Nearly 90 percent of parents vaccinate their children as medically advised, but more than half still express concern over the safety of the vaccines, a survey from the University of Michigan found.
For Virginia Anderson, mother of two from Hendersonville, N.C., the number and frequency of vaccinations given to her children was a bit overwhelming when she first became a mother.
"I was concerned that too many shots were given at the same time and I wouldn't know what side effects I was witnessing," she said. "As a first-time mom, [it's scary] when your child wakes up with a 102 fever and you're not sure what it's from."
But fortunately, Anderson said, her pediatrician made the process more comfortable by openly discussing side effects, risks, and benefits, and helping her to decide which vaccines made sense for her kids.
"He never made me feel like I have to do [every vaccine] or that I shouldn't be concerned about it, but he made me realize where the benefit outweighed the risk," Anderson said.
This type of open discussion of risks, benefits, and individual vaccine choice is an aspect of pediatric care that authors on the University of Michigan survey hope to see more of in the future.
The survey, which will be published in Pediatrics March 1, assessed parents' views on vaccine safety and found that while a "reassuring" amount of parents vaccinate their children, study author Dr. Gary Freed said, the amount of parents that remain concerned about autism risks and other vaccine complications is disquieting.
"There should be no concern whatsoever that a healthy child receiving vaccinations would get autism," Freed said. "There's no credible evidence that there's any link, and the major study suggesting this [link] was recently retracted and deemed fraudulent."
Of the nearly 2,500 parents surveyed, primary worries concerned autism, but parents also were generally uneasy about how the HPV vaccinations, the measles, mumps and rubella; varicella and meningococcal conjugate vaccines would affect their children.
Most of parents' fears are unfounded, Freed said, so it's essential that "physicians ... take parental concerns seriously. They need to be aware of and familiar with the data on the safety of vaccines, because parents deserve to have concrete info on vaccine safety."
While there are minor side effects associated with some vaccines, Freed said, "these far outweigh the [gains in] prevention of life-threatening diseases.
"Most parents today have no idea that children can die from measles, die or be permanently damaged from diseases that the vaccines are designed to prevent," he said.
Dr. Mark Sawyer, a pediatrician at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, agreed, saying that "the risk from the diseases vaccines prevent is what parents should be concerned about."
But Sawyer is not surprised by the level of concern captured by the survey.
"There is lots of inaccurate information about vaccines that parents are exposed to in popular media, particularly on the Internet," he said. "It is often hard for parents to judge the credibility of that information."
That's where better physician-parent communication comes in, Freed said.
One parental advocacy group would like to take the education one step further.
Amy Carson, co-founder of Mothers Against Mercury, believes vaccines should be given with as much supplemental material about risks, ingredients and side effects as is currently provided for prescription drugs.
"With vaccines, we go to the doctor's office and ... don't know what's in it and what we're being given," she said, even though "it is one of the only drugs you have to sign a consent form to receive."
The organization was created to advocate legislation that would call for stricter safety standards on current vaccines, especially in limiting the amount of mercury exposure infants and children get from vaccines.
Mercury, which used to be present in most vaccines as a preservative (often as thiomersal), is now only found in certain influenza vaccines and in trace amounts in others, but Carson argues that even these trace amounts can cause neurological damage to kids. She worries that without stricter regulation, these "trace" amounts may be much larger than expected and be causing damage that is going unacknowledged.
But while the organization's concern over better education for parents is widely shared in the medical community, the claim that mercury in vaccines causes neurological damage to children is contested by doctors.
Dr. Paul Offit, chief of infectious disease at Philadelphia Children's Hospital and co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine, said that "the amount of mercury that was in vaccines before it was removed was less than children are exposed to in the environment."
The scientifically-documented concerns and risks of vaccines are given to parents in the form of a vaccination sheet. The sheets are required by law for each pediatrician to give out at the time of vaccination,Offit pointed out, but mercury is not among the listed concerns.
Dr. Sara Rizvi, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine, echoed Offit's reassurance.
"Extensive literature exists that supports the safety and efficacy of all of the recommended childhood vaccines," she said.
"Now we as pediatricians have to find effective ways to ... give parents the information necessary to make informed decisions and believe in the safety of vaccines."