The Top 10 Myths About Vaccinations, written by Dr Emma Scott
Over recent years the number of parents choosing not to vaccinate their children has been rising. Many parents are worried about the safety of vaccinations or have heard that alternatives, such as homeopathic remedies, are just as effective. Here are a few common myths about vaccination and the truth behind them.
Myth 1: Vaccination causes autism
This one has been around since the 90s when a flawed study suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccination. Lots of work has been done since then that disproves any connection between the two. The doctor responsible for the study lost his medical licence and the paper was discredited. Although the causes of autism still aren’t fully understood, it’s currently thought that changes associated with autism begin during pregnancy, long before the MMR is given!
Myth 2: It’s better to develop immunity by catching the disease
We are fortunate that vaccination has been so effective in preventing diseases that were once widespread, but one result is that many people don’t really understand how serious these infections can be. Measles remains a deadly infection, killing 134,200 people worldwide in 2015. Most of these deaths were in children under 5 years old, and many of these children would not have died had they been vaccinated. Vaccinating your child is far safer than allowing them to become infected.
Myth 3: Vaccination isn’t needed – people are healthier nowadays so their immune systems are stronger
Living standards and population health have improved significantly over the past 100 years and reduced the chances of dying from infectious diseases. However, immunity to specific diseases only develops through vaccination or exposure to the disease. Being generally healthy won’t prevent you from catching specific diseases or from developing complications. Vaccination is the safest and most effective way to protect against specific illnesses.
Myth 4: Vaccination overloads a baby’s immune system
The immune system has a vast capacity. By the time the first vaccinations are given, usually around 2 months of age, the immune system is mature enough to respond to the vaccines in addition to mounting a response to the many bacteria and viruses we encounter in day-to-day life. Testing shows that giving multiple vaccinations together is just as effective as giving vaccines separately, and it has the added benefit of reducing the number of injections given to your baby.
Myth 5: Breastfeeding protects against infection so breastfed babies don’t need vaccination
All babies acquire some immunity from their mothers during pregnancy. This protection starts to wear off over the first 4 months. Although it’s true that breastfeeding does allow antibodies to be passed from mother to baby, the levels of circulating antibodies to specific illnesses like whooping cough is quite low and not enough to protect the baby effectively. Additionally the antibodies transferred by breastfeeding do not provide lifelong immunity, unlike most of the vaccinations given during childhood.
Myth 6: Homeopathic vaccinations are safer and just as effective as conventional vaccinations
A wealth of evidence supports conventional vaccinations, proving their safety and efficacy. In contrast homeopathic alternatives are not backed up by research. The British Homeopathic Association recommends children should be vaccinated according to the schedule laid out by the department of health.
Myth 7: Vaccines contain toxic levels of mercury
None of the vaccinations given in the UK routine vaccination programme contain any mercury. In the past tiny amounts of mercury were used as a preservative in large vials of vaccines that were used to carry multiple doses of a vaccine. Nowadays vaccines are usually stored and administered from single-use vials, reducing the need for such preservatives.
Myth 8: Vaccinations can infect my child with the disease they are designed to prevent
The majority of vaccines are made using an inactivated form of the virus or bacteria that is no longer capable of causing infection. A few vaccinations are “live,” including the BCG and MMR. These vaccines contain a significantly weakened form of the infective agent; in a healthy person it wouldn’t be able to cause an illness but in someone with a poor immune system it might cause problems. For this reason, vaccination with live vaccines may not be suitable for some people and you should advise your health care provider of any illnesses prior to receiving a vaccination.
Myth 9: Vaccination isn’t effective at producing immunity – it’s a waste of time
It is true that some individuals don’t respond to some vaccinations. However, the majority of people do develop some immunity following vaccination. Most of the routine vaccines given in childhood have a response rate of 85 – 95%; meaning that up to 5 – 15% of children who receive the vaccination won’t develop full immunity. That’s why it’s important that everyone who’s eligible should be vaccinated. Where high levels of immunity exist, a community will be protected against outbreaks, as the disease will not spread so easily when the majority of the population are immune.
Myth 10: Vaccination isn’t needed anymore as the illnesses that are vaccinated against are so rare now, you’ll probably never come into contact with them
This just isn’t true. In recent years, where vaccination rates have fallen in the UK, there have been outbreaks of measles, and as vaccination rates fall across Europe the number of cases, and the number of fatalities from this disease has gone up. In many parts of the world illnesses such as polio are still quite common. Nowadays foreign travel is so common that even if you never plan to leave the UK there’s still a good chance that you could come into contact with somebody who has one of these illnesses and if you haven’t been immunised there’s a much higher risk of you becoming infected.
Dr Emma Scott (MBChB, MRCGP) is a qualified GP and mummy to two young children. She works in a GP practice in Edinburgh and in the out of hours GP service in Livingston and she has experience in both obstetrics & gynaecology and paediatrics.
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