Reject myths about vaccination

By Dr. Dora Anne Mills

Immunizations are some of the most successful and safest public health interventions ever developed.

Because of vaccines, diseases that were once some of the biggest killers are no longer feared. Small pox has been eliminated; polio is on the verge of being eliminated; Hemophilus influenza B (HiB) and meningococcal, some of the most common causes of deadly bacterial meningitis, are now extremely rare events. Cervical cancer also may be eliminated as a cause of death.

These successes and many more are due to immunizations.

Vaccines have literally transformed the landscape of medicine over the course of the 20th century, and especially of children’s health. Before vaccines, parents in the United States could expect that every year, polio would paralyze 10,000 children. Rubella (German measles) caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected about 4 million children, killing about 500.

Diphtheria was one of the most common causes of death in school-aged children.

Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib) caused meningitis in 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage.

Pertussis (whooping cough) killed thousands of infants.

As a public health physician, I have seen the successes through the lens of public health data. As a pediatrician, I have witnessed the development and distribution of the HiB vaccine, and within a couple of years, the virtual elimination of this deadly form of meningitis, when we used to see this tragic illness very commonly.

As a mother, I would not want to have my children subjected to any unnecessary hazard. To me, that means they are kept updated on their vaccines, so they are not put at risk for these diseases.

It saddens me that myths continue to be perpetuated about vaccines, causing unnecessary fear and parents to forgo vaccines, putting them at risk. A few points follow.

One myth, about a possible link between autism and vaccines, has been debunked by numerous studies. Autism Speaks, the largest international autism advocacy and research organization, said, “Over the last two decades, extensive research has asked whether there is any link between childhood vaccinations and autism. The results of this research are clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. We urge that all children be fully vaccinated.”

Vaccination is not just a personal choice. Unvaccinated children threaten the health of newborn babies, medically fragile children, the elderly and others who cannot be vaccinated and/or whose immune systems are compromised due to other health conditions.

Research shows that at least 94 percent of people in a community must be immune to adequately protect the community and prevent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. This concept is known as “herd immunity.”

If enough people opt out of vaccines, we will reach a level of unvaccinated people that will allow diseases to re-emerge

Just as no vaccine is 100 percent effective, no vaccine can claim to be 100 percent risk-free, much like other medicines and daily activities.

Parents sometimes get upset or concerned when they watch their baby receive three or four shots during a doctor’s visit. But all of those shots add up to the baby being protected, within the first 18 months of life, against 14 serious infectious diseases. That immunity often lasts a lifetime.

Although children continue to get several vaccines up to their second birthday, these vaccines do not overload the immune system. Every day, a healthy baby’s immune system successfully fights off millions of antigens – the parts of germs that cause the body’s immune system to respond. The antigens in vaccines come from weakened or killed germs so they cannot cause serious illness. Vaccines contain only a tiny amount of the antigens that babies encounters every day, even if they receive several vaccines in one day.

While it is true that mortality (deaths) due to vaccine-preventable disease began to decline with the introduction of better sanitation, nutrition and modern medicine, disease rates remained fairly stable before vaccines were introduced. That is because many diseases are so contagious that almost everyone is susceptible regardless of their health.

After vaccines were introduced, there was, however, a sharp decline in morbidity (illness) due to vaccine-preventable diseases and an even further decline in mortality, which are widely accepted by the medical and scientific community to be attributable to vaccines. Similarly, we are starting to see a resurgence of disease incidence as a direct result of declining vaccination rates.

There are three layers at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ensure and study vaccine safety, which together, result in vaccines being overseen more than any other pharmaceutical products. They include in-depth monitoring by nine large health systems across the country (including Kaiser and Harvard/Pilgrim) and active research by seven leading academic research institutions, including Columbia, Duke, Johns Hopkins and Vanderbilt.

The anti-vaccine advocates will often use Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) data to say people are dying from vaccines. However, VAERS is a type of tracking that casts a wide net, allowing anyone and everyone to report vaccine events, even if they are very unlikely to be caused by a vaccine (e.g., a child killed in a motor vehicle crash a few days after getting a vaccine). VAERS is meant to detect possible early patterns and trends, so reports obtained from it are not meant to be used as diagnosed vaccine events.

We are fortunate that our vaccine supply is among the safest of all medications. With oversight by the CDC, National Institutes for Health, Institute of Medicine, Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, public health departments in every country and state in the world, as well as safety monitoring in partnership with some of the nation’s leading research universities and health systems, we are much better off than our ancestors, who feared many of the diseases that we are now free from.

Dr. Dora Anne Mills has served as Maine’s top public health official and is currently vice president for clinical affairs at the University of New England in Biddeford.

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