Dr. Mary Collins has a hard and fast rule for the parents and guardians of her patients: immunize. Immunize, immunize, immunize.
"If they refuse to do it, they are asked to find another pediatrician," said Collins, of Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington. "That has been our cornerstone for a long time."
The rule at Collins's practice doesn't necessarily apply to all Good Shepherd pediatricians, she said, but it does represent a feeling ingrained in the medical community. While a small but growing number of people are opting out of vaccinations, citing philosophical or religious reasons and driven in many cases by obscure studies circulated online, most doctors remain steadfast in their belief in the importance of immunizing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking to spread a message of the benefits of immunization this week during National Infant Immunization Week.
Making sure children get vaccinated is even more important during times that have harbored a "global, mobile society," Collins said. Children going to day care or meeting in play groups can increase germ exposure.
"Babies are getting exposed to larger groups of children at younger and younger ages," Collins said.
Such exposure can put the very young – and very vulnerable – at risk for serious complications or death, even if the immune systems of the older, infected children they contact are strong enough to handle the sickness, said Dr. Laura Bianconi, a pediatrician at Centegra Hospital – McHenry.
Bianconi has seen that situation play out. She saw a child who was too young for the pertussis vaccine become infected by an older sibling who wasn't vaccinated. The younger child died of the disease, better known as "whooping cough." The older child got sick, but recovered.
Still, Bianconi advocates for the importance of a parents' choice in vaccinating their children.
"However, I think it's also important that they're given accurate information in this," she said. "The problem with most people is that they don't have accurate information."
Opposition to vaccinations grew in part from a 1998 study in the medical journal "The Lancet," which published an article linking autism to the combination vaccine that addresses measles, mumps and rubella. The article was fully retracted by the journal in 2010 after several reports through the years about its authenticity and the credibility of its lead author.
But information continues to circulate linking vaccines with autism, Bianconi said.
"The biggest reason is there's a lot of fear about autism," she said. "Because we don't know 100 percent what causes it, people have come up with a bunch of theories about it. I don't know why vaccines in particular get picked on other than every kid gets them."
Both Bianconi and Collins pointed to studies that have debunked the link.
But the voices of those advocating for immunizations are sometimes drowned out by those of vaccine-opposers with a larger platform – such as Jenny McCarthy, the model turned TV personality recently hired on the ABC talk show, "The View." McCarthy, who has an autistic son, has said the disorder can be attributed to his vaccinations.
Such public views have led to a discussion about what should qualify parents and guardians for an exemption from vaccine requirements. Currently, every state offers a religious exemption, and 17 states offer philosophical exemptions. Illinois does not offer a philosophical exemption.
People taking advantage of exemptions is causing a heightened health risk, according to a recent study by the CDC. So far in 2014, 129 people have been reported to have measles – the highest number in the first four months of the year since 1996, the CDC reported.
"What we are seeing is a resurgence in the community – based on the lack of vaccination – with different diseases that are preventable," Collins said. She added that pertussis is the preventable disease most commonly making an appearance in the area.
Because of the risks not only to individual children but to the greater community, Collins would like to see immunizations mandated for all children, without exception.
"A religious exemption has never really made sense to me," she said.
While Bianconi doesn't share that stance, she said she looks forward to a day when more parents take a greater appreciation for the effectiveness immunizations have shown.
"There's a lot more fear around the vaccines," she said. "If there's anything I want people to know, it's that you should be more afraid of the disease than of the vaccine."