The truth about immunization: countering the myths
School is starting soon, and many parents and caregivers are making sure that their children’s immunizations are up-to-date.
Vaccinating kids is good parenting and good medicine. It’s often said that universal vaccination against major childhood illnesses is one of the crowning public health achievements of our time.
Immunization not only protects the person who gets the vaccine. It also interrupts the transmission of contagious diseases, so that everyone benefits.
Many killer diseases that were once common fixtures in childhood have nearly vanished in the United States because parents and caregivers take the time to immunize their kids. Millions of us are alive, and living without disability, because safe and effective vaccines given in childhood are protecting our community 24/7 against age-old epidemic diseases.
But despite the success of vaccination in the conquest of disease, misconceptions about immunization persist. A small but vocal number of people opposed to immunization have planted seeds of doubt in the minds of some parents with misleading statements and outright falsehoods.
Let’s examine three common myths about immunization and set the record straight:
— Myth #1. Vaccines don’t work. Most people who get diseases covered by vaccines were vaccinated. Sure enough, when outbreaks of highly contagious diseases like measles and mumps occur, investigations show that most cases crop up in vaccinated people. This doesn’t mean that vaccines aren’t highly effective.
This apparent paradox has a simple explanation: No vaccine is 100 percent effective. When many thousands of people receive a vaccine, a few will not develop immunity for reasons related to the individual. In a country like ours where the vast majority of people are immunized, these “vaccine failures” will actually outnumber the people who skip immunization altogether.
Let’s say a highly contagious infection is introduced in a school with 1000 kids, of whom 995 were properly immunized with a vaccine that is 99 percent effective. The five kids who weren’t vaccinated will get the disease, but so will 10 kids who were vaccinated.
So two-thirds of the kids in this outbreak (10 out of 15) were actually vaccinated. What you don’t hear is that 985 kids at this school escaped infection altogether because they were immunized.
— Myth #2. Vaccines aren’t safe. They cause many harmful side effects. Among the billions of people who have received vaccines in recent decades, adverse effects following immunization have inevitably been reported. Sometimes these reports have resulted in the withdrawal of a vaccine from routine use, until a safer alternative is developed.
But don’t be misled. The vaccines we use today are all very safe. Most adverse reactions are minor and temporary, such as a mild fever or a sore arm. Serious side effects are extremely rare, on the order of one case in several thousand or even a million doses.
The risk of serious harm from vaccination is so small that it cannot be measured exactly, but it is thousands of times lower than the risk of serious harm from the disease itself. Of course, any serious injury due to a vaccine is one too many, but the benefits of vaccination in preventing injuries and deaths greatly outweigh the very slight risks.
In a related concern, some parents fear that giving a child multiple injections in a single visit could be harmful and might even overwhelm the immune system. The recommended schedule of childhood immunizations now includes vaccines that protect against 15 common infections, and many parents cringe at the sight of their children becoming human pin cushions.
Rest assured. The simultaneous administration of several vaccines at a single visit is tested for safety and effectiveness before medical authorities approve the recommended vaccine schedule. Our children are exposed to hundreds or thousands of foreign particles every day that stimulate the immune system. The added stimulus from multiple vaccines is well within the capacity of a healthy child’s immune system to respond safely.
— Myth #3. There is no need for vaccination, because these diseases have been eliminated from the United States. Here immunization opponents turn vaccination success against itself. It’s true that some unvaccinated kids can get away with no disease, thanks to the collective immunity of the majority whose parents do vaccinate.
But that’s a dangerous game. Today’s vaccine-preventable infections have not been eradicated worldwide, and all of these diseases could rapidly reassert themselves here if we let down our guard. It took only a few years for whooping cough to stage a deadly comeback in the United Kingdom and Japan in the 1970s, when immunization was halted in reaction to fears about vaccine safety.
— The bottom line: The vaccines recommended for children today are effective, safe and very much needed. Also needed is clear and emphatic guidance for parents and caregivers on the real risks and benefits of vaccinating their kids. When all the facts are known, I believe parents will make the right choice.
– Jason Eberhart-Phillips, M.D., is health officer for El Dorado County