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Vaccines have tamed killers like smallpox, polio and measles. But some newer vaccines, like the ones for whooping cough and chicken pox, don't always give such great protection. In fact, that leads some parents to wonder if it might be better for their kids to get the diseases instead of the vaccines.

NPR's Nancy Shute reports.

NANCY SHUTE: It's 2:30 on a Tuesday afternoon, and the moms and babies are gathering at Angela Shogren's townhouse in Alexandria, Virginia.

Unidentified Woman #1: Who's a pretty baby?

SHUTE: As the babies crawl across the basement floor, the moms talk about breastfeeding and lack of sleep. One issue keeps coming up: vaccines.

Ms. ANGELA SHOGREN: What am I giving my kid? Like, I didn't know.

Ms. KIERSTEN PETRUCCI: To expose so many of these little bodies to so many at once feels not prudent.

Ms. VANESSA VOHDEN: I am definitely pro-immunization. However, I feel like we're giving way too many.

SHUTE: Like the other moms there, Angela, Kiersten Petrucci, and Vanessa Vohden are all vaccinating their children. But there's a lot they don't like about that process. They'd like the shot schedule spaced out more so a tiny baby isn't getting four or five shots at once. They wonder if a six-month-old really needs a seasonal flu shot, and Katie Combs wonders if shots are really necessary for less serious diseases like rotavirus and chicken pox.

Ms. KATIE COMBS: But I think a natural immunity for a lot of not-serious illnesses such as chicken pox may be better than getting the vaccine.

SHUTE: Is natural immunity better than the industrial version?

Dr. Samuel Katz helped invent the measles vaccine, and he says that's a good question, and one with no easy answer.

Dr. SAMUEL KATZ (Pediatrician and virologist, chairman emeritus, pediatrics, Duke Medical School): It varies from vaccine to vaccine.

SHUTE: That's because some vaccines are a lot better at getting your immune system to respond than others. Katz says when immunologists design a vaccine, they want it to activate two parts of the immune system: antibodies and cell-mediated immunity. That's what our bodies know how to do naturally when they come across a bad bug. Some vaccines can prompt that immune response, too.

Dr. KATZ: We think that's what we've achieved with measles. We think that's what we've achieved with polio.

SHUTE: But other vaccines don't always set off that two-fisted attack, and scientists don't know why.

Dr. KATZ: We have vaccines such as the one to prevent whooping cough, and we're seeing right now in California, where they're having a large outbreak, a number of the cases are individuals who've received vaccine.

SHUTE: Whooping cough is not the only disease where people can still get sick if they've had the vaccine. With chicken pox, about 25 percent of children got sick or spread the virus after getting one shot.

Anne Gershon is a chicken pox expert at Columbia University Medical Center. She says then you've got to give it another shot - literally.

Dr. ANNE GERSHON (Columbia University Medical Center): We really need boosters of vaccines much more than we thought we ever would.

SHUTE: So in 2006, the CDC added a second chicken pox shot to the recommended childhood vaccines. Gershon says it looks like that's going to keep children from getting sick. She thinks the vaccine won't ever eradicate the virus the way small pox vaccinations got rid of small pox. But she thinks it's still worth having.

Dr. GERSHON: I think it's important also to keep in mind with these infections that we look at not only at dying or mortality, but we look at suffering or morbidity, and with this vaccine, we've not only decreased mortality but we've decreased suffering from the virus.

SHUTE: Gershon remembers what it was like before the vaccine, when she cared for children who had come down with pneumonia or even flesh-eating bacteria -rare complications of chicken pox. Vaccines may not be perfect, but Gershon thinks that even an imperfect tool can help make sure children don't have to suffer.

Nancy Shute, NPR News.

INSKEEP: And that's Your Health for this Monday morning.

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