There has been confusion and misunderstandings about vaccines. But vaccinations are an important part of family and public health. Vaccines prevent the spread of contagious, dangerous, and deadly diseases. These include measles, polio, mumps, chicken pox, whooping cough, diphtheria, and HPV.
The first vaccine discovered was the smallpox vaccine. Smallpox was a deadly illness. It killed 300 million to 500 million people around the world in the last century. After the vaccine was given to people, the disease was eventually erased. It’s the only disease to be completely destroyed. There are now others close to that point, including polio.
What are vaccines?
A vaccine (or immunization) is a way to build your body’s natural immunity to a disease before you get sick. This keeps you from getting and spreading the disease.
For most vaccines, a weakened form of the disease germ is injected into your body. This is usually done with a shot in the leg or arm. Your body detects the invading germs (antigens) and produces antibodies to fight them. Those antibodies then stay in your body for a long time. In many cases, they stay for the rest of your life. If you’re ever exposed to the disease again, your body will fight it off without you ever getting the disease.
Some illnesses, like strains of cold viruses, are fairly mild. But some, like smallpox or polio, can cause life-altering changes. They can even result in death. That’s why preventing your body from contracting these illnesses is very important.
How does immunity work?
Your body builds a defense system to fight foreign germs that could make you sick or hurt you. It’s called your immune system. To build up your immune system, your body must be exposed to different germs. When your body is exposed to a germ for the first time, it produces antibodies to fight it. But that takes time and you usually get sick before the antibodies have built up. But once you have antibodies, they stay in your body. So the next time you’re exposed to that germ, the antibodies will attack it, and you won’t get sick.
Path to improved health
Everyone needs vaccines. They are recommended for infants, children, teenagers, and adults. There are widely accepted immunization schedules available. They list what vaccines are needed, and at what age they should be given. Most vaccines are given to children. It’s recommended they receive 14 different vaccines by their 6th birthday. Some of these come in a series of shots. Some vaccines are combined so they can be given together with fewer shots.
The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) believes that immunization is essential to preventing the spread of contagious diseases. Vaccines are especially important for at-risk populations such as young children and older adults. The AAFP offers vaccination recommendations, immunization schedules, and information on disease-specific vaccines.
Is there anyone who can’t get vaccines?
There are some people who can’t or shouldn’t receive vaccinations. These include young infants (under 2 months) and people with certain medical issues. There is also a small number of people who don’t respond to a particular vaccine. Because these people can’t be vaccinated, it’s very important everyone else gets vaccinated. This helps preserve the “herd immunity” for the vast majority of people. This means that if most people are immune to a disease because of vaccinations, it will stop spreading.
Are there side effects to vaccines?
There can be side effects after you or your child get a vaccine. They are usually mild. They include redness or swelling at the injection site. Sometimes children develop a low-grade fever. These symptoms usually go away in a day or two. More serious side effects have been reported, but are rare.
It takes years of development and testing before a vaccine is approved as safe and effective. Scientists and doctors at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study the research before approving a vaccine. They also inspect places where the vaccines are produced to make sure all rules are being followed. After the vaccine is released to the public, the FDA continues to monitor its use. It makes sure there are no safety issues.
Vaccines are safe. The benefits of their use far outweigh any risks of side effects.
What would happen if we stopped vaccinating children and adults?
If we stopped vaccinating, the diseases would start coming back. Aside from smallpox, all other diseases are still active in some part of the world. If we don’t stay vaccinated, the diseases will come back. There would be epidemics, just like there used to be.
This happened in Japan in the 1970s. They had a good vaccination program for pertussis (whooping cough). Around 80% of Japanese children received a vaccination. In 1974, there were 393 cases of whooping cough and no deaths. Then rumors began that the vaccine was unsafe and wasn’t needed. By 1976, the vaccination rate was 10%. In 1979, there was a pertussis epidemic, with more than 13,000 cases and 41 deaths. Soon after, vaccination rates improved and the number of cases went back down.
Things to consider
There have been many misunderstandings about vaccines. There are myths and misleading statements that spread on the internet about vaccines. Here are answers to 5 of the most common questions/misconceptions about vaccines.
Vaccines do NOT cause autism.
No studies have found a link between a vaccine and the likelihood of developing autism. The only paper that suggested a link has been discredited. The doctor who wrote it lost his medical license. Research is showing that infants may be born with autism, before any vaccinations are given.
Vaccines are NOT too much for an infant’s immune system to handle.
Infants’ immune systems can handle much more than what vaccines give them. They are exposed to hundreds of bacteria and viruses every day. Adding a few more with a vaccine doesn’t add to what their immune systems are capable of handling.
Vaccines do NOT contain toxins that will harm you.
Some vaccines contain trace amounts of substances that could be harmful in a large dose. These include formaldehyde, aluminum, and mercury. But the amount used in the vaccines is so small that the vaccines are completely safe. For example, over the course of all vaccinations by the age of 2, a child will take in 4mg of aluminum. A breast-fed baby will take in 10mg in 6 months. Soy-based formula delivers 120mg in 6 months. In addition, infants have 10 times as much formaldehyde naturally occurring in their bodies than what is contained in a vaccine. And the toxic form of mercury has never been used in vaccines.
Vaccines do NOT cause the diseases they are meant to prevent.
This is a common misconception, especially about the flu vaccine. Many people think they get sick after getting a flu shot. But flu shots contain dead viruses—it’s impossible to get sick from the shot. Even with vaccines that use weakened live viruses, you could experience mild symptoms similar to the illness. But you don’t actually have the disease.
We DO still need vaccines in the U.S., even though infection rates are low.
Many diseases are uncommon in the U.S. because of our high vaccination rate. But they haven’t been eliminated from other areas of the world. If a traveler from another country brings a disease to the U.S., anyone who isn’t vaccinated is at risk of getting that disease. The only way to keep infection rates low is to keep vaccinating.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Why does my child need to be vaccinated?
- What are the possible side effects of the vaccination?
- What do I do if my child experiences a side effect from the vaccine?
- What happens if my child doesn’t get all doses of the recommended vaccines? Will he or she be able to go to day care or school?
- We missed a vaccination. Can my child still get it late?
- Are there new vaccines that aren’t on the immunization schedules for kids?
- What should I do if I don’t have health insurance, or my insurance doesn’t cover vaccinations?
- What vaccinations do I need as an adult?
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Immunizations
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Vaccines & Immunizations
Last Updated: September 24, 2019
This article was contributed by familydoctor.org editorial staff.