Let’s shed some light on five vaccine myths and facts
Talking straight about vaccine myths and facts
Lately, I’ve seen a lot of vaccine phobia and misinformation crossing all over social media and the results have not been good (to say the least). This has been building up through the last few years and unfortunately, it has put us in a really bad place. Now, more than ever, we need to talk about vaccine myths and facts. We live amidst the biggest measles outbreak in this country since 1994 (before measles became “eliminated” in 2000). As a pediatric intensivist, I am seeing unvaccinated children admitted to the intensive care unit with severe respiratory illness. It just breaks my heart, because these babies didn’t have to get an ICU admission.
It has been hard for physicians to talk about the facts and the science behind vaccines because the anti-vaccine movement has been very vocal. More than one physician was harassed or threatened for trying to speak about vaccine myths and facts. However, we can’t afford to be scared of speaking about vaccines. Some people feel genuinely confused about vaccines and willing/wanting to hear the truth about vaccines, so they are able to do the right thing for their family.
So, with this in mind, I teamed up with Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, an obstetrician, to answer some common vaccine questions. If you have more questions after reading this, please feel free to ask in the comments below. I hope this would be an open forum for information. However, this is not a space to insult, attack or discuss unfounded vaccine falsehoods. So, full disclosure, I will not publish your comment if you chose to do that.
Now, without further delay, lets learn about some vaccine myths and facts
Do you vaccinate your children with the same vaccines you market to patients?
Absolutely. Physicians are, by nature and training, here to serve the public. Huge personal sacrifice and cost comes with becoming a physician. Nobody would submit themselves to the rigors of medicine if they didn’t care about others. Furthermore, what is good for my patients needs to be good for my child and vice versa. I would not give advice or medication that could result in harm. This not only would be unethical, but it would go against the Hippocratic Oath we take as physicians, which says:
“… I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course….”
Now seriously, why would I give my child, the one thing that I love most in this world, something that would poison or hurt them? On the contrary, we want to give our children the best chance to lead a long and healthy life without getting sick.
Ok, but I see the ingredients list on vaccines and they have poisons like aluminum, formaldehyde and mercury. How is it ok to give this to our kids?
Ok, let’s talk about the components that make up vaccines and break them down.
First off, you need components to boost the immune system, so that it will be able to become immune to whatever organism you are vaccinated against. These components are called antigens and adjuvants.
Antigens – These are usually little bits of dead or weak viruses or bacteria we use to introduce our immune system to the disease-causing organisms and get it ready to respond and attack if it sees it in real life. These antigens are grown in different types of growth media, for example eggs, while being manufactured. However, most of the growth medium is taken out, so that very little is left by the end of manufacturing. In addition, in order to kill or weaken the viruses or bacteria that will create an immune response, substances like formaldehyde are sometimes added during the manufacturing process. These are also removed at the end, so that only trace amounts may be left.
Adjuvants – these are present in some vaccines. They will boost the immune response of the body to make it have a stronger response. One example of an adjuvant is aluminum, more on that below.
Next, we have components to keep the vaccine from going bad. Like much of the food we eat, many vaccines have preservatives to keep them from spoiling. Single use vaccines do not have preservatives, but the multi-dose vials that require repeated introduction of needles in to them do, to keep things clean. One example of a preservative is the much-discussed thimerosal. Some can also have antibiotics, like neomycin, to protect against any bad bacteria from growing in the vaccine while it is being made.
We also have stabilizers, like gelatin or sugar, to keep the vaccine from becoming ineffective if the temperature shifts while transporting and storing.
Ok, so now we know the basic make-up, now let’s talk about the three top components that have raised controversy:
No, thimerosal (ethymercury) is not the same thing as the mercury (methylmercury) which is the chemical that people refer to when they talk about mercury poisoning or mercury in fish. Thimerosal does not stay in the body a long time, so it does not build up and reach harmful levels. When thimerosal enters the body, it breaks down to ethylmercury and thiosalicylate. Our bodies readily eliminate it. A few vaccines use it in very small amounts. However, since 2001, it was taken out of most vaccines in the US. You can read more about thimerosal here.
We find aluminum in numerous foods and beverages. Adults ingest on average, 7 to 9 milligrams of aluminum per day. We are exposed to aluminum on a regular basis. Just to put things in perspective, the aluminum contained in vaccines is similar to that found in a liter (about 1 quart or 32 fluid ounces) of infant formula. While infants receive a total of about 4.4 milligrams of aluminum in the first six months of life from vaccines, they receive more than that in their diet. Breast-fed infants ingest about 7 milligrams. Formula-fed infants ingest about 38 milligrams. Lastly, infants who are fed soy formula ingest almost 117 milligrams of aluminum during the first six months of life. Learn more about aluminum here.
I know many people feel afraid of this chemical. Why? because in large quantities research associates it with nasopharyngeal cancer. Also, we tend to associate it with corpses (or maybe that is just me having flashbacks of anatomy class?). However, fear not.
Did you know that formaldehyde is an essential part of human metabolism? We need it to make DNA and amino acids in our bodies. All humans have detectable quantities of formaldehyde in our circulation (about 2.5 ug per ml of blood). So, if you compare this to the total amount of formaldehyde in a 2 month old baby (about 1.1 mg) this is about 1,500 times the amount of formaldehyde found in any single vaccine! Learn more about formaldehyde here.
Isn’t natural immunity better than vaccine acquired immunity, like for example, taking my child to a chicken pox party so they can be immune naturally?
Yes, natural immunity is better than vaccine mediated immunity, but at a potentially very high cost. Having to go through the disease and a possible lifetime complication from it is a steep price to pay for the potentially stronger immunity that natural infection may afford you.
For example, Haemaphilus influenza type B or meningococcemia will give you immunity, along with meningitis. This may result in permanent brain damage. Polio may result in paralysis, varicella (chickenpox) may give you immunity and a pneumonia. Bottom line, we don’t need to suffer through any of these painful, damaging and sometimes lethal diseases to be protected.
Well, vaccines have side effects and many of these vaccine preventable illnesses hardly happen, so why should I vaccinate?
Yes, vaccines have side effects, but most of these side effects are mild. Injection site reactions (pain, swelling and redness), fever, shivering (chills), extreme tiredness (fatigue), headache, muscle and joint pain are most common. They occur between 1 in 3 to 1 in 50 patients (depending on the specific side effect). More serious side effects, like allergic reaction to the vaccine, are much rarer, about 1 in a million.
Just to give you some perspective, let’s look at the death rates for some vaccine preventable illness by seeing the data from the 1950’s (pre-vaccine).
In 1950, the United States had 5,796 cases of Diphtheria and 410 deaths from the disease (7% of infected died), 486 cases of Tetanus and 336 deaths from it (a whooping 69% death rate), 120,718 cases of Pertussis (also known as whooping cough) and 1,118 deaths from it (about 1% death rate), 33,300 cases of polio with 1904 deaths related to it (5.7% death) and 319,124 cases of measles with 468 deaths from the disease (0.1% death rate).
Now, you may say, well the death rate of some of these diseases is so low! However, keep in mind that these are the numbers of the most extreme complications of these illnesses (death). It doesn’t take into account any other complications that could stem from it, such as polio induced paralysis. Furthermore, quite frankly, who gives a damn if the risk of death is 0.1% if your child is the one who dies? To that person who loses their child, that is equal to 100% death rate.
Moreover, we do things in our daily lives to protect ourselves and our families from things that have a relatively low probability of happening. For example, depending on where you live, the probability of dying in a car crash varies from 0.02% to 0.003%. However, we still all wear seatbelts and use car seats to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Same thing we do by wearing life vests when we go boating and countless other safety measure we take to protect ourselves.
So, why should vaccine preventable illnesses be any different?
When I was pregnant my doctor wouldn’t give me a vaccine because of the baby. Why is it now ok to give those shots directly to my baby?
This is a great question and I can totally see the logic behind it – if it isn’t safe for me, why is it safe for my baby?
To understand the answer, it’s important to first understand how vaccines work. As previously mentioned, certain vaccines contain weakened versions of the live viruses they protect us against. Others consist of killed viruses, or just small parts of the dead virus. All of these cause your immune system to make antibodies to fight off these viruses. That’s good, because that’s exactly what we want and exactly how your body stays healthy if you’ve been vaccinated against a disease like chicken pox and you get exposed.
In pregnancy, we generally avoid giving you any vaccines that are of the weakened live variety. This includes the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, as well as certain forms of the influenza vaccine (there are others, but those aren’t commonly given in pregnancy).
Why avoid these vaccines in pregnancy? The main reason is that there is a small chance you can contract the virus from the live version of these vaccines. This risk is very, very small, but because of that we wait until after pregnancy. Keep in mind that during pregnancy your immune system is weaker, which is one reason this risk is present.
On the flip side, in times of disease outbreaks, doctors may opt to go ahead and give some of these vaccines to pregnant women – it’s all about weighing the risks and benefits of your individual situation.
Once your baby is born, however, it is time to protect them! This includes giving them the live weakened virus vaccines at specific times. We know that the risk of contracting certain diseases such as measles or rubella can be life-threatening and catastrophic, especially for the youngest or oldest members of our communities. We also have studied these vaccines very well – the MMR has been around since the 1960s! – and that the immunity our babies get from them is safe, protective, and for many, life-saving.
So to sum it up, it is true we avoid certain things in pregnancy that we then recommend once you deliver and your baby is born. It’s all about risks and benefits, but when it comes to vaccines we know they are a public health necessity!
In the end
And there you have it, 5 common questions about vaccine myths and facts that often come up. I hope we have shed some clarity in this. If you would like to see more of Dr. Lincoln, please check her out on her website or follow her on Instagram. Also, feel free to reach out with any questions.