of the toughest battle grounds against polio.

Why Would You Say No To Vaccines?

Those factors weren't the only obstacles, however. Some Indian parents simply weren't sure that they should have their kids vaccinated. Vaccine rejectionists certainly have an increasingly visible internet presence, and books on the "dangers of vaccines" grace many Western book stores and libraries. 

Western parents are more likely to question the safety of childhood vaccines now than they were decades ago, and geographical pockets in the United States in which larger numbers of parents say no to immunizations have already been subjected to outbreaks of whooping cough and measles. These parents are concerned about vaccines for a number of reasons, which can be summarized as follows:

  • Vaccine ingredients, including thimerosal, aluminum, and squalene might cause devastating immunological and neurological effects. 
  • Vaccines have been linked to autism
  • The ever-growing list of vaccines on the official schedule might overload the immune system, leading to all kinds of potential problems. 
  • Vaccine-preventable diseases aren't usually that serious and can easily be treated with modern or alternative medicine. 
  • Natural immunity from the disease is more desirable than artificial immunity from the vaccine. 
  • There is no evidence that vaccines led to the decline in vaccine-preventable diseases — more sanitary conditions and the natural death of these diseases might be responsible instead. 
Science, let's be clear, does not support any of these claims or worries. This list doesn't sum up why some Indian parents might have decided against vaccines for their children, however.

Dr Sunita Khatri from India explains: "As an Indian, one frequently encounters people suffering from polio. When you see a young child limping as a result of a disease which could easily have been prevented, you realize the importance of vaccines. As a doctor, I repeatedly urge my patients to get their children vaccinated. But India is a country where many people are uneducated and poor. They attribute polio to 'bad karma'. Visiting a doctor to get the child vaccinated often means a loss of a day’s wage. Therefore, people often skip vaccination."

Dr Khatri describes how the Indian government overcame these challenges. "Health workers have identified households with children less than five years of age," she explains.  "The workers visit these houses every month on a set date and administer polio drops to the children. People are happy as they don't have to make to extra effort to get their children vaccinated. Most of the children in India, under the age of five, have been receiving polio drops every month. As a result, the widely rampant polio disease saw a decline and has been finally abolished from India."

"We have to keep up the vigil as the disease is still very common in the neighboring countries and can easily gain a foothold again in India if we get lax."

So, what does Dr Khatri say about Western vaccine rejectionists? "I know that many Western anti-vaccine advocates opine that improving sanitation can prevent these diseases," she says, adding that this may indeed make outbreaks less likely but her country's limited resources are better spent directly combating diseases through vaccines. 

She concludes: "As a doctor, I tell parents to vaccinate their children against major diseases like polio, tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, mumps, rubella and hepatitis. These vaccines are available in all government hospitals either free or at a very subsidized rate. Vaccines against typhoid, chickenpox and many other diseases are also available in India. But not all parents can afford them. However, they should opt for them if they can."

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