Former CDC Acting Director Dr. Richard Besser on Vaccines
There’s a lot to learn about when you’re a parent or parent-to-be, from what pregnancy symptoms you can expect to how to get your baby to sleep. Also on that list? Navigating all those important maternal and childhood vaccines for you and your baby.
If you’re feeling particularly confused or concerned about vaccines, whether it be for yourself or for your growing baby, that’s normal. “It’s natural to worry about an unborn baby, a life that’s developing,” says Richard Besser, M.D., former acting director for the CDC and president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Dr. Besser, who’s also a pediatrician, recently joined What to Expect creator Heidi Murkoff on iHeart Radio’s What to Expect podcast to help answer some of the most common vaccine questions from parents, from why they’re so important to how you can know they’re safe. Here, six takeaways from their chat.
On how vaccines work
“Vaccines are pretty miraculous. Before vaccines, I mean many, if not most, families experienced the loss of children because there are infectious diseases that are so dangerous and deadly to kids. Vaccines, you know, at kind of the simplest level, they fool your body into thinking that you’ve been infected with a virus, or a bacteria, a germ, that can cause disease, and they cause your immune system to react, like it’s seeing that bad virus or that bad bacteria, but it’s not. It’s not seeing something that’s harmful to you. But your body is saying, ‘Oh wow, I’ve seen whooping cough.’ The immune system kicks into gear to fight it off. And what that does is, it means that if you ever see the real thing… the immune system is ready and it fights it off. Like it’s seen it before and it knows what to do. And that is, I think, absolutely incredible.”
On why vaccines are safe during pregnancy
“One of the things scientists look at: Is there any concern about this vaccine doing any harm? And if they see any signal of that, then that’s it. It’s not something that would be given to someone who’s pregnant. And so by the time a vaccine is recommended or approved, you can feel comfortable that you are not doing harm to your baby, but you’re in fact helping to protect them by protecting yourself and your baby from a potentially dangerous infection.”
On getting the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy
“Here with COVID, we are learning that there is some increased risk for pregnant women. What you need to balance, I think, and talk with your doctor, because this is one of those personal decisions that you have to make, is what is your risk of exposure? So, you know, if you’re someone who is working in a setting where you’re more likely to be exposed, whether it’s in healthcare or food production or transportation or anything where you’re out and about and you’re pregnant, you have a real risk of being exposed and getting COVID. You know, in that setting, I think that personally, if it were my family member, I would say, yeah, I would recommend getting vaccinated. There are studies being done, but theoretically, there’s nothing that we would see with this vaccine that would make us think ahead of time that it could pose an increased risk to someone who is pregnant. If, on the other hand, you are at home, you are not out at all and your risk is really, really low, you’re not exposed to very many people, then you may say, well, you know what, I’m not going to get vaccinated.”
On why it’s safe for your baby to get all her vaccines
“Our immune systems are amazing. They’re incredible. We are barraged all day long, all night long, by germs that are around us. … And our immune systems react to those constantly. So getting a dozen more exposures to different things over those first months is not in any way, shape or form going to overwhelm your immune system. Part of the testing that’s done with vaccines, they’re looking to see which vaccines can you give together. You know, are there any that you can’t give together at the same time? (And there are, and so doctors don’t administer those at the same time.) But the goal in pediatrics is to protect children as quickly as possible for things that they may face early in life. And so that’s why you do that.”
On getting all your baby’s vaccines on time
“My recommendation is vaccinate your child fully, and on time. It doesn’t overwhelm the immune system. It means that your child is protected as soon as they possibly can be. And heaven forbid your child were to get something where you delayed. So that’s the approach I take. It’s the way to go. There’s no science to show that there’s benefit to a child of spacing vaccines out beyond what the current recommended schedule is. And all I see with that is a longer period before a child is fully protected. And you know, we vaccinate to protect our own children, but also to protect those who can’t be vaccinated or those who don’t get a good immune response.”
On learning more about childhood vaccines
“It can be really hard to tell the difference out there between what’s good science and what’s someone’s opinion and what is just false, is a hoax. … I think it’s so important for parents to have trusted sources of information. I think that having a healthcare provider who you trust, who you can ask anything to, can be really, really valuable. And knowing what sources of information online are trusted, are good science, can be really, really valuable. And it can help you avoid some of the noise that’s out there, because there is so much noise. It can be overwhelming. And when it’s that much information coming out at you, a lot of people’s reaction will be, ‘I’m just going to wait, can’t take it all in, so I’m just going to wait.’ And the waiting itself can be a dangerous thing for a little baby.”
About the What to Expect podcast
When Heidi wrote What to Expect When You’re Expecting, she was pregnant with her daughter Emma. Her mission was simple: to help parents know what to expect, every step of the way. Now, Emma is a mom too — and they’re teaming up on the What to Expect podcast to help you navigate your entire journey, from conception, to pregnancy, to the first years of parenting. Heidi and Emma break down your biggest questions, interview famous moms and cover the issues you need to know about, from health care to child care to maternal leave. Nothing is TMI, and nothing is off-limits! Listen now on iHeartRadio, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or WhatToExpect.com.
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