9 Common vaccine myths, busted!

Your baby’s immune system is stronger than you think.
Your baby’s immune system is stronger than you think.

With so much disinformation floating around the internet, it’s hard to separate the myths from the truth. Here, Anna Sutton busts nine of the most widely spread myths on vaccines so that you can make the best decision for the health of your family

Myth #1: "Polio and measles have almost been wiped out, so my child doesn’t need to be vaccinated against them." 

Polio has indeed been eliminated in South Africa – we haven’t had any cases since 1989. However, there is still polio circulating in the world.

“While there is still some ‘wild type’ polio circulating in the world, no one is safe against polio and that is why we continue to be vaccinated,” says Dr Melinda Suchard of the Centre for Vaccines and Immunology at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Infections for diseases you are vaccinated for may be low in South Africa, but if too many people don’t vaccinate their children, they open up opportunities for diseases to (re-)enter our population and spread. With global travel being so prevalent, all it takes is one infected person to arrive in South Africa and you (and your children) will be at risk.

Indeed, one baby in KwaZulu-Natal died two years ago from diphtheria, while five more were critically ill. These may seem like small numbers, but they are alarming facts when you consider that these children needn’t have caught diphtheria at all.

The reason people may feel that they no longer need to be vaccinated for these diseases is actually because of the success of vaccines, says Dr Suchard. “Because these diseases are so rare we have lost our fear of them. But if you speak to your grandparents about these types of diseases, they can tell you horrible stories about how common they were and the side effects they have and the deaths they caused.”

Also: 4 important things to consider if you're still unsure about where you stand in the vaccination debate

Have you heard of a worrying vaccination myth not mentioned here? Tell us, and we could publish your letter. 

Myth #2: "A baby’s immune system can’t handle so many vaccines" 

Your baby’s immune system is stronger than you think. “They are designed to deal with multiple challenges at once,” says Dr Allison Glass, a virologist at Lancet Laboratories. In theory, an infant’s immune system has the ability to respond to around 10 000 vaccines at one time.

They are naturally exposed to a constant onslaught of bacteria and viruses naturally every day, and vaccines are negligible in comparison. In the past, vaccines consisted of many more whole organisms that had been killed and chopped up, whereas now we use more of a single antigen, or a single protein from the virus or bacteria.

“Today’s vaccines are more refined. So even though there are many vaccines given, there are far fewer components of the bacteria or viruses included in the vaccines now,” says Dr Suchard.

Myth #3: "I had measles when I was a child and it was no big deal!"

“Complications of diseases like measles are unpredictable. So while in most cases the disease may be mild, there are plenty of cases where the disease is severe enough to cause death or permanent damage such as blindness, deafness and intellectual disability,” says Dr Suchard.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), in 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused an estimated 2.6-million deaths each year and remains one of the leading causes of death in children.

“Some parents may be lucky and their child may have a mild infection, but for the one unlucky parent whose child becomes blind or deaf from meningitis caused by Haemophilus or measles, there is no going back. The complications of these infections are well known, are highly possible and likely and one shouldn’t take them lightly,” says Dr Suchard.

Do you have friends or family planning on starting a family? Consider their safety too. Women infected with measles while pregnant are at risk of severe complications and the pregnancy may end in miscarriage or preterm delivery.

Also see: Immunisation schedule 

Myth #4: "An HIV+ baby can’t be vaccinated"

An HIV positive baby can and should be vaccinated to protect them from disease, says Dr Suchard. There are, however, a few exceptions – if the child is hospitalised or severely ill, then you should consult with a doctor first.

“Take care with the BCG vaccine (the vaccine against tuberculosis which is given at birth). Usually, we don’t know if a child is HIV infected at birth and from a practical perspective if we are unsure of the HIV status the vaccine is usually given. But in fact, from a WHO perspective, it’s to be avoided in HIV-infected children as they can be infected by it.” Dr Glass, a specialist virologist at Lancet Laboratories, explains this is because the vaccine is made from live organisms.

“It won’t cause disease in someone with a healthy immune system, but may cause disease in someone who is immunosuppressed. Vaccinating for measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox in HIV+ children should also be delayed until severe immunosuppression has been treated. A child’s CD4 count should be lower than 15 per cent before vaccinating,” she says.

Myth #5: "Vaccines can cause sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)" 

The primary cause of SIDS is suffocation, which is why parents are warned to place their babies on their sides or backs to sleep rather than on their stomachs. Since this official recommendation was made by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the number of SIDS deaths has dropped dramatically.

This is in spite of the fact that the number of babies who received the hepatitis B vaccine (the vaccine which was thought by some to cause SIDS) increased at the same time. So there really is no truth to this myth.

Also see: Italy ruled that unvaccinated tots will be banned from kindergarten

Myth #6: "Vaccines guarantee 100% protection"

No vaccine is 100% effective. Most are 85 to 95% effective. Vaccines may fail if they have not been stored properly or because an individual has reduced immunity due to illness, explains Dr Glass.

If you did not stick to the timetable of vaccinations and didn’t have your booster shots when recommended, the performance of the vaccine may be compromised. However, says Dr Glass, “when infected the disease is likely to be milder than it would have been without vaccination.”

Myth#7: "Vaccines are just a way for others (“Big Pharma”) to make money off us" 

Pharmaceutical companies manufacture vaccines that the government needs, says Dr Suchard. “We don’t have a national manufacturing company so we require ‘Big Pharma’ to produce our vaccines,” she says. Vaccines are expensive to make.

“The process of developing a vaccine, running trials to prove a vaccine works and is safe, then producing a vaccine is long. The cost of developing and producing a vaccine is more than US$500 million,” says Dr Glass. “Doctors and clinic sisters do not profit from vaccinating children. They see the benefit to the overall health of the community that vaccination provides. Why would the Department of Health spend large sums of money on vaccinations if there was no real health benefit?”

Myth #8: "All vaccines contain allergens"

In the United States, where millions of children are vaccinated every year, there are about 200 cases of severe allergic reactions.

“A child can be allergic to a vaccine as for any other medication. Usually, these allergies are very mild and involve swelling or redness. Occasionally they can be more severe and in that case, the mother should consult with a doctor about exactly which vaccine it was so that it can be avoided in future. However, it’s not a reason to avoid all vaccines as there might just be one ingredient in a particular vaccine that the child reacted to,” says Dr Suchard.

Because these allergic reactions happen suddenly, stay in the clinic for about 15 minutes after each shot. If your child is allergic to eggs, the only vaccine you should avoid is the yellow fever vaccine. “Generally, if your child can eat shop-bought biscuits without a reaction, they do not have a significant egg allergy,” says Dr Glass.

Gelatine is used as a stabiliser and preservative in vaccines and causes an allergic reaction in one in every two million vaccines. Children with a history of gelatine allergies (which can be very difficult to identify) can be offered alternatives.

Myth #9: "If everyone is vaccinated, I don’t need to vaccinate my child"

If everyone around your child is vaccinated, it will reduce the risk of your child being infected as the germs will spread less in a community. But if an infection is then brought into the community from outside or your child moves to an area where vaccination levels are not as good, your child is at high risk of becoming infected.

Modern travel and movement of people make this likely.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2018 issue of Your Baby Magazine. 

Chat back:

Have you heard of a worrying vaccination myth not mentioned here? Tell us, and we could publish your letter. 

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