We unpack the myths and facts about vaccination.
Vaccination has been widely acknowledged as the most successful means of preventing the suffering and death associated with life-threatening infectious diseases. It’s estimated that vaccines prevent 2 - 3 million deaths a year.
Despite this, myths and rumours of side-effects and health damage persist. This has led to falling vaccination rates in many parts of the developed world - and the increase of dangerous and preventable diseases. According to the World Health Organisation’s latest research released late last year, measles infections have soared by 30% worldwide since 2016.
In fact, the World Health Organisation has named ‘vaccine hesitancy’ (reluctance to vaccinate) as one of the top 10 threats to global health this year, and the UK government is looking at new legislation forcing social media companies to remove content with false information about vaccines.
Professor Gert van Zyl, virologist at Stellenbosch University’s Division of Medical Virology, says that anti-vaccine activists or ‘anti-vaxxers’ are spreading harm in South Africa, too. “Social media is a rich platform for information without context or scrutiny. The most damaging messages in respect of vaccinations are what’s called ‘narrative fallacy’, meaning someone’s child gets ill a week after being vaccinated, and this is then falsely ascribed to the vaccination and spread as truth,” says Prof van Zyl.
The truth is that vaccines have made the biggest impact on human survival in history and are among the reasons for our large and growing populations, he says. “When you look at graveyards dating back to the 1800s, many will be the graves of children who died of diseases that today are preventable. Ironically, the collective knowledge of these diseases and their impact have disappeared, precisely because vaccinations are so effective,” he says.
So in the run-up to World Immunisation Week (April 24 to April 30), which aims to raise awareness of the importance of immunisation, let’s take the opportunity to look at the myths and facts around vaccination:
Myth: The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccination is linked to autism.
Fact: In the late 1990s, British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a study in medical journal, The Lancet, claiming a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. This study has since been wholly discredited after an investigation found he had misrepresented and altered some information, and in 2010, Wakefield lost his medical licence. Numerous medical studies have been released to counter Wakefield’s falsified study, all indicating that there is no link between vaccines and autism.
Myth: Vaccines can make you sick or cause the disease they are meant to prevent
Fact: Vaccines stimulate the immune system the same way the infection would, but without making us sick. Side effects are usually minor, such as redness at the injection site, and a mild fever or rash. Serious adverse effects are rare. Most vaccinations are ‘inactivated’ or killed viruses. Some vaccines are made from live germs that have undergone changes so they can’t cause illness. Others contain only part of the germ that has been pulled out and purified.
Myth: No one gets serious childhood diseases anymore.
Fact:These diseases are rare precisely because we vaccinate against them. When immunisation rates drop, these diseases can and do come back.
Myth: Most diseases are not that serious.
Fact: All of the diseases that children are vaccinated against are serious, and can all cause serious illness, complications and even death.
Myth: I don’t need to vaccinate my child because all the other children around him are already immune.
Fact: When most of the population of a community is immunised against a contagious disease, the chance of an outbreak is reduced. This is called ‘herd immunity’. However, if enough people rely on herd immunity to prevent infection from vaccine-preventable diseases, and vaccine rates drop, herd immunity will soon disappear.
Myth: Breastfed babies are protected from infections, so vaccines are not that necessary.
Fact: Breastfeeding provides some protection against certain infections, especially viral respiratory infections, ear infections and diarrhoea. But this protection is incomplete, temporary, and can be overcome if your baby is exposed to large amounts of a specific germ. Breastfeeding is great, but not a substitute for vaccination.
Myth: Vaccines contain many harmful ingredients.
Fact: Vaccines contain various ingredients that allow the product to be safely administered. There was concern around thimerosal, a preservative once used in vaccines, but there is no evidence linking thimerosal to autism or any other developmental disorder.
The vaccines used in the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in South Africa are manufactured according to strict standards of quality, safety and efficacy.
- Immunisation prevents illness, disability and death in all age groups from many vaccine-preventable diseases including cervical cancer, diphtheria, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), pneumonia, polio, rotavirus diarrhoea, rubella and tetanus.
- Vaccination is one of the most successful and cost-effective public health interventions, and currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year.
- All vaccines are rigorously tested before they are approved for use, as well as regularly reassessed and constantly monitored for side effects.
- If we stop vaccination, diseases such as diphtheria, measles, mumps and polio can return.
- Vaccinations are important throughout life, with different vaccines recommended through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
South Africa offers an extensive baby and child immunisation programme, available free at state clinics. Protect your child from potentially dangerous diseases by keeping their vaccinations up to date, according to the recommended schedule.
Disclaimer: This article is not a substitute for medical advice. Consult your doctor about any concerns you might have.