Vaccinations: Some Mythbusting and Why We Need Them

What are vaccinations?

Vaccinations have been developed over many years to prevent various diseases. Smallpox has been all but eradicated thanks to an aggressive worldwide vaccination program. Measles, whooping cough, tetanus, diphtheria, poliomyelitis and rubella have become much rarer thanks to vaccines. Even influenza vaccinations have resulted in enormous health benefits and saved lives. Vaccinations work on the principle that prevention is better than cure. In the case of deadly diseases, most would have a hard time arguing against this idea. Since 1994, it is estimated that over 700,000 children’s lives have been saved by vaccines and more than 70 million have avoided illness. These figures are just for the USA. In Australia, it is estimated two million children and one million adults each year are saved by vaccines. This does not take into account the number of children who have managed to avoid long-term effects from preventable diseases, such as scarring, organ damage and in the case of polio, permanent paralysis.

How do vaccinations work?

There are many myths about vaccines, most commonly that they work by injecting the very disease they intend to protect us from to help our body learn to fight it. This is not correct. Vaccines in fact work by stimulating our immune system to produce antibodies without actually infecting the person with the disease. This is achieved by combining certain chemicals to activate the body’s natural immune response. The result is if the vaccinated person is exposed to the disease, their body will already know how to fight it and they can avoid even developing it in the first place. But this is just how the vaccine works for an individual. The true power of vaccinations lies within the concept of “herd immunity.” This refers to the effect on a population when the vast majority have been vaccinated against a particular disease, and thus providing protection to those who are not vaccinated. A good example of this is very young babies being unable to complete their vaccinations for diseases such as whooping cough, diphtheria, and poliomyelitis until they are six months old. This means they are vulnerable to these diseases for the first six months of their life. Herd immunity saves these little babies because if a sufficient number of people are vaccinated, they will be extremely unlikely to come into contact with someone who has, or carries the disease.

Are vaccinations safe?

The short answer is yes, absolutely. But if you are reading this post, I’m sensing you want a little more information. Millions of people worldwide are vaccinated each year, and not one person, adult or child, has ever died or developed a disease from vaccines. But like all medical treatments, there is always the risk of side-effects. You should always speak with your doctor for detailed information on these, however the most common are mild redness and swelling at the injection site, fever, tiredness and nausea which can last for several days. As annoying as these are, considering the possible alternatives, most would agree this is a small price to pay.

How vaccinations can prevent infant deaths

As noted above, infants do not complete their first vaccination regime until they are aged six months. However it is not until they reach 18 months when they can be vaccinated against measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox. So these poor little kids are basically defenceless against these terrible diseases until they are a year and a half old. Big deal I hear you wonder? If I told you that you had to spend 18 months in a leper colony, how would you react? Yeah, starting to see my point hey? And the ironic thing? Leprosy is not even contagious, that’s another myth. Anyway, moving on. Herd immunity is the only thing protecting these infants until they complete their vaccines. And to top it off, they need another booster for whooping cough, diphtheria and tetanus when they reach age four. Now imagine a child who has not been vaccinated and he, fortunately for him and likely only due to herd immunity has made it to age six. He gets a nasty case of whooping cough though and the poor little fella is not very well. Luckily, being aged six, his lungs are very well developed and he is extremely unlikely to die from the illness. However should he come into contact with an infant, and pass whooping cough on, that infant may not be so lucky. In fact one in five babies aged under six months who contracts whooping cough, will die from the disease. That is a horrifying statistic and even more so because whooping cough is entirely preventable thanks to vaccines.

The “anti-vaccers”

Now I am not normally one for name-calling, but these people have applied the term to themselves so I feel no guilt. Anti-vaccers are the people who are against vaccinations. Surprised? Considering the above information, some find it hard to grasp that there would actually be anyone out there who wouldn’t vaccinate their children. But there are also people who go further than this, actively campaigning against vaccinations. I am not going to name names, this blog is not about naming and shaming. It is about the sharing of factual information. Besides, for those who would like further information on those against vaccinations, this information is easily accessible on the Internet. The campaign against vaccinations started in 1998 when a paper was published alleging that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccines caused autism and bowel disease in children. No researchers have been able to replicate the results of this study and in 2010, criminal charges were filed against the author for dishonesty and child abuse. The article was immediately rescinded by the journal that published it, with the editor-in-chief issuing a statement that it was “utterly false” and that the journal had been “deceived.” The author was struck off the medical register in his home country and is banned from practising medicine. So in a perfect world, that would have been the end of it. But we don’t live in a perfect world do we? For some reason, people have continued to believe the falsities in the 1998 article. And have actively campaigned against vaccinations ever since, insisting they are dangerous and cause autism in children. This has led to a decline in vaccination rates and places society at very real risk of losing our herd immunity. The really scary thing is that the anti-vaccers genuinely believe they are fighting for a noble cause. They actually believe they are doing the right thing. The only way to combat this, is not to name and shame, or attack, but to continue to circulate the truth about vaccinations. Anti-vaccers are not evil people, they are simply misguided and need the help of skeptics to understand their objection to vaccinations is based on false information.

In conclusion

Vaccinations have saved countless lives worldwide by offering our society the ability to prevent diseases. Research has demonstrated their safety and the social benefits are invaluable. There are some people who, based on false information, believe them to be harmful and this has resulted in active campaigns to stop vaccinating children. Whilst there will always be some people who will continue to vaccinate, in order to maintain herd immunity, a vast majority is required. The more people that stop vaccinating, the greater the danger, particularly to infants. As a skeptic, I will continue to correct those that insist vaccinations are harmful. And I will do this because I care about people; and not to get too emotional, but the thought of an innocent baby coughing themselves to death is horrifying to me. Anything we can do as a society to prevent this, should be done. Especially when the action we can take is completely harmless and so readily available.

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