Vaccines have saved more than 732,000 lives just in the past two decades, according to federal health authorities. Today, more diseases than ever before can be prevented with free or low-cost vaccines. However, rates for recommended vaccinations remain far lower than optimal, and communicable diseases will continue to spread unless a higher rate of the population is immunized. Recent outbreaks of measles are attributed to this decline in vaccination rates of children.
Under the Affordable Care Act, many vaccines today are free, which may help improve immunization rates in coming years. (Families who are uninsured or whose insurance does not cover immunization and are unable to pay may consider looking into the Vaccines For Children program.) However, a second big barrier is the anti-vaccine movement in the United States, according to a recent report from experts at Loyola University Health System in Chicago. Many Americans have a hard time separating fact from fiction when it comes to vaccines.
“Anti-vaccine movements are as old as vaccines themselves. With the creation of the first smallpox vaccine in the 19th century came criticism, disbelief and fear of the unknown. Vaccine safety has come a long way since those early days and undergoes intense scrutiny and trials to ensure efficacy and safety before being approved,” says Nadia Qureshi, MD, pediatric infectious disease physician at Loyola University Health System and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report points out that after 50 years of using vaccines, they can say with confidence that the risk of an immunization causing serious long-term consequences “is extremely low.”
Here Are Five of the Most Common Myths About Vaccines:
Myth #1: Receiving the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine can result in autism.
In 1998, an English surgeon claimed in a study for The Lancet that receiving the MMR vaccine as an infant could be linked to autism and inflammatory bowel disease. However, it was later learned that the study included false and plagiarized records, and that the surgeon had patented a vaccine for measles alone, instead of measles, mumps, and rubella, in hopes that his claim would make the single measles vaccine profitable. For these reasons, in addition to performing procedures on children that were not authorized by his hospital’s ethics committee, the surgeon’s license was revoked. While researchers have been unable to duplicate the results of his falsified study, the damage to public opinion has lived on. Dr. Qureshi says, “The unfounded fear has been instilled in many parents’ minds and continues to result in vaccine hesitancy resulting in widespread outbreaks.”
Myth #2: It can be dangerous to get too many vaccines at one time.
The number of vaccines that are now recommended in childhood has soared over the past few decades, and parents may be understandably concerned over the many vaccines given to their children. However, their fears are unfounded. “The immune system is constantly being challenged from what infants place in their mouths to even the air they breathe; every day they are exposed to thousands of germs and antigens,” Dr. Qureshi says. “Vaccines are like a drop of water in a swimming pool. Extensive research has been done to ensure the vaccine schedule is safe and effective. The World Health Organization points out that grouping vaccines together saves office visits and makes it easier for children to complete the recommended vaccine regimen.
Myth #3: Vaccines contain toxins.
While vaccines do contain ingredients that can be toxic, the amounts present in vaccines are not toxic. “Any substance—even water—can be toxic given a large dose. But at a very low dose, even a highly toxic substance could be safe,” according to a CDC Q&A. Some parents are concerned about vaccines containing thimerosal, aluminum, and formaldehyde. Because of public concern, thimerosal was removed from the majority of vaccines in 2000, although there is no scientific basis for its removal. Vaccines do contain aluminum, to boost immune response, and formaldehyde. However, the amounts of aluminum and formaldehyde vaccines contain is trace. A vaccine contains about 1% of a person’s average daily consumption of aluminum. As for formaldehyde, Dr. Qureshi said,. “The level of formaldehyde found naturally in the body is greater than 100 times that which is found in a vaccine. A pear has 50 times more formaldehyde than a vaccine.”
Myth #4: Acquiring immunity via infection is more beneficial than using a vaccine.
According to studies, the opposite is true in many cases. In short, vaccines enable an immune response similar to the disease itself, but they do not subject people to all the potential side effects of that disease, which can be devastating or deadly. Hib can cause mental retardation, hepatitis B can lead to liver cancer, and measles can be fatal. Some vaccines even offer better immunity than the body’s natural immune response to the infection, as is the case with HPV, Hib, and tetanus. Dr. Qureshi says, “The risk of having a serious adverse reaction to a vaccine is one in a million, the risk of complications from a vaccine-preventable infection is closer to one in 100 to one in 1,000.”
Myth #5: “I had chicken pox as a kid, and it wasn’t a big deal.”
Some illnesses are mild in children but harmful in adults. For example, adults who contract chicken pox are more likely to have complications. While the flu is unlikely to cause serious complications in healthy adults, it can be dangerous in pregnant women, infants, or elderly people with underlying health problems. What’s more, Dr. Qureshi says that some complications of chicken pox can be fatal, such as encephalitis or pneumonia. “Ninety percent of children who die from chicken pox do not have identifiable risk factors for severe chicken pox. If a child gets the chicken pox he or she will have a greater risk of getting shingles later in life,” Qureshi says.
Parents should discuss concerns about vaccination with their doctor to avoid falling victim to these and other myths about vaccines. Dr. Qureshi points out that vaccines undergo “intense scrutiny and trials to ensure efficacy and safety before being approved.”