Editor's Note: Denver7 360 stories explore multiple sides of the topics that matter most to Coloradans, bringing in different perspectives so you can make up your own mind about the issues. To comment on this or other 360 stories, email us at 360@TheDenverChannel.com. See more 360 stories here.
There's no question we all want to do the right thing as parents. But, when it comes to vaccinating our children, the debate gets heated.
While the Centers for Disease Control estimates nearly one million kids were saved from death between 1994 and today as a result of vaccinations, some parents say the risks associated with vaccines are still too great.
The great debate over vaccinations has taken many twists and turns in recent years.
"The risks of not vaccinating are real," said Dr. Amanda Dempsey, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Denver and primary care pediatrician at Children’s Hospital Colorado.
Let's start with the debate in pop culture. In 2008 - actress, host and activist Jenny McCarthy appeared on CNN’s Larry King Live and told the nation that vaccines could trigger autism.
"It's an infection and/or toxins and/or funguses on top of vaccines that push children into this neurological downslide," McCarthy said.
That set off a firestorm of controversy.
"All the research that was saying there's any kind of a link has been so incredibly debunked," said mother of two Emily Adams.
Those, like Emily, who argue that vaccines are safe say they are the single greatest health development of the 20th century.
"Once you introduce a vaccine against a particular disease, incidents of that disease decrease really dramatically," said Dempsey.
The CDC recommends kids get 29 doses of nine different vaccines from ages 0 to 6-years-old.
"I'm very careful about keeping my kids up-to-date," Adams said.
While no federal laws mandate vaccinations, all 50 states require them for children entering public schools. But, most states offer medical, religious or personal belief exemptions. Colorado has adopted the personal belief exemption which simply requires a parents signature.
"I feel like vaccines aren't really a one-size-fits-all," said Nicole, a mother of two who does not vaccinate her children.
She and other opponents argue children's immune systems can deal with nearly all infections, naturally.
“My children have never had ear infections. They've never had strep throat or anything like that," Nicole said.
She stands firmly against the ingredients in vaccines, including metals, animal parts and what she called cell lines from aborted fetal tissues.
"And I'm a Christian, and I'm against abortion,” Nicole said. “I know my family judges me for it, but in my heart - I just don't feel like it's right."
Pediatrician and leading vaccine researcher Dr. Dempsey says the amount of metals and other ingredients in vaccines are minimal compared to what we pick up in our natural environment. And she says they are in no way detrimental to children's health.
"All of these concerns are based on information that's really been twisted and blown out of proportion relative to the benefits of vaccination," Dempsey said.
But Clare Driscoll disagrees.
“If vaccines are 'safe,' then why is approximately $100 million paid out each year to those who have been damaged, including death, by vaccines?” Driscoll said in an e-mailed statement to Denver7. “Over $3.7 billion has been compensated to victims of vaccines via the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.”
Adams believes a lot of that is unnecessarily alarmist.
"There's a lot of fear-mongering," Adams said.
Adams started questioning vaccines when her daughter began attending a school with only a 50 percent vaccination rate.
"It's very emotional to parents, and I think it's really easy to get scared," she said. Adams said she changed her mind because a lot of what was being pushed online appeared to be propaganda and lies in her opinion.
"Mom groups on Facebook,” Adams said. “And I would look, and I was like, 'Yeah, they have some information here - but they're also trying to sell me stuff.’"
Dr. Jane Orient has served as executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.
“Vaccine safety testing is limited,” Orient has stated in the past. “And the long-term effects of mass immunization with so many different vaccines in combination have not been studied.”
It's important to note the AAPS has been linked to a range of scientifically discredited hypotheses, according to many medical experts.
Adding another layer to this issue is the social-media-driven groupthink mentality.
"We're seeing a lot more activity on Twitter with regard to anti-vaccination content,” said Matthew Kaskavitch, a lecturer and communications expert at CU Denver. Kaskavitch points to a recent CU Boulder study that shows a proliferation of debunked information on Twitter.
"Just because it's being surfaced and you can see it, and it's being shared a lot - doesn't necessarily make it genuine and credible," Kaskavitch said.
The study examined 500,000 Tweets from 2009-2015 with the words ‘vaccine’ and ‘autism.’
The study found the vast majority of Tweets were anti-vaccination and concluded the vocal minority continues to push misinformation linking developmental disorders to vaccines.
“Social media is driven by this deep emotional, visceral-type content and storytelling,” Kaskavitch said. “So, when you try to counter that with pro-vaccine arguments, something that's more nuanced and complex and that deals with science, those things on social media don't play nearly as well."
The study also broke-down demographics and found one of the most prominent voices of the anti-vaccination movement was new moms in well-educated, affluent areas of the northeast, particularly New York and Connecticut.
"They have a big megaphone, and it definitely carries a lot of weight online," Kaskavitch said. "These anti-vaccination groups tend to be very densely packed together on social media. So, when information gets released into these communities, it bounces around and gets overly amplified. Whereas, on the pro vaccine side, it's more singular for someone. So, it's tough for something that's more nuanced and complex and science-based to break-through."
Nicole argues her non-vaccinated children are healthier than most.
"They're pretty healthy kids,” she said. “So, I feel like I made the best decision for them."
Adams points out vaccinations don't just protect her kids, but thousands of others with cancer or auto-immune deficiencies who can't be vaccinated.
"It's a decision that affects other children in our community, and that's something that I never considered before," Adams said.
Experts say most importantly - parents and pediatricians should have respectful conversations, no matter which side of the debate they fall on.
"In the end, it's always the parent's decision," Dempsey said.
"I think there's a huge amount of effort and money going into scaring parents right now,” Adams said. “And it's working. It's really effective."