Healthcare experts agree that vaccines are one of the strongest tools to stay protected against serious diseases and are entirely safe for most people. However, you don’t have to go very far — especially online — to find a number of myths and misconceptions about vaccines. And it can sometimes be really hard to parse truth from fiction online.
Vaccine myths and facts
Unfortunately, misinformation related to vaccines can be very dangerous; vaccines save lives and skipping or delaying vaccines can lead to serious illness or even death. So we’re here to set the record straight. We hope this information helps you better understand that vaccines are a powerful tool that can help keep you healthy.
Myth: Vaccines cause autism.
Fact: Vaccines don’t cause autism.
And yet, this myth continues to be spread, so it’s worth exploring why. In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a paper that suggested a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine, and this paper is often looked to as evidence of a connection between the two. However, the paper has since been discredited—it looked at only 12 children who were carefully picked and it didn’t have a control group—most of his co-authors on the paper retracted their support, and the journal where the paper was published retracted the paper itself. Wakefield has been discredited too; in 2010, the the British Medical Council stripped him of his medical license, blaming his questionable ethics.
Since then, numerous studies have proven that vaccines do not cause autism, including one study that looked at over a half a million children (who were an ideal study cohort of subjects and controls) and found no link between autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and the MMR vaccine. Long story short? The paper this myth is based on was faulty to begin with, the argument and it’s author has long since been disproven, and the science shows that there is no connection between vaccines and increased rates of autism.
Myth: Vaccines contain toxic ingredients.
Fact: Vaccines don’t contain toxic ingredients.
Increasingly, a lot of people want to be aware of what they put in their body and steer clear of harmful ingredients, which is great. When it comes to vaccines, some people have specific concerns about the use of formaldehyde, mercury, and aluminum in vaccines. These chemicals can certainly be toxic to people at very high levels, but there are only trace amounts—meaning extremely small amounts—in vaccines, and there is no evidence that these levels are harmful to people.
For some perspective, formaldehyde is actually naturally produced by our own bodies at higher levels than the trace amounts found in vaccines. These chemicals help the vaccines to be produced and work well and are present in such small amounts that they can’t cause any harm.
Myth: Vaccines aren’t necessary because the diseases they protect against aren’t around anymore.
Fact: Many diseases that made a lot of people very sick in the past don’t do so anymore thanks to vaccines.
‘Herd immunity’ is a term that describes how when a large enough percent of the population is immunized against a particular disease, it keeps even the unimmunized population protected too. (And some people just can’t get immunized, such as infants and individuals with weakened immune systems.)
With enough people immunized against a disease, that disease does become more rare because it simply doesn’t get a chance to spread, which is why you don’t hear about many cases of, say, smallpox these days. But if more people choose not to get vaccinated, a disease that may seem like it was wiped out can have the chance to spread again, as can be seen with recent measles outbreaks in the U.S. Keeping up herd immunity is especially important to keep diseases that were so common and dangerous in the past from coming back.
Myth: Vaccines cause the diseases they’re supposed to protect against and make people sick.
Fact: Vaccines don’t cause the diseases they’re meant to protect against and are safe for the majority of people.
Some vaccines contain egg protein, so if an individual is allergic to egg, it may not be safe for them to get a vaccine. (Again, this is why herd immunity is so important!) Other than this, vaccines almost never make people sick and don’t cause the diseases they’re meant to protect against. Sometimes people point to disease-like side effects following vaccination as evidence that vaccines cause illness.
There are rare occasions—less than one in a million—when a live vaccine (which contains an extremely weakened form of the germ that causes disease) will cause side effects that might resemble a mild case of the disease the vaccine protects against (like a few spots following the chickenpox vaccine), but this is not actually a sign of the disease, it’s the body’s immune response to the vaccine—and a clear sign that the body is building immunity to the disease.
Myth: Babies’ immune systems can’t handle a lot of vaccines, so it’s better to space them out.
Fact: Babies immune systems can handle a normal immunization schedule.
As soon as a baby is born, they’re exposed to countless germs, and their immune system gets to work fighting these off right away. There is just a very small amount of a part of a germ in vaccines that stimulates the immune system to produce immunity against that disease—this is much less that what a baby is exposed to on an everyday basis and is nothing that a healthy child can’t handle.
While some parents may get nervous about children having so many immunizations in their first year of life, these are scheduled in a way that’s meant to protect a child as early as possible from serious diseases that can be especially harmful if a baby is exposed to them when so young. Combination vaccines—like the MMR vaccine—mean fewer visits, fewer needles, and more protection sooner. Most children are able to proceed with a normal immunization schedule and don’t need to space out or delay any immunizations, and doing so could put them at risk of being exposed to serious diseases.
Myth: Getting sick is a normal part of childhood and “natural” immunity is better than getting a vaccine.
Fact: Vaccines protect children against unnecessary illness.
Sure, all children will pick up colds and coughs here and there. But vaccines protect against serious diseases that can be particularly dangerous for children. The “natural” immunity that a child would get following infection from a disease is quite strong, but first that child would have to fight off and recover from that disease.
The immunity that’s produced after someone gets a vaccine thankfully doesn’t involve that person getting sick first. Vaccines help prevent and protect against serious disease and the process doesn’t involve getting sick before becoming immunized.
Myth: Vaccines aren’t safe.
Fact: Vaccines are an extremely important and safe tool for keeping children and adults protected against serious disease.
While many of the myths listed above have led some people to believe that vaccines aren’t safe, there are no credible studies that show vaccines to be unsafe or to cause diseases or other health conditions. Vaccines are closely studied during clinical trials before they’re made widely available, and then are closely monitored once they’re widely used. Vaccines have been used widely for decades, studies show that they’re safe, and we know that they’re responsible for preventing countless illnesses and deaths.
If you have any questions about vaccines, these myths, or your health, you should definitely bring them up with your healthcare provider. They’re there to answer questions about all aspects of your health and are a trusted resource you can count on. And if you’re ever curious to learn more about vaccines online, make sure you head to trusted medical resources and not sites that may be sharing misinformation and presenting it as fact. Resources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have information based in science that you can trust.
- “Immunizations.” healthychildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics. Retrieved January 3 2020. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/immunizations/Pages/default.aspx
- “Making the Vaccine Decision: Addressing Common Concerns.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, August 5 2019. Retrieved January 3 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/why-vaccinate/vaccine-decision.html
- “Q&A on vaccines.” World Health Organization. World Health Organization, August 26 2019. Retrieved January 3 2020. https://www.who.int/vaccines/questions-and-answers
- “Vaccines for your children.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, March 18 2019. Retrieved January 3 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/index.html
- “Vaccine Safety: Examine the Evidence.” healthychildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics, July 24 2018. Retrieved January 3 2020. “https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/immunizations/Pages/Vaccine-Studies-Examine-the-Evidence.aspx
- “Vaccine Safety: The Facts.” healthychildren.org. American Academy of Pediatrics, October 10 2018. Retrieved January 3 2020. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/safety-prevention/immunizations/Pages/Vaccine-Safety-The-Facts.aspx
- “Vaccines: The Myths and The Facts.” American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, August 19 2019. Retrieved January 3 2020. https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/allergy-library/vaccine-myth-fact