Vaccines: Understanding the Facts, Dispelling Myths
Vaccines have been a remarkable achievement in the fields of medicine and public health, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent waves of misinformation have led to unwarranted concerns about vaccines. That’s why we’ve put together a one-stop destination for all you need to know about immunizations so you can feel confident in protecting your health.
Why Vaccines Are Important
Vaccines have been a medical miracle for more than 200 years, saving more lives than possibly any other medical development in history. They are critical not just for our children but for our community as a whole. When more people get vaccinated, we all become safer.
The Challenge of Vaccine Hesitancy
Recently, the conversation around vaccines has taken a worrying turn. Misinformation has led to growing skepticism, particularly among parents. This skepticism is not just a threat to those who go unvaccinated; it puts everyone at risk. That’s why it’s crucial for those who support vaccines to be informed about the science and public health benefits.
This guide contains current information and resources on vaccine safety, explains the importance of vaccines to everyone in a community, and provides information on how to counter the growing ignorance about vaccines that is now threatening public health in your community and around the world.
Jump to the section:
1. Vaccines emphasize prevention over treatment.
The goal of medicine has always been to cure disease. But preventing it in the first place is even better. Unlike medications that are prescribed once someone is sick, vaccines help prevent specific illnesses from occurring in the first place. Like exercising and eating healthy, getting vaccinated is preventive care taken to avoid disease. Vaccines are one of the most convenient, effective, and safest preventive care measures available, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
Vaccines help prevent the specific diseases that they are designed to prevent. Getting vaccinated against measles, for example, almost completely eliminates the risk of getting that disease or infection. As a bonus, many vaccines protect against more than the specific infection they’re designed to prevent:
The HPV (Human Papillomavirus)
The HPV vaccine, for example, protects against some forms of HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection. But HPV is also associated with certain cancers. Vaccination against HPV prevents not just infection with the virus, but also the future risk of certain cancers, including cancer of the cervix, vagina, penis, anus, and oropharynx (back of the throat, including the base of the tongue and tonsils). Almost all cervical cancer is caused by HPV infection.
The hepatitis B vaccine protects against the hepatitis B virus — and also prevents a lifetime of chronic liver infections and/or liver cancer that can result from that infection.
The influenza vaccine protects against flu and also reduces the risk of pneumonia, an even more serious respiratory illness that can sometimes be a complication of flu infection. (There is also a pneumonia vaccine, but it’s generally recommended only for people over age 65 or those with compromised immune systems who would be at great risk from a pneumonia infection.)
RSV is a common respiratory virus that can cause serious illness, including pneumonia and bronchiolitis. This is the leading cause of hospitalization for infants in the United States. It can also cause serious illness in older adults, especially those with chronic health conditions.RSV vaccines can help to prevent severe respiratory illness caused by RSV.
In clinical trials, RSV vaccines have been shown to be safe and effective in reducing the risk of hospitalization and other serious complications from RSV infection.
The COVID-19 vaccines, which were developed in record time to combat the global pandemic, provide a prime example of the importance of prevention, especially in people with chronic diseases. These vaccines have been shown to be highly effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization, and death due to COVID-19, thereby serving as a cornerstone in controlling the pandemic.
2. Vaccines have saved millions of lives.
Vaccines protect entire populations by targeting diseases that cause illness or complications, or even result in death. Millions of people are protected from illness because of them.
In the United States, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that childhood vaccines will prevent an estimated 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths in children.
Most of the diseases for which children now receive vaccines have been reduced by more than 90 percent. In some cases the diseases have been eliminated or reduced by 99 percent.
There is a deadly cost to avoiding vaccinations. According to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, each year in the United States about 50,000 adults die from diseases that could have been prevented by vaccination.
3. Vaccines protect more than just those who are vaccinated.
Vaccines protect the children and adults who receive them as well as others in the community who have medical issues that may prevent them from being vaccinated.
People who visit a pediatric cancer treatment facility, for example, must have received a flu vaccine before they are allowed to enter. That’s because children being treated for cancer aren’t always able to receive vaccines. They’re dependent on everyone around them to be vaccinated in order to prevent the spread of disease and risk their already fragile lives.
The same is true outside of hospitals as well, where there are people in the community who can’t be vaccinated. The chickenpox and measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccines are recommended for children between 12 and 15 months old, so babies younger than that are vulnerable. Anyone who has had a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine may not be able to get that vaccine again. People who are sick at the time they’re supposed to be vaccinated may have to wait until they recover to receive the vaccine, depending on the severity of their symptoms.
Vaccines are one way that people in a community take care of themselves and of those around them. Being immunized is part self-protection and part of being civic-minded.
That is why it is so important for as many people as possible to receive recommended immunizations. And that is why it is so troubling that there has been a recent increase in people reacting to misinformation and becoming suspicious of vaccines. This unfounded fear — dubbed vaccine hesitancy — has already resulted in significant outbreaks of measles around America. Measles is not a harmless childhood illness. It is a very dangerous and contagious disease. Symptoms can be severe and include pneumonia, hearing loss, brain damage, and even death.
4. Vaccines have transformed public health around the world.
We take for granted the health we enjoy because of how many diseases have been eradicated or controlled by widespread vaccination programs.
Smallpox, the only disease ever eradicated worldwide, was eradicated using a vaccine. Vaccines have nearly succeeded in eradicating polio, a devastating virus that affects the spinal cord and brain, causing paralysis. Edward Jenner, the British physician and scientist who in 1796 developed the world’s first vaccine (against smallpox) is sometimes considered to have saved more lives than any other person in history.
The word vaccine actually comes from Dr. Jenner’s term for cowpox, a livestock disease related to human smallpox. More recently Maurice Hilleman, PhD, (1919-2005), an American microbiologist who developed more than 40 different vaccines, has been said to have saved more lives than any other scientist of the 20th century. Of the 14 immunizations that are routinely recommended on U.S. vaccine schedules for children, Dr. Hilleman developed eight of them, including measles, mumps, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, chickenpox, meningitis, pneumonia, and influenza. In some ways, vaccines have been a victim of their own success.
It’s easier to believe that something is unnecessary when there’s no memory of how much worse life was like before it existed. It’s hard to imagine anyone who can recall friends or family members with polio trapped in iron lungs for survival choosing to opt out of receiving the polio vaccine. But, tragically, vaccine hesitancy is changing all of this.
After years in which most young U.S. doctors had never seen a case of measles, there have been over 1,200 measles cases reported in the United States from January to October 2019 — the worst outbreak since 1992. A recent measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest in 2019 included at least 101 cases. There were more than 600 confirmed cases of measles in New York City between September 2018 and August 2019. To put that in perspective: In 1941 there were almost 900,000 cases of measles in the United States. In the year 2000 there were only 86. It is very worrisome that the number of measles cases has begun to climb.
Debunking The Dangers of Vaccines
Anyone with school-age children has likely heard other parents’ objections to having their child vaccinated. That misguided decision puts many people at risk. It is important for you to be armed with facts in order to counter those objections and misconceptions.
Here are some common reasons people give for avoiding vaccines — and why they’re wrong.
Myth: You can get sick from a vaccine.
Vaccines are safe and effective for most people. However, some people may experience mild side effects, such as redness or swelling at the injection site, a low-grade fever, drowsiness, and/or rash. These typically go away on their own in a day or two. These minor reactions do not mean that a vaccine has caused illness.
Myth: Vaccines can cause autism and other illnesses and disabilities.
There is no scientific evidence to support this claim. The original research that suggested this link has been more than just rejected — it’s been labeled as falsified and fabricated data. The author himself has come forward to denounce the research.
All vaccines have gone through rigorous clinical trials. They have all withstood the strict regulations set by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). All vaccines have been scientifically deemed safe and there is no sufficient evidence to suggest otherwise. This includes the misbelief that vaccines cause autism or that vaccines can overwhelm a child’s immune system.
The anti-vaccine movement that spreads this misinformation is a highly effective interest group that is not supported by scientists and public health experts.
Myth: If most people get vaccinated and most of these diseases have been reduced so much already, then it’s not necessary to risk having my child vaccinated.
While vaccines have reduced most vaccine-preventable diseases to very low levels in many countries, including the United States, there are still some diseases that are prevalent or even epidemic in some parts of the world. People who travel may unknowingly transport disease from one country to another. Without proper vaccination, such diseases can quickly spread.
Vaccines work through herd immunity — which means that unless at least 95 percent of a population is protected against a specific disease, there may be outbreaks of that illness, which can quickly spread. That is what has been happening recently with measles in the United States. That is why it is crucial that everyone who can be vaccinated stay up to date with vaccines — to protect themselves from illness and to protect more vulnerable members of the community who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. That is the only way to make vaccine-preventable diseases disappear.
Myth: It should be a parents’ choice whether to vaccinate their child.
There are some things considered so important for the public health of society as a whole that they are required of everybody living in that society. Children have to wear seatbelts or use a child safety seat while in a car. They have to wear helmets when riding a bicycle. Parents can’t decide not to secure their children in car seats just because they disagree with those laws.
Vaccines fall into this category. They are so essential to public health that they are required. Not vaccinating children puts those children plus everyone else in a community at risk.
Myth: Some vaccines, like the flu vaccine, don’t work very well, so there’s really no point.
Like other medications, vaccines are carefully regulated and not able to enter the market unless they’re deemed significantly effective. Years of research are needed to prove that the drug or vaccine works.
The FDA has extremely stringent rules and regulations to ensure that only effective and safe drugs enter the market. This is one of the reasons it takes years — 10 years or more on average — for prescription medications and vaccines to become widely available and why only one in 5,000 new drugs makes it to the market.
The flu vaccine is a slightly different case, since it must be reformulated every year to respond to global flu virus trends. Each year scientists monitor flu outbreaks around the world to try and predict which viral strains will pose a threat in their countries.
They formulate the vaccine for that year to counter those specific strains of the virus. Some years the predictions are more accurate than others, and the vaccine is more effective. The flu vaccine’s effectiveness also depends on the age and health status of the person getting the vaccine. In fact, stronger doses are recommended for people over 65, to spark a stronger immune response.
But getting the flu vaccine, as long as there are no medical contraindications, is always a wise choice. Even when the match between the vaccine and the viruses in circulation is less than ideal, getting vaccinated generally results in a milder case of illness if a vaccinated person is exposed to the flu.
Remember, the flu is not just a bad cold. The flu is a potentially deadly illness. The CDC estimates that in 2016-2017, the flu vaccine prevented an estimated 5.3 million influenza illnesses, 2.6 million flu-related medical visits, and 85,000 flu-related hospitalizations in the United States.
Concern: I’m not anti-vaccine, but I don’t think my child should get combination vaccines or get so many different vaccines at the same time.
The U.S. CDC vaccine schedule recommended for children has been carefully developed with scientific trials to identify the most effective and safe way to protect children. Scientific evidence supports the idea that simultaneous vaccination with multiple vaccines has no adverse effect on the normal childhood immune system. These vaccines cannot overwhelm the immune system.
The decision to space them out differently than the medically recommended schedule is a bad idea. Research shows that inappropriately spacing out or delaying vaccinations can be problematic because it means there’s a bigger window of time when a child is unprotected. Spacing out vaccines does not protect children. It actually puts them at greater risk of disease.
Informed Immunity: A Guide to Vaccines for the Chronic Illness Community
Tune in to empower your health decisions with evidence-based vaccine insights, especially for people living with chronic illness. Listen now.