From pertussis in local schools to measles at Disneyland, the United States has recently seen a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases. Many of these outbreaks begin and spread primarily among unvaccinated individuals. But why do some people choose not to vaccinate their children? For many people, the decision not to vaccinate is based on beliefs in some common myths about vaccine safety and effectiveness. So, here we are going to address five of the most common myths about childhood vaccines and give you the truth about these life-saving shots.
Myth 1: The MMR vaccine causes autism.
This is probably the number one myth about childhood vaccines and it is 100 percent false. It stems from a 1998 article in The Lancet in which one of the authors claimed that the MMR vaccine contributed to autism. Naturally, this news spread like wildfire and suddenly, parents the world over were refusing to vaccinate their kids. Sadly, after this myth had spread, we learned that there were both ethical and factual problems with the study. Numerous studies involving hundreds of thousands of individuals have repeatedly failed to find any evidence that vaccines cause autism. So while the verdict is still out on what causes autism, we can be very comfortable saying that vaccines are not to blame.
Myth 2: The mercury in vaccines is dangerous.
Many childhood vaccines used to contain a small amount of a mercury-based preservative called thimerosal, used for decades to keep vaccine vials free from contamination. In the 1990s, concerned that thimerosal could be a cause of autism, some people pushed for the removal of all mercury from vaccines. After all, weren’t we advised to limit fish consumption due to mercury contamination? But the concerns were misplaced. The mercury in thimerosal is different from the type found in fish. Thimerosal is completely eliminated from the body, and it is not associated with mercury poisoning. Still, to allay fears, thimerosal was removed from virtually all childhood vaccines by 2001. Numerous studies since then have failed to find any association between thimerosal and autism. In fact, there is evidence that autism rates have continued to climb after thimerosal’s removal from vaccines.
Myth 3: Too many vaccines, too soon.
“We used to have far fewer vaccines, and far less ADD and autism. Nowadays we give too many vaccines, too soon.” Here’s another popular myth, and one of the reasons that the so-called “alternative vaccine schedule” has become so popular. Unfortunately, failing to vaccinate your child based on the CDC’s recommended schedule is not only dangerous, it is also not evidence-based. Our vaccines today are much purer than those of the past; so while the number of vaccines may have increased, the number of antigens (the proteins the body reacts to in creating immunity) has decreased. In making its vaccine recommendations, the CDC considers both the safest and the most effective time for each vaccine to be administered. You can be sure that the current schedule is safe, and with the exception of extremely unusual cases (such as rare mitochondrial defects), babies are more than capable of handling several vaccines at once. It’s also worth noting that one case of a vaccine-preventable disease such as measles exposes your body to tens of millions of times more foreign protein than all of our vaccines put together.
Myth 4: Childhood vaccines are not 100 percent effective, so why bother?
Vaccines may not be perfect, but they are very effective. Even if your child does get sick despite being vaccinated, the vaccine often makes illness less severe. Even more important, vaccines are important in reducing the overall presence of disease in your community because the higher the vaccination rate, the lower the rates of that particular illness in your community. But this concept of “herd immunity” only works if enough people get vaccinated. When you vaccinate your child, you are not only protecting your own baby, you are also offering protection to others who can’t be vaccinated.
Myth 5: Vaccine-preventable illnesses aren’t that serious.
Vaccines are a victim of their own success—because they have so successfully limited diseases such as measles and polio, many people have forgotten just how much misery and death these diseases caused. Before the MMR vaccine, measles infected 3 to 4 million Americans annually, of whom approximately 500 died. During the 1940s and 1950s, polio is estimated to have caused paralysis in thousands of people annually. Before the Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine, 20,000 children under age 5 were made very seriously ill each year, sometimes suffering a complication that caused the child’s throat to swell shut (epiglottis) or meningitis that resulted in permanent impairment or death. And, prior to the chickenpox vaccine, nearly 4 million people got the chickenpox annually, and over 10,000 people were hospitalized each year. Those don’t sound like very benign diseases, do they?
So there you have it. Vaccines are safe. They are effective. And they can save your child’s life or the life of someone in your community.
For the full recommended immunization schedule for children, teens, and adults, visit the CDC website.