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The biggest vaccination myths, busted

6 minute read
Doctor tending to patient's arm after having a needle.

It’s natural to want to do the right thing by your kids, which includes questioning what’s best for their health. At a time when there is so much misinformation circulating online about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, you might be second-guessing whether you’re making the right decision by immunising your child (or yourself).

With a 2018 Australian survey finding that just over 1 in 8 people believe parents should be able to choose not to vaccinate their kids, it’s clear there’s still some confusion around just how important and life-saving vaccines can be. So let’s separate fact from fiction and take a balanced look at some of the most common vaccination myths.

Myth #1: Vaccinations can cause autism

You’ve probably heard this one before – the suggested link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and increased risk of autism is probably the biggest reason parents give for not vaccinating their children.

This concern grew out of publicity around two flawed, and now widely discredited studies published in 1998 and 2002. Research so flawed the lead author was subsequently banned from practising medicine in Britain.

Since then, several studies have disproved the idea that MMR vaccination causes autism. In fact, we now have the results of a very large study (657,461 children) in Denmark, which compared children vaccinated with MMR with non-vaccinated children. The study found no increased risk of autism in the vaccinated children, so there really isn’t any evidence to support a link between this vaccine and autism.

Myth #2: Natural immunity is better

We’re taught that natural is best, but is that the case when it comes to our immunity? To answer that question, let’s explore what natural immunity is and how you get it.

When you’re exposed to a disease, your immune system should produce antibodies to the virus or bacterium that causes the disease, to protect you next time you contract it. While natural immunity mostly produces stronger immunity than vaccines, and may even last longer, there are undeniable risks involved.

Here are some of the possible complications you would be up for from some common diseases:

  • Chickenpox: 1 in 1,000 cases will develop encephalitis (swelling of the brain) and infection during pregnancy can result in birth defects.
  • Meningococcal meningitis: 5-10% of cases will end in a fatality.
  • Measles: Australia’s vaccination rates for measles have been good up to now, but in the United States 1 or 2 out of 1,000 cases will end in a fatality, even with the best care.

Even if you survive the infection unscathed, natural immunity only protects you from the strain of bacteria or virus you were infected with. Whereas vaccines are often formulated to protect against multiple strains of a disease – all in one dose.

Someone wiping arm with alcohol wipe after having a needle.

Myth #3: Vaccinations cause the targeted disease

Vaccines are designed to stimulate your immune system to produce immunity by mimicking an infection. With a vaccine, you’re getting an immune response in your body, almost always without the illness and the risks that go with it.

Vaccines are formulated to contain either dead versions or weakened live versions of the bacteria or viruses that cause a disease. Vaccines containing dead versions (called “killed vaccines” or “inactivated vaccines”) can’t cause the disease.

Vaccines containing weakened live versions (called “live attenuated” vaccines) may rarely cause the disease, but are designed so that they don’t cause serious disease in healthy people. These vaccines are very effective at producing strong and long-lasting immunity because they are closest to the real thing.

Sometimes, you may experience minor symptoms after a vaccination, such as fever or soreness at the vaccination site. But this doesn’t mean you’ve got the targeted disease.

Myth #4: Vaccines carry too high a risk of side effects

There’s no denying that vaccines, like other medical treatments, may have side effects. The most common side effects after a vaccination are soreness at the injection site, mild fever, headache, shivering, muscle or joint pains, and tiredness.

In Australia, all reported information on adverse events after vaccination is collected, monitored, and published each year. The majority of side effects reported are mild and short-lived and defined as ‘non-serious’.

Myth #5: Healthy people aren’t at risk of the disease, anyway

Not so fast. Everyone who isn’t vaccinated is at risk of catching an infectious disease – healthy or not. Plus, it’s not all about you. Vaccination works at the population level, which is called herd immunity.

When a high proportion of a population is vaccinated against an infectious disease, it’s very hard for that disease to spread. Many of the people it encounters are protected by vaccination, so the disease doesn’t penetrate as far into the community and fewer people are exposed. Herd immunity can protect those of us who aren’t vaccinated for medical reasons – like very young babies, people on chemotherapy and those with an impaired immune system.

The more contagious the disease, the higher vaccination coverage we need in the population to give us herd immunity. Measles, for example, needs 92-94% vaccination rates. When herd immunity breaks down, often due to complacency or anti-vaccination sentiment, we see diseases coming back that we had previously eliminated.

So, if you choose not to be vaccinated or not to vaccinate your children, it’s not just a personal thing – you’re affecting others in the community.

Myth #6: The disease isn’t serious enough to be vaccinated for

Unfortunately, because we aren’t seeing infectious diseases such as measles, mumps and polio anymore (thank you, widespread vaccination programs), we seem to be experiencing a collective memory failure about the dangers of the diseases.

Take measles for example. Endemic measles was eliminated from Australia in the past 20 years, and we weren’t seeing many cases of measles – until recent times, that is. During the first quarter of 2019, we have seen a large number of cases including in babies too young to be vaccinated.

Measles is highly infectious, and often causes complications, including ear infections, bronchitis, pneumonia (1 in 15 children) and encephalitis – swelling of the brain (1 in 1,000 children). Measles can also be fatal. Roald Dahl penned an emotive letter about his daughter Olivia, who died from the disease when she was just seven years old.

Like measles, all the diseases included in vaccination programs are there because they can have serious or deadly consequences.

We understand it can be hard to make sense of all the available information about vaccination. It’s an emotive topic, but hopefully, we’ve debunked some of the most common myths. Remember, vaccination is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones from serious infectious diseases. If you want to discuss your concerns, or the pros and cons of vaccinations, make sure to talk to your doctor.

If you’re thinking about having a baby, or if you’re currently expecting, check out our guide to the vaccinations you’ll need during pregnancy.

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