Vaccinations save millions of lives annually and are widely accepted by the scientific community as safe and effective. Still, in recent years the anti-vaccine movement has used social media with great skill to propagate misinformation. The dissemination of this misinformation has been linked to severe illness and even death in children. Public education about the role of vaccines is critical in preventing future tragedies and preserving public health.
Myth #1: Vaccines cause autism
The myth that vaccines cause autism can be traced back to a now-retracted article published in The Lancet in 1998, which specifically focused on the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The principal author of that paper, British physician Andrew Wakefield, was stripped of his medical license after investigative reports by journalist Brian Deer uncovered multiple ethics violations in the research. Wakefield was found to have misrepresented and fabricated data and to have selected study participants with pre-existing conditions. Most notably, perhaps, Wakefield was paid over half a million dollars by lawyers suing the vaccine manufacturers. Despite the article’s retraction, however, the damage had already been done. Although numerous studies have found no causal link between vaccines and autism, anti-vaccine groups continue to circulate their debunked claims.
Myth #2: Natural Immunity is better than vaccine-induced immunity
In nature, long-lasting immunity can result from exposure to infectious agents. Thanks to the advent and widespread use of vaccines, we have been able to achieve comparable immunity to a variety of diseases through inoculations. Before vaccination, diseases that are currently preventable, such as diphtheria, smallpox, and other major scourges of the past, caused enormous amounts of sickness, disability, and death. If people survived these illnesses, however, they often developed a natural immunity that prevented them from getting the same disease again.
In contrast, vaccines work by introducing to the body weakened or partial components of an infectious agent sufficient to stimulate an immune response. As a result, the body generates cellular and chemical defenses without actually having the illness, therefore avoiding the risks and negative outcomes associated with vaccine-preventable diseases. While arising from a different source, vaccine-acquired immunity is much more favorable to natural immunity in protecting people’s health.
Myth #3: Vaccine ingredients are unsafe and toxic
Over a billion vaccines are produced every year and distributed around the world. Almost all of them contain ingredients that each serve a specific purpose in their respective vaccines. Some of these ingredients are preservatives that prevent contamination, others are adjuvants that help stimulate a strong immune response, etc. Although there has been some fear of the ingredients in vaccines, the FDA requires that every vaccine undergo an exhaustive process to ensure efficacy and safety before licensure. This process can take several years and when it subsequently reaches the market, it is continuously monitored by the FDA, CDC, NIH, and WHO. This level of supervision assures that usage of vaccines stays extremely safe.
Myth #4: Vaccines aren’t necessary because the diseases are so rare
Many may believe that vaccines are unnecessary because the diseases they prevent have become so rare. However, these illnesses are often rare because of the success of vaccines. For example, prior to the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, it is estimated that nearly all children in the U.S. contracted measles before reaching the age of 15, with millions of cases every year. But as the numbers of cases decreased due to the success of the measles vaccine, parents stopped viewing measles as a threat. As more and more refused to have their children vaccinated, outbreaks became inevitable—and these rare diseases reemerge in force.
In December 2014, a measles outbreak began in Disneyland and ultimately sickened 131 California residents. It also spread to residents of six other states, as well as Mexico and Canada. Luckily, no one was reported to have died from the outbreak. However, measles infection can “erase” the immune system’s memory even if a person recovers, leaving them once again vulnerable to previous infections. Even though these people have recovered from the disease, they still suffer consequences. This episode demonstrates how vaccines protect not only individuals but also whole populations--by ensuring that outbreaks don’t happen in the first place.
All in all, vaccines save lives. It is a disservice to both oneself and to our shared community to refuse a vaccine due to information that is not rooted in scientific evidence. Collectively we must do our best to rely on studies and research to protect ourselves and our communities. Hopefully, these busted myths help set the record straight about vaccine efficacy and safety!