Why we need to make it harder for parents to refuse vaccines

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

When I talk to parents who are hesitant about vaccines, what they most want to talk to me about are possible side effects of the vaccine. They worry about everything from fevers and soreness to additives to possible links to autism. They rarely worry about the diseases that vaccines prevent—and that’s what worries me most of all.

It is the inconvenient truth of vaccine refusal: when you don’t get vaccinated against an illness, you are more likely to catch it.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) made this very clear. Researchers looked at information about recent measles and pertussis outbreaks. They found that unvaccinated people made up the majority of those who caught measles and a large proportion of those who caught pertussis (waning immunity from the pertussis vaccine plays a role in those outbreaks). Some weren’t old enough to be vaccinated—but of those who were old enough, most came from families who had chosen not to vaccinate.

We developed vaccines for a reason: to stop children from getting sick and dying. This was not a money-making stunt by drug companies, as some claim. Here in the United States, vaccines have done such a great job that we have literally forgotten about the ravages of measles, polio, pertussis, diphtheria, and the many other illnesses that we can now prevent.

They truly were ravages. Who even remembers diphtheria? Between 1936 and 1945, there were about 21,000 cases and 1,800 deaths a year of diphtheria. In those same years, paralytic polio affected 16,000 and killed 1,900 each year. And for measles and pertussis, the numbers are even higher. Every year 530,000 people caught measles and 440 people died from it; 200,000 caught pertussis and 4,000 died from it.

Four thousand died every year from pertussis. In 2014, that number was 13. We simply cannot ignore that vaccines are incredibly effective, and save thousands and thousands of lives.

It’s the scarcity of the illnesses that has made some parents comfortable with the decision not to vaccinate. If you are unlikely to run into anyone with measles or chickenpox, why take any chances with side effects?

There are two problems with that argument. First, as more people have chosen not to vaccinate, there have been more outbreaks. And when those who choose not to vaccinate live in the same communities, as a study out of Kaiser Permanente showed was the case in California, it can create the perfect environment for a vaccine-preventable germ to spread.

Second, we live in a global community. Travel is relatively easy, and lots of people do it. And while we may have done a great job eradicating vaccine-preventable diseases here in the U.S., they certainly haven’t been eradicated from the world.

People are often contagious before they even know they are sick. Someone could bring measles to a community without knowing it—and 90% of the unvaccinated people who are exposed to the measles virus will get sick (the virus can even hang out in a room for two hours after the person with measles leaves). Half of the babies who catch pertussis end up hospitalized—and of those who are hospitalized, three out of five have trouble breathing, and one in 100 die despite the best possible care.

We just can’t say that it’s safe to be unvaccinated. It’s not safe for the child whose parents choose not to vaccinate—and it’s really not safe for the infants or people with immune problems who cannot be vaccinated, who need vaccinated people around them to keep them well.

Vaccines are a medical treatment, and like any medical treatment, they can have risks and side effects. So much has been done, and is still being done, to make vaccines as safe as possible. It’s always important to ask questions and be careful in making decisions.

But when making those decisions, it’s crucial to think not just about the vaccine—but about the disease it can protect you from.


  1. Scarlett

    Vax are a nasty little secret from our corrupt govt. 2008- present. They have gotten worse since 2008

  2. Matthew

    This is not an intellectually respectable piece that relies on circular logic (circular logic occurs when one assumes that which you are trying to prove). 1) The argument from authority is not a scientifically valid form of argument. This has been a basic tenet of sound science since Francis Bacon published the Novum Organon in 1621. Real arguments rely on evidence, not authority. You cannot be taken seriously if you cite a trade organization like the American Academy of Pediatrics as an authority, especially given the enormous funding they receive from vaccine manufacturers. 2) Dr. Claire espouses a false definition of “herd immunity.” Vaccines have never conferred herd immunity. Herd immunity only occurs after a population contracts a disease (and recovers). 3) If vaccines really are effective, then an unvaccinated child would pose little danger to a vaccinated child. Hence, those who advocate mandatory vaccinations are contradicting themselves. 4) Mandatory vaccinations violate Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative and are therefore immoral because they do not treat individuals as ends in themselves. Now I’m all for having a “tough conversation.” But you’d better get your facts and logic right first. Those who advocate faith-based arguments (and the argument from authority is a faith-based argument) are not ready for a tough conversation on vaccines.

  3. LizP

    Mei – you will not meet the disabled because they are marginalized, not a part of mainstream society. They are nonverbal or intellectually challenged, they “graduated” from special Ed and live in group homes, institutions, or with caregivers; some died from seizures, some died immediately following vaccination. Many, many, many have autoimmunity, epilepsy, childhood diabetes, lupus, add, adhd, bipolar disorder, Tourette’s, and other diagnosis’ that no one in previous familial generations had…I guarantee the victims are all around you; you simply need to open your eyes. Heck, I have Narcolepsy and allergies thanks to my childhood vaccines – how would you know this if you met me?!

  4. Tracy

    “That’s the thing about medicine: our understanding of diseases and treatments is always evolving. Diseases and treatments can be amazingly intricate and complicated. Sometimes we think we understand something, only to find out that we don’t — or that we misunderstood it. That’s why ongoing research is so important. We must always be questioning and studying — and always applying what we learn to what we do.” Claire McCarthy MD. I wonder if this statement could apply to our understanding of vaccines?

  5. Tracy Anderson

    I guess, ultimately, we could remove children from parents as soon as they are born and let the government raise them. Because they always have our best interest at heart and “experts” are really the only ones who are truly qualified to read and interpret information. Maybe we shouldn’t teach reading anymore and leave that for the “experts.” We would be a lot safer!!!

  6. shin

    Wow. I thought this was the United States of America. You know. That country everybody wants to come to because of it’s freedoms. Isn’t that what George Bush said. They hate us for our freedoms. When did the medical profession take on the consciousness of the Third Reich and when did America turn into Germany?

    • Mel---

      The fact the USA has these freedoms as you mention, people have pushed the limits the past couple decades of what THEY perceive as their personal freedoms. We’ve gone overboard! To foolishly put your child at risk of serious disease or death is incomprehensible! Furthermore, because of YOUR personal beliefs YOU put other kids at risk who truly can NOT safely receive immunizations. Millions and millions of people have safely received immunizations for decades and we’ve nearly eradicated diseases such as polio. But the more people who chose NOT to get their children immunized is jeopardizing the health of ALL these non-immunized kids – including your own. What kind of loving parent puts their children at this risk?!

      It seems too often people don’t use commonsense in their daily lives – such as wearing a seat belt or helmets. They don’t want to be told what to do despite the fact research has proven they save lives. But when these same people are getting in accidents and the cost of insurance for everyone else goes up because of a few selfish individuals, this is when the government has to step in and pass laws to protect people from themselves! Yet there are STILL people who see nothing wrong with their kids riding in cars without safety restraint systems. (On a side note I lost my beautiful younger sister to a car accident years ago in a rollover accident where she wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was thrown out and died two days later from massive head injuries. I have no doubt she could have survived this accident if she would have fastened her seat belt.)

      Like many others on here, I believe ‘big pharma’ is out of control. At the same time, they also provide lifesaving solutions – such as immunizations. The old saying, “cut off your nose to spite your face” comes to mind and in your little ‘protests’ to stand up to big business, is it really worth the risk involved when it comes to the health and safety of your family? Seriously, stop being the bullies – as we can see by all your over-the-top rants in blogs like this that anyone who doesn’t agree with your warped philosophy is the enemy! Time to get over yourselves and accept REALITY!

      • Ana

        The problem is really about greed in the end. Good immunization is the best, and naturally can not be beat. Example, outbreak of Hep A, even those with vaccinations died, but rarely does this happen, what happen is folks eating bad foods and bad hygiene and bad lifestyles. Fix that and change happens, but docs and society just want to control not make a difference. So vaccinate and continue to the bad lifestyle and create super illnesses. Did you know that less than, not even close to 1% of the population in the USA gets meningitis let alone die from it? As for the vaccine it did not change those numbers much. If you travel into 3rd world countries that is a problem and depending on your job that may be a problem. Even chicken pox is rarely deadly, we all had it naturally and having to rely on a vaccine every 5 years is not good, I will take the old fashion route. You can test your immunity with blood tests, it is the most sure way of knowing that you had enough and that your are immune. They even do it with pets, so why not avoid the unnecessary push from large corporations. As my dh says, follow the money and you get your anwers, of you can believe politicians like Hilarity that openly lie.

    • Ana

      Yeah we are all asking that question.

  7. Angela Robey

    Pharma’s really getting desperate. That’s encouraging because it indicates more and more people are coming to their senses about vaccines. …and we’re all pretty tired of having our intelligence insulted by that herd immunity nonsense.

    by Jon Rappoport

    November 13, 2014


    Hail to the group! The group is all!

    The concept of herd immunity (protection for the population) is often used by vaccine addicts as a way to push guilt at people who don’t line up, with their children, like robots for their shots.

    From the point of view of protecting people who are already vaccinated, herd immunity is flat-out absurd.

    Little Jimmy, whose parents have decided not to vaccinate him, will pass diseases on to kids who are already vaccinated? Oh, you mean those immunized kids aren’t really safe? Then why did you vaccinate them in the first place?

    From another point of view, herd immunity is the idea that people who “can’t be” vaccinated (for example, those who are obviously allergic to elements contained in vaccines) will gain a measure of protection, if larger and larger numbers of others are vaccinated.

    The vaccinated protecting the unvaccinated.

    This is foolish, because what actually protects people against disease is the strength of their immune systems, and that strength has nothing to do with vaccination.

    If a person has a weak immune system, he will get dangerously sick, and it doesn’t matter how many people around him are vaccinated against how many diseases.

    So even if one accepts the (false) premise that vaccines are effective and safe, the premise of herd immunity is ludicrous.

    Vaccination is, in fact, a cover story used to conceal the fact that the health of populations has everything to do with good nutrition, adequate sanitation, and an absence of toxic elements in the environment.

    There are many doctors who know this, but they refuse to speak out, because they know they’ll suffer consequences.

    Vaccination, as a propaganda strategy, is used to medicalize the population—to assert that good health is fundamentally a medical matter.

    It isn’t.

    Exit From the Matrix

    If tomorrow, two things happened, they would change the face of health in any industrialized country:

    One, millions more people buying healthy food and/or growing their own food, in yards; and in inner cities, growing food in community gardens;

    And two, the courts delivering justice in the form of billion-dollar fines and long, long prison sentences to corporate employees (including CEOs) for severe and real pollution.

    Note: That justice would eliminate GMO crops which rely on toxic pesticide use.

    I’m not spinning rainbows. I’m just pointing out that, with these two changes alone, hospitals and clinics and doctors’ offices would empty out, and the medical cartel would finally experience vast comeuppance.

    Health and life are not medical functions.

    Any science that claims they are is false science, and the people who make those claims are liars or morons or criminals, or some combination of all three.

    Jon Rappoport

    • Ana

      Actually did you know herd immunity works on folks just hanging around together, like families and friends? Did you know that herd sharing and immunity also works on common sense ?-LOL

  8. B

    Doctors are already having these kinds of conversations with their patients and making it more difficult to opt out of vaccines by making parents sign waivers if not outright refusing them care. A very small percentage of parents actually get non- medical exemptions for their children, of those one study looking at my state showed that students caught up all their vaccines later on, that the risk posed by unvaccinated kindergarteners was exaggerated.

  9. Dorit Reiss

    I agree that tightening school immunization requirements is both important and challenging. I realize some public law experts see it as eroding trust, but I’m not sure I agree: I think the experience of seatbelt laws and cigarette bans teaches that such requirements become part of the norm and also affect the way people think.

    • Dan Bland

      A CDC whistleblower has come forward to say that he and his co-authors trashed data proving vaccines cause autism. There is also very good evidence that vaccines are the reason for the epidemic of more than 100 autoimmune diseases. I beg all of you to trash your belief systems and open your minds so that we can have a civil discussion on this issue. In my mind it’s one of the most important issues and needs to be brought to the public’s attention,

  10. Jeremy Last

    Your entire claim that “the patient is still contagious” makes no sense whatsoever. Most vaccines contain dead or very very weak forms of the disease. How does one become contagious from a dead contagion? Even very weak forms do not get a chance to take hold, and make the patient contagious.

    You are the very example of what the blog has talked about. You haven’t lived through small pox, polio, or measles so you think everything is fine. Go research how many died or had serious complications from these diseases.

    Your children’s conditions, that I’m very sorry for, is based on something else. You are confusing correlation with causation. Go learn the difference and stop presenting lies.

    • Redpill1

      The patient is contagious according to the FDA:
      -Meeting of the Board of Scientific Counselors, Office of Infectious Diseases Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Tom Harkins Global Communication Center Atlanta, Georgia December 11-12, 2013.
      FDA issued a warning regarding this crucial finding. Furthermore, the 2013 meeting of the Board of Scientific Counselors at the CDC revealed additional alarming data that pertussis variants (PRN negative strains) currently circulating in the USA acquired a selective advantage to infect those who are up to date for their DTap boosters (see appendix) for the CDC document Item#3), meaning that people who are up to date are more likely to be infected and thus contagious than people who are not vaccinated.

      There are two studies that support what the FDA states:
      -Acellular Pertussis vaccines protect against disease but fail to prevent infection and transmission in a nonhuman primate model,”
      used infant baboons to test the hypothesis that “current acellular pertussis vaccines fail to prevent colonization and transmission” of B. Pertussis. (there is no vaccine for Bordetella Pertussis bacteria)
      -Whooping cough resurgence due to vaccinated people not knowing they’re infectious? Clinical News

      Dr. Gregory Poland wrote that the Measles vaccine has not lived up to it’s expectations. The first study he wrote in 1994 where he stated in the conclusion:
      Conclusion: The apparent paradox is that as measles immunization rates rise to high levels in a population, measles becomes a disease of immunized persons. Because of the failure rate of the vaccine and the unique transmissibility of the measles virus, the currently available measles vaccine, used in a single-dose strategy, is unlikely to completely eliminate measles. The long-term success of a two-dose strategy to eliminate measles remains to be determined.
      Failure to reach the goal of measles elimination. Apparent paradox of measles infections in immunized persons. Poland GA1, Jacobson RM.
      -In 2012 he wrote:
      “outbreaks are occurring even in highly developed countries where vaccine access, public health infrastructure, and health literacy are not significant issues. This is unexpected and a worrisome harbinger — measles outbreaks are occurring where they are least expected,” he wrote in his 2012 paper, listing the “surprising numbers of cases occurring in persons who previously received one or even two documented doses of measles-containing vaccine.”
      Paper: The Re-Emergence of Measles in Developed Countries: Time to Develop the Next-Generation Measles Vaccines?

      Similar reports have been written on Varicella, Flu even Polio outbreaks are occurring from the vaccine in 3rd world countries. The information is available, its just buried and you have to dig for it.

  11. Patricia

    This is a one-sided view and is surprising to be posted on a reputable site. We need to enforce SAFE VACCINES. Until double-blind placebo studies by 3rd parties are done we shouldn’t be forced to inject our children. My body is my right. And my religious belief is my 2nd amendment right in America. There have been so many injured and we are dealing with a population of weak microbiomes getting injected with a variety of materials while nervous systems are weak, immune systems are immature and livers that aren’t able to detoxify. God’s way is always the way. Much thought needs to be put into reworking the vaccine schedule, stopping unnecessary vaccines, and efforts should be focused on safety to eliminate heavy metals, aborted fetal tissue (??!!) & toxic chemicals currently present in vaccines. See Vaxxed and listen to Dr S Humphries & Dr A Wakefield. As a Mom, I need to do what’s right for my children so they grow to be healthy members of our community as God intended.

    • Jeremy Last

      You cited Dr. Wakefield, who has been discredited several times over. And you know this. Every anti-vaxxer knows it.

      There’s a saying that if you repeat a lie often enough people believe it. You’ve fallen victim to this. If you want to do what’s right. Protect them from horrible diseases. Give their bodies the tools they need to fight disease, and to help those that can’t. Using tools to help yourself and less fortunate is exactly what God intends.

      • Dan Bland

        Andrew Wakefield is one of the finest gentlemen on this planet. He is still out there fighting for the children who are being diagnosed one every 7 minutes. He knows what causes autism but if you ask the CDC they’ll say they have no idea. By the way the CDC has been caught red handed trashing data that linked autism to vaccines. They trashed thousands of documents and this has been brought in front of Congress now for the third time.

    • Andrew H

      You might want to re-read the Constitution…

  12. Liz P

    This piece is ill informed and dangerous. Vaccination does nothing to protect others – as a matter of fact, vaccination is not even intended to prevent the vaccines from contracting the disease! Vaccines are supposed to help the vaccinee more quickly mount an immune response when a disease is contracted, to possibly lessen the patient’s course of the disease. The patient is still contagious, and can still spread the disease to others (vaccinated and unvaccinated, alike). It is disingenuous to say vaccines create herd immunity, as this had never Bern demonstrated. Further, the FULLY VACCINATED compose the vast majority of the modern day disease cases – and Harvard’s own scientists have proven antibodies do not equate to immunity (further, are not required to resist disease!). Vaccines have known risks, and too many children have lost their health, their capability, or their life to the CDC recommended schedule. I will happily debate your supposed safety science – there is NO safety research supporting the CDC’s recommended chilfhood (or adult for that matter) vaccine schedule. Please realize parents who opt-out have done their research; they understand the risk of contracting the “VPDs” and the risk of consuming the vaccines – they have read the purported safety and efficacy science and found it lacking (a kind word -fraudulent is often more appropriate). Your trite article is blind to the epidemic chronic illness and lifelong disability this program has wrought. As a parent, who blindly sacrificed two of my three children “for the good of the herd,” and gained a lifetime of disability for one and chronic illness for the other (spend, to-date, over $1.5M; 14 YEARS in “Vaccine court”), living in the first world, I’ll take the diseases and lifelong immunity they provide over the temporary (if any) immunity promised by manufacturers with ZERO liability for the harm their vaccines cause.

    • Dorit Reiss

      More quickly mounting an immune response to a virus or bacteria prevents it from replicating enough to cause a disease or transmit it to others.

      In other words, yes, vaccines protect both the person being vaccinated and others.

      While it’s true that most cases for some diseases are in the vaccinated – simply because when most people are vaccinated, there aren’t as many unvaccinated around – the rates are dramatically higher for the unvaccinated. And for measles, for example, most cases are consistently in the unvaccinated and under vaccinated: Varun K. Phadke, et al., Association Between Vaccine Refusal and Vaccine-Preventable Diseases in the United States: A Review of Measles and Pertussis, 315 JAMA 1149(2016).

      Serious harms from modern vaccines are very rare, and harms from the diseases not at all, even in a first world. Most injuries blamed on vaccines are not from the vaccine – for example, autism, allergies, etc’ are not from vaccines.

      In other words, a parent choosing the diseases over the vaccine is generally acting on incorrect information. School mandates can help prevent such parents from making an error that puts their own kids at higher risk and risks others.

      • Liz P

        So great to see the PhRMA shills are present and accounted for – how we would miss our dear friends like Dorit and Jeremy, were they to submit to the CDC Adult Immunization Schedule and become disabled like so many American adults and children who mindlessly followed Governmental guidance…
        However, since Dorit is still with us (with her quasi-faculty still intact)…
        1. “More quickly mounting an immune response to a virus or bacteria prevents it from replicating enough to cause a disease or transmit it to others.” Wrong – if you are infected, you spread the disease – there is no “protected period” of infection, whereby the human organism hoards, rather than sheds the disease multiplying in your system.
        2. “the rates are dramatically higher for the unvaccinated” .The real question is why is a first world nation afraid of simple childhood disease like the Measles? This is a mild illness in well-nourished individuals – could it be the fast-food, pill-for-every-ill, inject known poison, neurotoxin, carcinogen, teratogens-twenty-four-times-before-two-years-of-age lifestyle puts Americans at risk for serious adverse outcomes to what, last generation was a mild illness? Frankly, contracting Measles is not tantamount to dying from Measles, and if we spent half the money on providing clean, healthy food and water, the opportunity to get quality sleep and exercise, and safe homes in which to convalesce when ill, to our children as we do marketing processed food-like products, toxic pills and injections for every “ill,” the vast majority of our children would recover from Measles and have permanent lifelong immunity; which would protect the herd, and (in women who contracted and recovered-from the Measles) has the added bonus of providing nursing infants with protection against the Measles for the duration of their nursing period (unlike vaccine “immunity”). Many are less concerned with morbidity and more so with long-term quality of life and mortality.
        3. “Serious harms from modern vaccines are very rare, and harms from the diseases not at all, even in a first world. Most injuries blamed on vaccines are not from the vaccine – for example, autism, allergies, etc’ are not from vaccines.” Sure, this is why an infant who received her 6-month vaccines “coincidentally” stopped breathing and turned blue (while still at the Pediatrician’s office); went to the hospital, spent five hours being worked-over and medicated, and checked-out with such severe asthma as to require hourly, round-the-clock breathing treatments, heavy duty steroids, allergy medication, and liquid albuterol (not to mention topical steroids for the severe, whole body eczema which was present by the end of the hospital visit. Episodes like this are entirely “coincidental” or a figment of parents’ imagination…Add to this the event at my other (unrelated) child’s 4 month shots, which left her permanently brain-injured, with symptoms starting immediately after administration of the vaccines with a rapid decline resulting in permanent, lifelong neurological and metabolic impairment – one would think that seeing these supposedly one-in-a-million episodes happening in one household, two years apart, in unrelated children, would inspire the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System folks to send out an investigator; nothing, crickets, business-as-usual, vaccines are “safe;” until they aren’t. Failure to investigate the harm is not the same thing as absence of evidence of harm.
        4. “In other words, a parent choosing the diseases over the vaccine is generally acting on incorrect information. School mandates can help prevent such parents from making an error that puts their own kids at higher risk and risks others.” It seems to me that the rampant Pertussis, Measles, Chicken Pox (and shingles), and Mumps in vaccinated children demonstrates that the vaccines are not working – how about piling-onto the manufacturers and impugning their failure to provide effective products (safe would be nice, too), rather than damning families for opting-out of using faulty, risky medical products where the family bears all the risk (of contracting the disease or vaccine injury) and really gains little benefit (the risk of contracting and either succumbing-to or being permanently disabled-by a disease being significantly minimal since the 1940’s, BEFORE the advent of mass-inoculation).

      • Mel---

        Bravo, Dorit! Uninformed, misguided people like ‘Liz P’ are scary. I’d like to know where Liz comes up with the “many American adults and children” are disabled due to governmental guidelines. REALLY?! I can’t begin to tell you how many people I’ve met throughout my lifetime and yet not even ONE has been “disabled” due to an immunization. Where do you get your so-called ‘facts’? A reliable source wouldn’t be Jenny McCarthy or any of her ilk! When the proof reveals a HUGE number of those who are in research (professionals) overwhelmingly support immunization over the small number who don’t, who am I to believe? Wake up, Liz!

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