This is an archived article that was published on in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The Utah Legislature is debating a bill from Rep. Carol Spackman-Moss (House Bill 221) that seeks to provide education to the parents of Utah's un-immunized children. There are more than 87,000 Utah kids who are not protected by vaccines and who remain vulnerable to dangerous diseases. The parents of these kids will need to know how to protect them when outbreaks occur.

While HB 221 does not require vaccines and seeks only to provide the needed protective information to parents, the swirling discussions have identified some fear and confusion about how vaccines actually accomplish protecting our children.

First, vaccines are not magic, just well-focused science and technology. Second, various microbes (bacteria, viruses, etc.) are still a real danger to humans, particularly to children. For all of recorded history, humans have been at war with various microbes. Germs have killed and maimed more humans than all of our wars. In the American Civil War, a third of the soldiers killed were killed by guns, swords or cannons. Two out of three died from infections.

In 2014, around our globe 20 separate wars killed 163,000 of us. In that same year, nine times that number, 1.5 million children, were killed by vaccine-preventable diseases. This translates to another innocent child dying every 20 seconds from diseases that we could prevent, but we don't. The threat of these diseases is never more than a plane ride away.

Now immunizations are not like other medicines. They are not some pharmaceutical wonder drug to fix some problem or fill some lack within your body. They do not change your body's chemical balance. They are not vitamins to help you use nutrients, and they are not antibiotics that kill some invading organism for you.

A vaccine, instead, is an educational lesson that simply teaches your immune system what the enemy germ looks like before the enemy gets to you. This is like the FBI showing its "most wanted" posters so that we, and our police, can quickly recognize the bad guys if they show up in the neighborhood.

The vaccine introduces your immune system to the protein or polysaccharide surface coating of a germ, not the dangerous part of the germ itself. Your defenses then naturally develop a long-term memory to remember what the enemy soldier's uniform coat looks like. In the future, if this particular germ starts to invade, your defense system recognizes it immediately, counterattacks and defeats the invader quickly.

Immunizations are among the most important inventions of human history, but of course they are not perfect. They are invented by humans, and made by humans, and humans have not yet reached perfection. But they are safe. Immunizations are tested to be safer than almost everything else a child takes into his body. They are safer than medicines. Safer than shellfish. Safer than peanut butter. Safer than vitamins. Safer than whatever your child licks off the floor. And vaccines are certainly safer than your child facing the world's most dangerous germs alone and unprotected.

For 95 percent of Utah's school children, vaccines have already provided the specific knowledge that their immune system needs to protect these kids from 43 of the world's most dangerous germs. For the 5 percent of our kids who remain unprotected, their parents need specific knowledge to protect these kids, to strictly quarantine them and to hide them away from danger when outbreaks come to town. HB221 empowers our health departments to deliver this knowledge to parents. Knowledge is power, and this knowledge may well be life-saving.

William E. Cosgrove, M.D., is president of the Utah Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.