There have been far too many attacks against “anti-vaxxers” lately. The question of whether or not to vaccinate is actually a very important one and must be addressed. Specifically, while vaccination is powerful medical tool, like most anything else, it can be overused and abused. Is that the case here?
There are certainly myths about the negative effects of vaccination. For instance, the study regarding the link between vaccination and autism has long since been discredited. However, there are also many other myths regarding the support of vaccinations.
Vaccination is Effective
This can be, but it isn’t always. Based on the June 10th report by the California Department of Public Health, the recent outbreaks of Whooping Cough, which some are attributing to anti-vaxxers, has largely impacted those who have been immunized. Obviously the vaccination isn’t entirely effective. One of the biggest issues is that vaccine science seems to conflate the ability to prevent disease, something most vaccines used today are very good at doing, with ability to prevent infection, which vaccines may or may not be good at doing. I consider this bad vaccine science.
Vaccination Rates are Dropping
This is not true. While there is a trend in some groups to avoid vaccination, overall vaccination rates have stayed more or less constant for years. There are pockets of individuals which do not vaccinate, but they are still small and often relatively isolated, such as the Amish. Nationwide, the rates of both DPT and Measles vaccination has remained nearly constant for almost two decades, according to WorldBank data.
Outbreaks Caused by Non-immunized People
Within localized communities, if members are exposed to high risk conditions, such as the recent measles outbreak in the Amish community after their trip abroad, this may be true. However, in most scenarios this seems unlikely, especially in the whooping cough situation. If non immunized people were the primary vector of transmission, why is the bulk of the infected comprised of immunized people?
There is a possibility that non vaccinated individuals acted as carriers, but that would suggest that those who are not vaccinated are able to fight off symptoms more easily than those who are vaccinated. This would contradict the whole point of vaccination.
Vaccines Confer 100% Immunity
Unfortunately this is not the case. No vaccine currently provides 100% protection. Many vaccines are very poor at protecting against contracting an illness. In addition, vaccine immunity wanes over time. In the case of pertussis vaccines, the currently used vaccine seems to be less effective and seems to a much shorter amount of time. The effect of waning immunity probably has not been compensated for by increased vaccination rates. Models suggest that the rate at which immunity wanes has a disproportionately large impact on how effective the vaccine is at stopping outbreaks. (Scherer and McLean, 2002)
Vaccines are Safe
This is a partial myth. The issue is how safe do you consider to be safe? While the study that originally linked vaccines has been discredited, this is not the same thing as saying that vaccination is safe. There are known allergic reactions to vaccinations. Often, whether or not the person is allergic is not known until after the child has been vaccinated. While mild symptoms such as irritation are not uncommon, and probably are not of much concern, there are cases of hospitalization and death caused by vaccinations. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a large database which is used to store information such as hospitalization and mortality rates after vaccination. An analysis of the data set from 1990 – 2010 suggests that there is a linear relationship between the number of vaccines given and the rate of hospitalization and mortality. (Goldman, GS Miller, NZ)
Now admittedly Goldman and Miller have somewhat of a bias against vaccination so their study alone should might not be considered sufficient evidence. Luckily a rather large meta study is available which also reviews the safety of vaccinations. The study, entitled “Safety of Vaccines Used for Routine Immunization of US Children: A Systematic Review” utilizes data from 67 different studies. The authors suggested that the benefits outweigh the potential risks associated with vaccination. However that is not really for them to decide. The study did suggest there was strong evidence that MMR vaccination resulted in increased risk of febrile seizures. Data is mixed in regard to a link between febrile seizures and flu vaccinations. However, according to a study using the US Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD), rates within the highest risk age group (16 months) for febrile seizures was 12.5 per 100,000 doses for TIV flu vaccine alone, 13.7 per 100,000 doses for PCV13 TIV vaccine alone, and 44.9 per 100,000 for concomitant administration. (Margaret A. Maglione, Lopamudra Das, et al, 2014)
Vaccines are Dangerous
Ironically, this is also partial myth. Again, it is a matter of degree. While there is a risk of side effect, in most cases, the disease itself has symptoms which are far worse than the side effects of a vaccine, and the probability of severe side effects of the vaccine is lower than the probability severe symptoms without the vaccine. Again, there is no robust evidence that vaccines induce autism and while there is data available which suggests that vaccines can produce side effects, they are very rare. (Maglione et. al. 2014)