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Vax Populi: Does my child’s unvaccinated playmate put them at risk?

I recently found out that one of my older son’s playmates has not been vaccinated at all. I’m not concerned for my older son, who has had all his vaccines, but I am afraid for my one-year-old, who has not yet gotten his full series. What is the risk for him contracting something like measles from this unvaccinated child? And how do I approach this subject with the boy’s mother, if at all? – Measles and Mumps and Rubella, OH MY!

Dear Measles,

As parents increasingly choose not to vaccinate, this kind of scenario comes up more often; theoretical questions begin to feel practical. In communities where not all children are vaccinated, what are the risks?

The good news is that most of the diseases our children are immunized against aren’t real risks anymore; vaccines have been so successful that some horrific illnesses (like polio) have been all but totally eradicated. Without a breeding ground, the diseases can’t keep on keeping on. This is one reason people argue that it’s selfish not to vaccinate: is it ethical to reap the benefits of other people’s vaccinations without returning the favor?

We decided to ask Dr. Saha, the pediatrician who advised us on From the Hips about the specific risks.

His take: Polio may not be a problem, but some diseases are still around, including pertussis, pneumococcus, and haemophilus influenzae type B. If your child is being vaccinated on the schedule set out by the AAP, he will have been largely immunized against these diseases already, even without the last shot in the series (which is due at 15 months). The measles and chicken pox vaccines are given at 12 months, so your son may actually have received these as well.

Chicken pox happens, but in babies it is not severe (not fun, but not dangerous). [Read more about the chicken pox vaccine here.] Measles is very, very rare – around 100 cases per year – though, interestingly, there were twice as many cases in 2008 as anytime in the past 12 years (a result, the CDC suggests, of the move against immunization). According to Dr. Saha, a baby is also protected from measles if his or her mother is immune (as a result of prior infection or vaccination) as the antibodies cross the placenta.

You can ask your son’s doctor whether she keeps to the AAP schedule or uses her own, and let her know your concerns. She should have the best idea of where you are immunization-wise, and be able to help you assess the situation from there.

Regarding whether or not to raise this issue with the other parent: What do you hope to accomplish? Do you want to learn about her choices? Debate them? Confront them? Knowing that the risk to your child is likely very minimal, it seems that a conversation might be more trouble than it’s worth.

Of course if you want to open up the debate for reasons beyond your own personal safety, fire away. It’s a free country, as they say. Just remember that it’s free for both of you. And that though your beliefs and methods may clash, you share the same goal: keeping your kids safe.

Have a question? Email parentaladvisory@babble.com

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