Common Vaccination Myths Busted
Even if you know rationally that vaccines are important for kids' health, common myths about the risks of certain vaccinations can cause worry and stress. Learn the latest thinking about supposed vaccine dangers.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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New parents may be surprised by the vaccination schedule that infants and young children face. It doesn’t help that questions about vaccine dangers come up regularly in the headlines, cementing parents’ fears that there is a connection between vaccines and autism or other risks to their children.
Vaccines are so effective that parents no longer have to be terrified about the diseases they prevent — life-threatening outbreaks that are avoided through vaccination.
“Before vaccinations, polio would paralyze as many as 10,000 children in a given year,” says Zak Zarbock, MD, a pediatrician in private practice with Families First Pediatrics in South Jordan, Utah. “We would see measles affect as many as four million children, killing 3,000 a year. Haemophilus type B influenzae would cause meningitis in 15,000 children a year. Rubella caused birth defects in as many as 20,000 newborns.”
Thanks to vaccines, parents simply don’t live with the kind of life-and-death fear that previous generations knew.
On the other hand, it is difficult to know exactly how many parents are getting their children vaccinated according to current recommendations because not every provider in every state gives that information to a central vaccination registry.
Additionally, compliance varies by age and vaccination. For example, national data suggests that about 88 percent of 2-year-olds have received the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) combination vaccine. About 94 percent of 2-year-olds have received three doses of the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine and around 89 percent have had the varicella vaccination for chicken pox.
The fear that motivates parents to get their children vaccinated (or not) has changed, and it is related to many of these myths about vaccine dangers rather than the diseases they prevent:
- Myth: Vaccines cause autism.“It’s been very well-documented in hundreds of thousands of children that there is no relationship in the rate or risk of autism. Children of equal age that receive the vaccines and those that don’t, don’t show any difference” in autism risk,” says Dr. Zarbock. Nonetheless, he says questions about vaccines and autism continue to top the list of concerns that parents have. One way that parents cope with this fear is to research alternative vaccination schedules, spreading out the vaccinations. “Delaying vaccines only increases the risk of the many other serious diseases that can occur in childhood,” he warns.
- Myth: Too many vaccines overload the immune system.The vaccine schedule may seem intense to many parents, but the reality is that your child is fighting off infection all day, every day. The immune system is built to do that. There’s no reason to believe that vaccines as they are scheduled will overload the immune system.
- Myth: Vaccines cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or other behavioral problems.Zarbock says that occasionally parents ask him about any possible relationship between vaccination and behavioral problems and attention disorders. “In the studies that have been done, we just don’t know what causes a lot of those problems, but there certainly does not seem to be any connection with vaccines,” he says.
The Truth Behind Vaccination Myths
More common myths about vaccines:
- Myth: The “herd effect” will protect my child if I decide to skip vaccines.This is actually true — to an extent. “The herd effect is real. I think it’s a little bit selfish in that parents are taking advantage of everyone else vaccinating,” says Zarbock. The other problem is that if an increasingly large number of parents believe this and opt not to vaccinate their children, then there will be no herd to have an effect. In that scenario, the unvaccinated children could not only become sick themselves, but also become carriers and infect other children or infants.
- Myth: Vaccines aren’t really necessary.This myth is based on the idea that once a disease is eradicated, we no longer need the vaccine. Zarbock cites an outbreak of whooping cough (pertussis) in San Francisco as an example of what might happen if people ignore vaccines. There were more than 4,000 cases, and 10 infants died. “There’s always a minuscule risk, but the risk of getting one of these horrible diseases is much worse than the risks of vaccination,” he says.
- Myth: Vaccines make you sick.This concern comes up most often with regard to the flu vaccine. The injectable vaccine is made of a dead virus, “so in theory there is no way to get sick,” says Zarbock. “However, the inhaled (vaccine) is a weakened virus, and in theory there is a small risk of getting mild symptoms, but nowhere near to the degree that getting the actual flu would be.” With other vaccines, the most common problems are site reactions, such as bumps, soreness, or, less frequently, a rash, but children cannot get the measles as a result of the MMR vaccine, for example.
- Myth: Vaccines aren’t safe.“Vaccines are studied intensively,” says Zarbock. Not only are they studied separately, but also in combination to make sure that taking more than one at a time is still safe and effective. Millions of dollars go into ensuring their safety and that there are limited side effects. Says Zarbock, “Oftentimes in our practice we’ll use an analogy that the [incidence of] a serious accident in a car is 1 in 100,000 and a serious vaccine reaction is like one in one million.”
Now that you know the truth to counter each of these common worries, you should be able to feel more comfortable about your child’s shot schedule.
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