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Q: My 1-1/2-year-old is due for another series of shots. I am apprehensive about giving him DPT. I've heard terrible stories and know of at least one incident where the child became autistic after receiving it. Aren't I entitled to be a conscientious objector and not give him this shot? I live in New York and can't seem to get a clear answer on what my rights are, or what ramifications I'll have if I choose not to innoculate him.
A: You raise several issues, so I will try to tackle them one at a time. First, you express apprehensiveness about the shot. It is common for parents to be concerned, but there is no scientific proof that this shot causes mental retardation, autism, or death. It is true that the DPT has common side-effects such as high fever, crankiness, and inconsolability that used to frustrate parents. In fact, it was because of these common side-effects that a new type of pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine was developed. The new acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP) has fewer of the common side-effects and is more routinely used now.
Second, in regard to being a consciencious objector and not wanting to give your son this shot, I am not aware of what the law in New York State specifically states. Speak with your child's physician for details. The choice of immunizing children does rest with parents. We, as physicians, don't give shots without your permission. I'm sure you've seen consent forms that have all the information about the purpose of each shot and any anticipated side-effects; we want you to have a clear understanding of the importance of the shot(s). This is still lots of whooping cough around and, in fact, it's on the rise. Whooping cough can be a serious illness, particularly in young children. I always encourage the shot because the benefits far outweigh any of the perceived risks.
Lastly, what are the ramifications if you choose not to inoculate him? You are putting him and others at risk for diseases that are truly preventable. Vaccines have been an extraordinary advancement in medicine and have been able to change the health and well-being of children around the world. So I would encourage you to let him receive the shot(s) to protect him as well as others.
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.