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After well-meaning but misinformed parents told Leah Campbell (pictured above) that recent vaccinations caused her daughter’s diagnosis of juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), she began to hunt for clear answers to bust such myths in the future. Image via Leslie Meadow Photography
  • Juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) is the most common type of arthritis in children. Arthritis is a long-term condition characterized by stiffness, swelling, and pain in the joints.
  • The exact cause of JIA isn’t yet known. However, researchers believe it’s primarily an autoimmune disease.
  • No links have been found between JIA and vaccinations of any kind.

My daughter was just 4 years old when she was first diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA), an autoimmune condition that involves her immune system attacking her joints.

As a child of Native descent, she already carried a greater risk for developing certain autoimmune conditions. She also had a suspected family history of this particular condition going back generations. And she hadn’t received a vaccination in almost a year before her symptoms developing.

But none of that stopped people who are opposed to vaccines from jumping on a story I had written about our experience and declaring vaccinations to blame for my daughter’s trauma.

It was frustrating. There I was, focused on getting my daughter healthy, while strangers on the internet were attempting to use her condition to push forward an agenda I in no way agreed with.

I’d done my research. I knew the truth. I never for one moment questioned the role of vaccinations in my daughter’s condition.

But others did. Again and again.

I wanted to know why.

In addition to anecdotal reports, one of the reasons people may think vaccines cause arthritis is because the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine insert lists arthritis as a possible side effect.

But it’s important to understand what that’s referring to before jumping to conclusions.

Arthritis can be a bit of a catch-all term in the medical community since the term itself simply means joint inflammation.

The mention on the MMR insert exists because of reports that it may cause a mild and temporary arthritic reaction — essentially sore joints for a short period of time following the vaccination.

But the reaction described has been mostly seen in adult women (rarely in children) receiving the vaccine, and it tends to appear 1 to 3 weeks after vaccination, usually lasting for no longer than 3 weeks after onset.

And even that link isn’t quite as simple as some may initially believe.

“Vaccine and drug side effect listings must include everything that happened to recipients during the study period, whether thought to be related or not,” said Dr. Sara Bhargava Vora, assistant professor in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Washington School of Medicine and Seattle Children’s Hospital.

When it comes to the potential link between vaccines and arthritis, she said, “Studies are very mixed, and a recent meta-analysis (reviewing all available studies on this topic) found not enough data to conclude that vaccines are related to arthritis.”

Jumping to the conclusion that my daughter’s condition must have been caused by vaccines represents a lack of understanding regarding arthritis in general, because what’s mentioned on those inserts isn’t the same as the lifelong autoimmune condition my daughter has.

“Multiple studies and guidelines have not found a link between vaccines and an increased risk of JIA or RA,” Bhargava Vora confirmed.

As mom to a child with a chronic health condition, I fully understand the desire to find answers, the need to have something to blame.

It’s physically painful to watch your child struggling, and to have to subject them to medications that come with all sorts of side effects of their own.

I wish there were a simple answer. Something I could definitively say caused this, so I could save others from a similar fate.

But there isn’t. And I can’t.

“There needs to be clarity between long-term and short-term autoimmune conditions,” said Dr. Sarah Fankhauser, assistant professor of biology and infectious disease expert at Oxford College of Emory University.

“Those opposed to vaccination have claimed that vaccination can cause Crohn’s disease, gluten sensitivity, eczema, IBS, diabetes, etc.,” she said.

But, Fankhauser explains, scientists have researched all these possible links ad nauseam, with no associations to be found.

In fact, vaccines may prevent the development of long-term autoimmune conditions, as many of the diseases they protect against do have strong associations with the development of those conditions.

“However, there are rare short-term autoimmune reactions that have been shown to occur,” Fankhauser explained. “For example, Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS), which can cause short-term paralysis, was shown to have a slight association with the 2009 influenza vaccine and incidence of GBS.”

The rate of incidence, or overall likelihood, discovered? Less than 1 case per 1 million people receiving the vaccination.

Worth noting: Roughly 34,000 people died of the flu last year alone.

The New York Times recently published a piece by Dr. Hotez, a vaccine scientist and pediatrician at the Baylor College of Medicine.

It did a deep dive into the various risks of vaccinations versus the risks of the disease they protect against, noting that influenza itself can also trigger GBS.

“Children with rheumatologic and other autoimmune diseases are often at increased risk of infection due to immunosuppressive therapies,” Bhargava Vora said.

“Vaccines, especially non-live vaccines, are important in reducing this risk and are both immunogenic (effective) and safe for the vast majority of these children,” she said.

Because the treatment of my daughter’s condition requires medications that suppress her natural immune system, vaccinations are even more important than ever before to keep her alive.

And thankfully the research has found most vaccines are safe — and even crucial — for her to receive.

“Multiple studies and guidelines say that non-live vaccines are safe and immunogenic (effective),” Bhargava Vora said. “Even live vaccines (MMR, varicella) have been found to be safe in many patients with autoimmune conditions, unless patients are on high-dose immune suppressives or steroids or certain biologics.”

Still, Bhargava Vora acknowledges the medications taken by some children with JIA could make the vaccinations they receive less effective.

“Biologic agents could cause the vaccines to not work for as long as in a healthy person. Therefore, some kids may need booster doses,” she said.

Bhargava Vora adds that because of the rare nature of some of these diseases, vaccine effectiveness is sometimes difficult to study for kids on these medications. So, we do the best we can with what we know.

Fankhauser agrees.

“For those who have autoimmune diseases, such as RA, they are already highly susceptible to infectious disease because they are likely on immunosuppressants, which weakens their natural immunity. Thus, this population is in most need of vaccination,” she said.

My daughter started on immunosuppressive therapy before she was up to date on the two standard live vaccines children receive, MMR and chickenpox.

Recently, we attempted to wean her down from her medications — a standard protocol for children who have been in an inactive disease state for a set period of time on medications.

About a month before her wean-down protocol was complete, she started exhibiting symptoms of JIA again.

Her doctors determined she should return to a full course of medication. But after some discussion, we decided together to take this opportunity to first get her fully updated on her vaccinations.

My daughter was taken off her immunosuppressive medications for a short period time, with the plan being to get her the remaining live vaccines she needed to be protected. It was decided she would start back on her medications 2 weeks after her last vaccination.

But then something unexpected happened.

Over the course of the 2-week waiting period, she stopped exhibiting signs of JIA. And, in fact, it was more than 4 months before she flared again.

At which point, some people who are against vaccines tried to claim that my daughter’s flare was due to her recent vaccination. But those claims completely ignored the fact that she had been flaring before receiving those vaccinations to begin with.

Of course, these claims aren’t based in science.

“From the data we have now, we do not believe that vaccinations cause flares in autoimmune diseases,” Bhargava Vora said.

Do I think the vaccinations my daughter received stopped her symptoms from appearing for a short period of time? No; I think the two incidents are likely unrelated.

But the timing of how everything played out also makes it clear to me that vaccines weren’t to blame for her most recent flare.

That was just the result of her having a condition that’s not likely to ever completely go away.

Had it not been for the extensive research I’d done on vaccines before my daughter’s diagnosis, and the research I continued to do after the fact, I could have easily become one of those people who blame vaccines for the development of their child’s condition.

I understand the desire to do so, how the need for answers can make vaccines an easy target.

But I remain completely confident vaccines weren’t to blame. And the science, along with my daughter’s doctors, back that up.

“Readers should stick to reputable sources when trying to find out more information about vaccines,” Fankhauser said, citing the Mayo Clinic, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and World Health Organization as scientific resources that provide easy to understand information about vaccines.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also done a good job compiling the research surrounding any potential links between allergies and autoimmune conditions for concerned parents to review.

“It’s easy to be swayed by the emotional stories of parents who believe vaccines injured their child,” Fankhauser concluded.

“But this is not evidence, and ultimately science has demonstrated that vaccines are the best way to keep us safe from infectious disease.”