But outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases still happen all over the world.
Last July an 8-month-long measles outbreak in Swansea, Wales, finally came to an end. But not before one person had died and 88 been forced to visit hospital after contracting the disease. Some of those who became ill during the epidemic had not received the MMR vaccine as children thanks to Andrew Wakefield’s bogus vaccine scare in 1998.
These diseases still kill children.
There are outbreaks still going on all over the world that could have been prevented with vaccines.
This year in California, three babies have already died of whooping cough.
These are not isolated incidents.
There are many reasons why parents choose not to vaccinate. But that decision is often based on misinformation.
Here are some common myths and why they aren’t true.
1. “There’s a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.”
The Cochrane Collaboration reviewed all the available evidence on the MMR vaccine. They found no link between the vaccine and autism.
Here’s their conclusion: “We could assess no significant association between MMR immunisation and the following conditions: autism, asthma, leukaemia, hay fever, type 1 diabetes, gait disturbance, Crohn’s disease, demyelinating diseases, or bacterial or viral infections.”
The myth was started by Andrew Wakefield in 1998.
Wakefield published a paper in The Lancet (since retracted) claiming that there was a link between autism in 12 children and the MMR vaccine.
He later commented at a press conference that individual vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella were safer than the combined jab, though this claim was not backed up by the research.
Nine months before Wakefield made these comments, he’d filed a patent for a single measles vaccine.
Subsequent peer-reviewed studies have not shown any link between MMR and autism.
Wakefield was struck off the medical register in 2010.
He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct. The General Medical Council said Wakefield had “abused his position of trust” and “brought the medical profession into disrepute”.
During the experiments that led to Wakefield’s retracted Lancet paper, children were subjected to colonoscopies, blood tests, and barium meals. None of these experiments were approved by the hospital’s ethics committee.
But him being struck off hasn’t stopped people believing Wakefield’s dangerous claims.
2. “There are dangerous levels of mercury in vaccines.”
There is a mercury-containing compound in some vaccines called thiomersal (“thimerosal” in the US) that has been used as a preservative in drugs since the 1930s.
However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says: “There is no evidence to suggest that the amount of thiomersal used in vaccines poses a health risk.”
3. “Cases of vaccinated children getting ill show vaccines don’t work.”
Vaccines don’t have a 100% success rate, which means sometimes you can still get ill even if you have had a vaccine.
This makes it even more important that as many people as possible are vaccinated.
4. “Whether I choose to vaccinate my child makes no difference to anyone else.”
Vaccines protect people around you too, including children too young to be vaccinated themselves. It’s an effect called herd immunity. Without it, diseases can spread much quicker.
And it’s no good just keeping kids who are ill at home. Many diseases are contagious before symptoms start to show.
5. “The amount of aluminium in vaccines is harmful.”
An aluminium-based compound is added to many vaccines to strengthen the immune response created by the vaccine.
Vaccines temporarily increase the amount of aluminium in an infant’s body, but this falls back to normal in a few days.
“Although aluminium can be toxic in large quantities, no harmful effects are seen with the level of aluminium used in such small amounts in vaccines,” says the NHS.
6. “We can beat diseases with hygiene and sanitation alone.”
Hand-washing, good hygiene, and clean water can help protect people from infectious diseases. But some diseases will spread no matter how clean we are.
According to the WHO: “If people are not vaccinated, diseases that have become uncommon, such as polio and measles, will quickly reappear.”
7. “There are side effects that doctors don’t tell you about.”
Some side effects that can occur when a child is vaccinated. But most of the side effects are mild (and temporary) compared to the illnesses that they prevent. Any significant reactions are rare and are always investigated.
You’re much more likely to be seriously injured by a vaccine-preventable disease than by a vaccine. For example, polio can cause paralysis and measles can cause encephalitis (an inflammation of the brain) and blindness.
8. “Too many vaccines overwhelm a baby’s immune system.”
Kids are exposed to several hundred foreign substances that trigger an immune response every day. According to the WHO: “A child is exposed to far more antigens from a common cold or sore throat than they are from vaccines.”
In fact, taking several vaccines together can help, as it means fewer doctor’s trips and a greater likelihood of finishing the course.
9. “Measles is not dangerous enough to bother with a vaccine.”
Yes it is. Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children. In 2012, there were 122,000 measles deaths worldwide (that’s 14 an hour).
10. “Flu isn’t dangerous.”
Most people recover from fever and other flu symptoms within a week, but those at higher risk – including children younger than 2 – can be affected more seriously.
Seasonal flu epidemics are estimated to result in about 3 to 5 million cases of severe illness, and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths per year.
11. “Whooping cough isn’t dangerous.”
Each year, there are an estimated 16 million cases of whooping cough worldwide, and about 195,000 child deaths from the disease.
12. “It’s better for kids to be exposed to infection naturally.”
Vaccines produce an immune response similar to that produced by a natural infection. But, crucially, they do not cause the disease or put the vaccinated person at risk of the disease’s potential complications.