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Parents of kids with cancer worry about unvaccinated children

Cara Burrell, a Philadelphia-area mom of three, is worried about her 5-year-old son Graham who is battling leukemia and is taking drugs that suppress his immune system. He can't get vaccines at this time, which is why it's important for him to be around those who are vaccinated. (Courtesy Cara Burrell)
Cara Burrell, a Philadelphia-area mom of three, is worried about her 5-year-old son Graham who is battling leukemia and is taking drugs that suppress his immune system. He can’t get vaccines at this time, which is why it’s important for him to be around those who are vaccinated. (Courtesy Cara Burrell)

WASHINGTON — Polls now show an overwhelming majority of Americans believe all parents should be required to vaccinate their children — and that is good news for the mothers and fathers of children with cancer.

Cara Burrell, a Philadelphia-area mom of three, is worried about her 5-year-old son Graham who is battling leukemia and is taking drugs that suppress his immune system.

She says he is in remission, but his body is not the same as a healthy child’s.

“His immune system is weakened right now,” she explains. “And for him to get a virus or disease like measles could be potentially devastating.”

Because the measles vaccine contains a weakened live virus, it is not recommended for children undergoing cancer treatment.  And so Burrell is urging the parents of healthy children to get them immunized — not only to protect their own health,  but the lives of vulnerable kids like her Graham.

“We strongly believe that we all belong to each other in this world,” she says, adding there is an obligation to help protect the weak.

Dr. Jeffrey Dome, Division Chief of Hematology and Oncology with the Children’s National Health System says Burrell’s message is right on target.

“Even if somebody has reasons why they don’t want to immunize their own child, it is important to think about others who are vulnerable who can’t be immunized,” he says.

Dome says serious complications of measles can occur in any child, but they are far more common in kids whose immune systems are suppressed, including those undergoing chemotherapy. They include pneumonia and encephalitis — an inflammation of the brain.

He agrees that the best way to protect youngsters with cancer, as well as tiny babies too young to get a measles shot, is to make sure that everyone around them is vaccinated.

“Herd immunity — which is when the safety of the group protects people who are vulnerable — is very very important for children who cannot be immunized,” he says, noting they really rely on others for protection.

There are currently only two confirmed cases of measles in DC, and Dome says that thankfully, no children undergoing cancer treatment locally have come down with the disease.  But he notes their families and their physicians remain vigilant, adding “it is something we are on the lookout for.”

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