It seems like a major part of keeping kids healthy these days is managing their microbial exposure. On the one hand, we’re told that letting our kids get dirty and tempering our use of hand sanitizer can help cultivate a healthy population of good microbes in and on the body, which is associated with lower rates of chronic maladies like asthma and allergies. On the other hand, we know that among all the benign and beneficial bacteria in the world lurk some that are deadly, causing diseases such as whooping cough, pneumonia and meningitis.
To treat these diseases, we need antibiotics, but the downside is that antibiotics indiscriminately kill bacteria in the body, including the ones that contribute to our health. Meanwhile, every course of antibiotics gives bacteria that are resistant to the drugs a chance to grow and thrive. That makes for more antibiotic-resistant infections, all of which are harder to treat and some of which can’t be treated at all.
Ideally, we want to protect our kids from deadly bacteria without disturbing the good ones or worsening the trend of antibiotic resistance. And this is exactly what vaccines do. They give us exposure to the pathogen — be it bacterial or viral — in a weakened, killed or partial form so that we can develop immunity to it without getting the full-blown illness. If we’re exposed to the real thing later, our bodies have antibodies specific to that pathogen ready to fight back. No antibiotics needed, and our friendly microbes can continue to live in peace. But when parents choose not to vaccinate their kids, they’re increasing the kids’ chances of not only becoming seriously ill, but also of needing antibiotic treatment and other medical interventions down the road.
Dr. Joel Amundson, a pediatrician in Portland, Oregon, finds himself frequently talking about vaccines and antibiotics in the same breath. Oregon has one of the lowest immunization rates in the nation, and Amundson said many of the parents he counsels want to keep their kids “all-natural” and see vaccines as an unnecessary medical intervention. But when he explains that vaccines are a tool for decreasing medical interventions, including antibiotic use, that often changes their perspective. “That’s a huge benefit to my families,” he said, “It definitely has them more interested in doing vaccines when they understand that.”
Some parents who are reluctant to vaccinate worry about side effects, and though some kids will experience short-lived, minor reactions such as swelling at the injection site, serious side effects are extremely rare. Side effects from antibiotics, including diarrhea, rashes and allergic reactions, are generally more common and severe, Amundson said. “I see far more harm from antibiotics than I do from vaccines, by a huge margin. It’s not subtle,” he said.
Of course, when a person has a serious bacterial infection, the benefits of antibiotics far outweigh those risks, because these diseases can be deadly. “When we need them, we really need them,” said Janet Gilsdorf, professor emerita of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Michigan. But in a world where antibiotic-resistant infections are thought to kill 50,000 people each year in the U.S. and Europe alone, a problem that the United Nations has called “the greatest and most urgent global risk,” reducing our use of antibiotics helps preserve their value. “The fewer infections we have, the fewer antibiotics we need to use, and we know that the use of antibiotics is what drives antibiotic resistance,” Gilsdorf said.
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We don’t yet have research on whether emphasizing this benefit of vaccines might encourage parents to immunize their kids. While the vast majority of parents vaccinate their kids on schedule, the number of parents…