I belong to a few parenting groups, and after over a year of participation, there’s no question that the most commonly posted and hotly debated topic is vaccines. In a lot of ways, that makes sense. It’s something that impacts a lot of people, there is a lot of confusion about what is and is not safe, and most importantly, it’s always clear that all parents are looking to do the right thing for their families — and that can bring out some fight in all of us.
As I follow along with some of these debates, I see some pretty serious myths being thrown out regularly on both sides of the fence. At times, the comments read a bit like a game of telephone – someone once heard this fact from someone else, who heard it from someone else, and so on. And the truth is just lost somewhere in the middle, but other parents are being convinced by those falsehoods.
There are myths are on both sides that need to be addressed with quality evidence before they impact the health of a child or family.
1. The current vaccine schedule is too many, too soon.
It’s pretty easy to see where this myth started because there really are a lot of vaccines in the first two years, sometimes upwards of 4 shots at one appointment, and no doubt, that’s rough on everyone. A study in 2000 noted that 23% of parents questioned the quantity of shots on the vaccine schedule and 25% felt that vaccines could weaken their immune system. That’s not a small figure, and while I don’t have more recent results, I’d imagine that they’re even higher now.
One reason why this myth is false has to do with what’s in our vaccines today. Today’s vaccines have been shown to have significantly fewer antigens (the disease-containing part of the vaccine) than they have historically. Although kids get more shots now than we did when we were children, the total number of antigens they get is actually lower than 30 years ago. For example, the smallpox vaccine from decades ago contained 200 antigens, but now the 11 recommended vaccines in the first 2 years contain less than 130 antigens combined. I’m not big on the “if we survived it, then it must be safe” rationale, but this load of vaccines has been proven to be safe, and the myth that it’s too many, too soon, really doesn’t fit given how much lighter the antigen load has become. Additionally, though I’m going to go here in a second, there was a study completed earlier this year that looked at the normal vaccination schedule in the first 2 years and found no increase in autism among those who vaccinate on the normal schedule, so if nothing else, the antigen load is definitely not the issue.
2. Vaccines cause autism
This myth started some time in the 1990s and was pushed along by a paper that Andrew Wakefield published in 1998 that tied the MMR vaccine to autism. However, in the past 15 years, his research has been both discredited (particularly since Wakefield had a patent for a new MMR vaccine that would theoretically be free from the issues “causing” autism and thus had major, major personal interest in finding that link) and proven incorrect several times over. You can read more about both the flaws in his research as well as other studies disproving it here, but it should be noted that since Wakefield published his research, all the other authors have recanted, the journal published a retraction, and Wakefield lost his medical license.
One major reason this myth continues to circulate is because we don’t know what causes autism, but there has been a sharp increase in the past few decades. The onset of autism is around the same age as the MMR vaccination which is definitely troubling, but the timing has been shown to be coincidental. It’s a bit like saying that starting high school causes breasts to grow, but we know logically that there’s no causation between those two, and in the same way, there’s no causation with vaccines and autism. Since Wakefield’s (retracted) study, there have been a multitude of studies conducted on this topic that have shown that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. The scientific community continues to study both vaccines and autism closely, but they can only duplicate the same study so many times and for now they have good evidence that this myth is false.
3. Vaccines are a money making scheme for pharmaceutical companies and physicians.
There’s no question that pharmaceutical companies are for-profit agencies, and in that way, and combined with the sheer volume of vaccines given, I can understand why some parents question whether vaccines are a scheme. I am not going to say, in any way, that pharmaceutical companies are making vaccines out of the goodness of their hearts, but it’s not the money making situation you may think.
Vaccines are only used a few times over the course of a person’s life time as opposed to other medications which are used daily or more frequently and often for years at a time. The cost of producing them is pretty significant, especially given that companies pay an incredible amount of liability insurance to produce them, as compared with other drugs. Producing the pnumococcal vaccine brings in $1 billion per year, which is not a small amount. But consider other drugs – the annual revenue for the medicine Lipitor is more than the entire world’s yearly vaccine revenue. Additionally, many vaccines have been purchased or have price freezes dictated by the government, which reduces the amount of revenue that can be raised by big pharma for creating vaccines. The point of this is to say that pharmaceutical companies stand to make a whole lot more money by treating preventable diseases than by preventing them.
For the physician side of this myth, I don’t have any facts or figures for you, however, I’m married to one and if you legitimately feel that your physician is recommending you vaccinate for their own monetary gain, I strongly suggest you find a new physician because you have a bad one.
4. Vaccines are 100% effective
I know that many of us vaccinate our kids and assume they’re completely protected until their next booster, but science shows us that that isn’t entirely the case. Each person’s immune system responds to vaccines a little differently, and for a variety of reasons, some people do not develop immunity to the diseases they’re being vaccinated against.
The current vaccinations produce immunity in 85 to 95 percent of children, but since we all know about the need for boosters, it’s pretty clear that this immunity does not last forever and for some children (and adults) it never develops at all. Scientists are still investigating exactly why some people don’t become immune following vaccination, but just like how some people got the chicken pox more than once in childhood, some people just don’t seem to be able to retain their immunity. Occasionally, children who do not respond to vaccines have an underlying immune system disorder or another systemic condition that results in decreased reactivity. But to cut to the chase, vaccines are not 100% effective and this is a major reason why we need herd immunity – to protect those who cannot develop their own immunity.
5. Vaccinated kids are the ones who are spreading the current outbreaks of measles and pertussis.
This is actually one I’ve heard a few times recently with the outbreaks of pertussis and measles in the United States. I do have some anecdotal evidence that disproves this myth on its own, but for the purpose of being as unbiased as possible and using actual statistics, I’ll keep that to myself.
Because we know that vaccines are not 100% effective, there are occasions where vaccinated individuals have caught and transmitted a vaccine-preventable disease to others, but the claim that they are the ones responsible for recent outbreaks doesn’t really hold water with what has been found. The CDC looked at the measles cases in 2013 and found that 82% of those with measles were unvaccinated, 8% were vaccinated, and 9% had an unknown vaccination status. Of those who were unvaccinated and caught measles, 13% were infants who were too young to be vaccinated and who are most at risk for significant consequences. It’s pretty clear that it wasn’t the vaccinated kids who were spreading the disease in this particular case.
6. Unvaccinated kids present no danger to vaccinated kids
I’ve been asked on several occasions, why as the mother of a child who is being vaccinated, I care about another child’s vaccination status, and the answer is complicated. First, and I’ll stop beating this dead horse soon, vaccines are not 100% effective, so even if my child is vaccinated, there’s a chance he may not have developed immunity (especially for those diseases that he has only received one shot for so far).
The other reason this is a myth is because most of the more dangerous illnesses are the most risky for those who cannot be vaccinated. In particular, infants cannot be vaccinated for pertussis until 2 months of age and while pertussis is really unpleasant in adults and older children, it is truly deadly in very young babies. The reason that unvaccinated kids present a danger to vaccinated kids is because most young children are not fully vaccinated and therefore are still at risk, because we cannot be completely sure that every vaccinated child is immune to diseases, and very young babies and pregnant women are particularly susceptible to these diseases, which are more likely to be transmitted by unvaccinated children and adults.
7. Vaccines are completely safe
Amoxicillin is one of the most basic and frequently prescribed medications in the world, but that doesn’t mean that some people won’t respond negatively to it. In the same way, even though vaccines are very safe, they are not completely without side effects. And if you have a child who has been vaccinated, chances are you’ve seen some of these effects in person.
For us, each round of vaccines brought a brief period of increased fussiness and on several occasions, a low grade fever. Each vaccine carries different risks and side effects, and while it is incredibly rare, some of these are serious. The CDC has a comprehensive list of side effects for each vaccine if you are looking for more information. If your child has had a reaction to a vaccine in the past, you should talk with your doctor about how to proceed with future vaccines.
8. If you live in the US, there’s no need to vaccinate for everything
This is actually a myth I heard just this week. The origin is pretty easy to see: the US no longer sees certain diseases — particularly Polio — and has exceedingly low rates of other diseases, so it makes sense to think that a child doesn’t really need these vaccines. But, like the 7 items before it, this is a myth.
The World Health Organization reports that in 2012 there were 223 reported cases of Polio in the world, which represents a 99% decrease since 1988, thanks in large part to vaccinations. Most of us aren’t sending our children across the globe on a regular basis where they would come into contact with Polio, but that doesn’t mean your neighbor isn’t, or that people from countries where Polio continues to be endemic aren’t going to come to the United States, which means that the risk of Polio is not yet gone. The CDC addresses this particular myth, saying, “Failure to eradicate polio from these last remaining strongholds could result in as many as 200,000 new cases every year, within 10 years, all over the world.” Yes, your child is relatively safe in the United States, but the risk of a resurgence of Polio is still very much alive and not something to be ignored, especially considering that Polio most frequently hits children under 5, and 1 in 200 cases result in irreversible paralysis.
9. Vaccines are filled with toxic chemicals that are more harmful than helpful.
This is another myth that I completely understand the concern over. Historically, vaccines have contained a variety of substances — Thimerisol, Mercury, Aluminum, and other preservatives — all of which seem really frightening when we consider injecting them into our children. There is a good explanation here of what preservatives can be found in vaccines and why, as well as good information about the concerns about thimerisol, but I think it’s really important to keep in mind the quantities of these substances that we’re talking about here.
The most formaldehyde-y vaccine is the adult Tetanus/Diptheria booster, which contains, at max, .1mg of formaldehyde, which isn’t something to ignore, but consider also that a pear has up to 600 times more formaldehyde than a vaccine and that the American diet contains 10 to 20mg of formaldehyde on its own, so that number isn’t terribly concerning. Additionally, an adult liver can metabolize 22g of formaldehyde in a single minute directly into carbon dioxide, so .1mg of formaldehyde from a vaccine isn’t the most formaldehyde you’re likely to put in your body on any given day and most likely, your body is more than able to process and eliminate it.
Aluminum is another area of concern for many parents. According to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, breastfed infants consume 7mg of aluminum per 32oz of milk, formula fed infants 38mg per 32oz of formula, and soy formula fed infants 117mg of aluminum per 32oz. These same infants will receive up to 4.4mg of aluminum in their first 6 months of life if they receive the normal vaccine load. I don’t want to gloss over the obvious difference between ingesting something and having it injected into you, but keep in mind that vaccines are not injected directly into one’s bloodstream and that the body has a variety of ways of breaking down these substances, whether in the gut (where many substances move to the bloodstream) or in the thigh musculature. The risk of the vaccine-preventable diseases is considerably greater than the risk of the very small quantities of the preservatives in them.
10. Vaccines give you the disease they are supposed to protect against.
When you consider that vaccines contain remnants of the disease you’re trying to prevent, it can be scary to consider injecting an infant with these vaccines, and to be completely truthful, this myth is only partially false.
The vast majority of vaccines are made with inactivated viruses, which absolutely cannot give you the diseases they’re protecting against. Inactivated viruses lack the ability to mutate and multiply, which would be required to cause illness in someone who received the vaccine. Currently, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, yellow fever, and flu vaccines are inactivated vaccines, meaning that they cannot cause you to contract the disease(s).
There is a second type of vaccine called a subunit vaccine. Subunit vaccines really live true to their name and only contain small components of vaccines, which means they do not carry a risk of causing the disease and overall tend to have fewer side effects. Currently, diptheria, HPV, hepatitis B, meningococcal disease, pertussis, penumococcal disease, and tetanus are all subunit vaccines.
A final type of vaccine is a live attenuated vaccine, which means that the virus has been weakened so that on its own, it cannot cause disease. However, an attenuated pathogen is able to mutate and can in some cases cause disease. This risk is low in healthy individuals, but must be considered if vaccinating someone with a compromised immune system. Currently, the nasal spray influenza, hepatitis A, Japanese encaphalitis, one version of the Polio vaccine, and the rabies vaccine are all live attenuated vaccines.
11. Absolutely everyone should get vaccines.
While it is in most people’s interests to promote vaccines for the public at large, there are absolutely several groups of people who should not receive at least some of the vaccines. For example, sick children should never be vaccinated and those who have had a severe reaction to a vaccine in the past may not be recommended to repeat that vaccine in the future. Other groups who would not be recommended to receive a particular vaccine include: those allergic to any of the components, pregnant women, those with a history of Guillan-Barre Syndrome, those with HIV or AIDS, those being currently treated for cancer, or babies who have had intussescption.
If you have any questions about whether or not you or your child should receive a vaccine, make an appointment to talk to your doctor about your concerns.