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Educating the Public About Vaccines

Public health experts provided answers to common questions that parents ask about infant immunizations and the HPV vaccine at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health on Nov. 12, 2011.

The free community forum, Vaccine Safety: Facts vs. Myths, engaged the audience and presenters in a lively Q&A session designed to answer questions and provide the audience with factual information and research to address misconceptions about vaccines.

Three generations of the Hernandez family from Picture Rocks, Arizona attended the Saturday morning event in November.

“Our son has aspergers syndrome. We always try to educate ourselves on health related issues that may affect our son,” said Sylvia Hernandez.

It was a small and informal group of 31 people who attended the forum including four students from Trinity University in San Antonia, Texas via Skype. 

“I think we had a very engaged audience. I was very impressed with the dedication of the participants to getting the word out about the importance of vaccines. One hot button issue to me seemed to be the issue of availability and cost of vaccines,” said Elizabeth Jacobs, PhD, associate professor of Epidemiology at the Zuckerman College of Public Health.

Dr. Jacobs said that one idea to come out of the discussion was to help provide funds to support the work of the Pima County Health Department to ensure that every child can be vaccinated without having to pay an administrative fee, while maintaining the high standards and excellent service provided by them.

Six speakers presented a range of information from how vaccines work and the HPV vaccine to autism risk factors and trends in vaccine exemptions. The panelists included: Zuckerman College of Public Health faculty members Kacey Ernst, PhD, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology; Francisco Garcia, MD, MPH, Professor of Public Health and Director of the Center of Excellence in Women’s Health; Elizabeth Jacobs, PhD, Associate Professor of Epidemiology; Sydney Pettygrove, PhD, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology; Katherine M. Hiller, MD, Associate Professor, Arizona Emergency Medicine Research Center, University of Arizona; and Mary Stebbins, MS, RN, Special Projects Coordinator for the Vaccine Preventable Disease Program at the Pima County Health Department.

Following is a sampling of some of the questions that were asked during the community forum. 

How safe are vaccines, and can you get sick from them?

Dr. Ernst:  Vaccines are thoroughly tested prior to licensing and monitored closely for adverse events after release. Vaccines are generally safe for administration to the general population. However there are exceptions and contraindications to getting vaccinated including allergies to vaccine components and administration of live vaccines to immune-compromised and pregnant women. The frequency of adverse events is far lower after immunization than disease. For example encephalitis from measles vaccination is 1:1,000,000 but from measles disease 1:1000 and death 2:1000. 

A question was asked about the amount of thiomersal in vaccines: Is it true that during the early years of a child's life, the allowable amount of mercury given to children is way above the allowable amount?

Dr. Jacobs: First, there is a fundamental misunderstanding about mercury. The allowable amount of mercury was based on methyl mercury, which is a compound far different from ethyl mercury. Ethyl mercury is the mercury component found in thimerosol. Although these two compounds sound the same, they are far different from one another. One way to think of this is by comparing ethyl alcohol, which is found in your glass of wine, and methyl alcohol, which is used in antifreeze and is extraordinarily toxic. These two compounds have a similar structure but when it comes to human consumption they are nothing alike. You can read more about the mercury issue on the World Health Organization’s website: Statement on thiomersal

Do vaccines cause autism?

Dr. Pettygrove:  Vaccines do not cause autism. A list of more than two dozen rigorously performed studies on autism and vaccination can be found on the Autism Science Foundation website.

In all of these studies no credible link between autism and vaccines has ever been found. The original publication which had suggested a relationship has been found to be completely fraudulent. That paper has been withdrawn by the British Medical Journal which had published it and the author, Andrew Wakefield has been stripped of his medical license.

Why is the HPV vaccine recommended at the age of 11 and 12?

Dr. Garcia:  It is essential that individuals are vaccinated before becoming sexually active. Prophylactic vaccines will not work after an individual has been exposed to the HPV virus with the onset of sexual activity.

Who should get the shingles vaccine and why is it important for those individuals?

Dr. Hiller:  The shingles vaccine (zostavax) is for adults over age 60 who had chickenpox as a child. It prevents zoster (shingles) and also decreases post-herpetic neuralgia, which is an excruciatingly painful consequence that some people with shingles can experience. Even if someone has had shingles once, they can still get the shingles vaccine and it will reduce their chance of getting a second attack of shingles or post-herpetic neuralgia. 

How do states vary in the process for obtaining vaccine exemptions?

Dr. Jacobs: There is a very wide range of procedures. In Arizona and about ten other states, it is very easy to obtain an exemption, because all a parent needs to do is sign a pre-printed form. At the other end of the spectrum, the state of Washington now requires a parent requesting an exemption to go to an MD or DO to discuss the benefits and risks of vaccination, and the physician must then sign the exemption form.

This free community forum is part of the new Zuckerman College of Public Health COPHY House series of educational health and wellness events sponsored by Partners in Public Health (PIPH). 

PIPH is an organization whose members support education and research at the Zuckerman College of Public Health to enhance and improve the health and wellbeing of Arizonans.  For more information about joining PIPH, please contact Donna Knight at  (520) 626-6459.

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