The Truth about Vaccines
Doctors present you with immunization schedules, and yet the internet is full of tall tales about vaccination and how it may harm your child (usually in the form of autism). It’s confusing, we get it.
We’re here to give you the facts about vaccines. While no one can prove definitively that vaccines don’t harm babies — because it’s impossible to prove any negative — science has come as close to proving their upside (and lack of harm) as possible. From John Oliver’s exploration of vaccines: “I’m as confident that there’s no link between vaccines and autism,” explained one doctor, “as I am that if I was going to walk off this building, I would not be able to fly.” (Full disclosure, much of this article is sourced from that hilarious and masterful piece of journalism.)
This is the truth about vaccines: getting your baby’s vaccinations properly does nothing but protect them – and your family and friends — from deadly and debilitating diseases.
All the immunization facts we have
Everything else is just hot air.
What are vaccines?
Vaccines are medicines made up of dead or weakened disease-causing microbes, at a level of exposure that enables the immune system to learn how to quickly and effectively fight off the disease, thus preventing illness. However, it’s important to note that although vaccines are akin to injecting a small amount of a certain disease agent into the body, they are specifically designed so that they do not bring on the disease itself. They can be administered by injection, by mouth or by inhalation, and sometimes require multiple doses. Vaccination is the act of giving or getting a vaccine; it means the same thing as immunization and inoculation.
What have vaccines done?
In developed countries, vaccines have rendered harmless nearly all of the major, deadly or devastating diseases that are highly contagious and cause widespread epidemics. (Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go in less developed parts of the world, mainly due to issues of access and misinformation or fear.)
You may have heard India has been polio-free since 2011. That doesn’t mean the virus that causes the disease has been killed – it is still very much alive and active in the world – it means people have been immunized against it and won’t fall sick with the deadly disease.
What happens when children are properly immunized?
They cry a little, but then they’re protected against life-threatening illnesses. The end.
What does properly mean?
Properly means the vaccinations are stored and administered according to manufacturers’ guidelines, and according to the immunization schedule laid out by expert pediatric advisory organizations like IAP, AAP, and WHO.
A new, growing practice that is appealing to many parents is to space out the immunization schedule so there is more time between vaccines, ostensibly preventing a vaccine ‘overload.’ It’s tempting, and on the surface, it feels like a good decision to make; the immunization schedule for a baby’s first year of life calls for 25 vaccinations, which seems like a lot of needles for such a tiny person. The problem is, there is absolutely no proof of an ‘overload’ of any kind, or any reason to suggest a need to space out vaccines. Which means there is no compelling medical reason to put babies at risk of deadly diseases during the unnecessary delay between vaccines.
What doesn’t happen when children are properly vaccinated?
When properly administered, vaccines do not cause illness or death. Reports of illness or death following vaccinations are usually due to improper storage (e.g. not refrigerating a medicine that requires chilling) or administration (e.g. giving an injectable vaccine orally, as was the case in a particularly sad instance in 2013 in India).
As with any medicine, it is possible to have an allergic reaction to a vaccine, but it’s rare and typically minor – a sore arm or low fever.
Vaccines also do not cause autism. This has been proved again and again by studies involving hundreds of thousands of vaccinated children. (Indeed, evidence strongly suggests autism is genetic.)
You may have heard this rumour, though, because in the late 1990s, a study of only 12 children was published in The Lancet, the premiere international medical journal, claiming a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Since then, however, the journal has retracted the study, and the study author’s medical license has been revoked for falsifying the original data.
Vaccines also do not cause mercury-linked developmental delays. It is true that mercury is highly toxic to brain development – but the type of mercury (thimerosal) originally used as a preservative in vaccines had been found by study upon study to be harmless (as opposed to the different type of mercury absorbed by fish, which you probably avoided during pregnancy).
In any case, since the early 2000s, most vaccine manufacturers have eliminated thimerosal from vaccines in response to public misunderstanding and pressure; it’s highly unlikely an immunization your baby receives contains it.
What happens when children are not properly immunized?
Best case scenario: Nothing. They live healthy normal lives, albeit they would have to avoid parts of the world where certain infections are still common. This is because they rely on something called ‘herd immunity’ – that is, they are being kept safe by the vaccination of all the other babies, children and adults around them, who won’t catch the infection and communicate it to them.
But this is an imperfect – and potentially deadly – defense, as seen in 2007 in France. By 2007, the number of French people vaccinated against measles dropped to 89% — still a massive majority, but since ~95% vaccination prevalence is needed for herd immunity to work against measles, one unvaccinated 8-year-old girl who contracted measles caused an outbreak of the disease among 15,000 others. Measles cause brain damage, blindness and deafness; some people died. We’re not trying to fear-monger, this is just the reality of what can happen – what has happened – when kids don’t get vaccinated properly.
You can think of herd immunity as a giant, societal mesh barrier that deadly viruses and bacteria can’t get past. One weakened link (delayed vaccine) or snapped link (skipped vaccine) in the mesh may not weaken it enough to let a disease past, but the more weakened or missing links, the more likely these antigens will slip through – and threaten all of us.
And there you have it, the truth about vaccines. Now all you need is the immunization schedule to follow. And if you want to learn more about specific vaccines (did you know that boys can (and should!) get the HPV vaccine, as well as girls?) Check it out here.