In this modern and fast-paced age of advanced communication, healthcare professionals can encounter patients who have reservations about getting vaccinations for themselves or their children. There could be a myriad of reasons for this “fear-of” or “opposition to” vaccination. Some people have religious or philosophic objections. Some see mandatory vaccination as interference by the healthcare system into what they believe should be a personal choice. Others are concerned about the quality, safety or efficacy of vaccines; or may believe that vaccine-preventable diseases do not pose a serious health risk.
All those involved in the healthcare system in the administration of vaccines have a responsibility to listen to and try to understand a patient’s concerns, fears, and beliefs about vaccination and to consider them when offering vaccines. These efforts will not only help to strengthen the bond of trust between staff and patient but will also help determine which, if any, arguments might be most effective in persuading these patients to accept vaccination. There are a few common misconceptions about vaccination that are often cited by concerned parents as reasons to question the reason behind having to get their children vaccinated. If staffs can respond with accurate reasons, perhaps it can not only help to ease parents’ minds on their specific queries but also discourage them from accepting other “anti-vaccination information” at face value.
The goal of healthcare providers is not to persuade parents into vaccinating, but to ensure they have accurate information with which to make an informed decision.
Myth 1: “Diseases had already begun to disappear before vaccines were introduced, because of better hygiene and sanitation.”
Statements like this are very common in anti-vaccination literature, the intent apparently being to suggest that vaccines are not needed. Improved socioeconomic conditions have undoubtedly had an indirect impact on disease. Better nutrition, not to mention the development of antibiotics and other treatments, have increased survival rates among the sick; less crowded living conditions have reduced disease transmission, and lower birth rates have decreased the number of susceptible household contacts. But looking at the actual incidence of disease over the years can leave little doubt of the significant direct impact vaccines have had, even in modern times.
For example, there have been periodic peaks and valleys throughout the years, but the real, permanent drop in measles incidences coincided with the licensure and wide use of measles vaccine beginning in 1963. Other vaccine-preventable diseases show a roughly similar pattern in incidence, with all except hepatitis B showing a significant drop in cases corresponding with the advent of vaccine use. The incidence of hepatitis B has not dropped as much because infants vaccinated in routine programs will not be at high risk of the disease until they are at least teenagers. Therefore a 15-year lag can be expected between the start of routine infant vaccination and a significant drop in disease incidence.
Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine is another good example because Hib disease was prevalent until the early to mid-1990s when conjugate vaccines that can be used for infants were finally developed. (the polysaccharide vaccine previously available could not be used for infants, in whom most cases of the disease were occurring). Are we expected to believe that better sanitation caused the incidence of each disease to drop just at the time a vaccine for that disease was introduced? Since sanitation is not better now than it was in 1990, it is hard to attribute the virtual disappearance of Hib disease in children in recent years in countries with routine Hib vaccination to anything other than the vaccine.
Finally, we can look at the experiences of several developed countries after they allowed their immunization levels to drop. Three countries namely Great Britain, Sweden and Japan, cut back the use of pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine because of fear about the vaccine. The effect was dramatic and immediate. In Great Britain, a drop in pertussis vaccination in 1974 was followed by an epidemic of more than 100,000 cases of pertussis and 36 deaths by 1978. In Japan, around the same time, a drop in vaccination rates from 70% to 20%-40% led to a jump in pertussis from 393 cases and no deaths in 1974 to 13,000 cases and 41 deaths in 1979. In Sweden, the annual incidence rate of pertussis per 100,000 children of 0-6 years of age increased from 700 cases in 1981 to 3,200 in 1985.
DidYouKnow>>>> It seems clear from these experiences that not only would diseases not be disappearing without vaccines, but if we were to stop vaccinating, they would come back.
Of more immediate interest is the major epidemics of diphtheria that occurred in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, where low primary immunization rates for children and the lack of booster vaccinations for adults resulted in an increase from 839 cases in 1989 to nearly 50,000 cases and 1,700 deaths in 1994.
Myth 2: “The majority of people who get disease had already been vaccinated.”
This is another argument frequently found in anti-vaccination literature, the implication being that this proves that vaccines are not effective. In fact, it is true that in an outbreak those who have been vaccinated often outnumber those who have not — even with vaccines such as measles, which we know to be about 98% effective when used as recommended.
This apparent paradox is explained by two factors. First, no vaccine is 100% effective. To make vaccines safer than the disease, the bacteria or virus is killed or weakened (attenuated). For reasons related to the individual, not all vaccinated persons develop immunity. Most routine childhood vaccines are effective for 85% to 95% of recipients. Second, in any population, the numbers of people who have been vaccinated vastly outnumber those who have not.
How these two factors work together to result in outbreaks in which the majority of cases have been vaccinated can be more easily understood by looking at a hypothetical example:
“In a high school of 1,000 students, none has ever had measles. All but five of the students have had two doses of measles vaccine, and so are fully immunized. The entire student body is exposed to measles, and every susceptible student becomes infected. The five unvaccinated students will be infected, of course. But of the 995 who have been vaccinated, we would expect several not to respond to the vaccine. The efficacy rate for two doses of measles vaccine can be as high as >99%. In this class, seven students do not respond, and they, too, become infected. Therefore seven of 12, or about 58%, of the cases occur in students who have been fully vaccinated.”
As you can see, this doesn’t prove the vaccine didn’t work; just that most of the children in the class had been vaccinated, so those who were vaccinated and did not respond outnumbered those who had not been vaccinated. Looking at it another way, 100% of the children who had not been vaccinated got measles, compared with less than 1% of those who had been vaccinated. Measles vaccine protected most of the class; if nobody in the class had been vaccinated, there would probably have been 1,000 cases of measles.
Myth 3: “There are “hot lots” of vaccine that have been associated with more adverse events and deaths than others. Parents should find the numbers of these lots and not allow their children to receive vaccines from them.”
This misconception often receives considerable publicity. First of all, the concept of a “hot lot” of vaccine as it is used in this context is wrong. It is based on the presumption that the more reports of adverse events a vaccine lot is associated with, the more dangerous the vaccine in that lot; and that by consulting a list of the number of reports per lot, a parent can identify vaccine lots to avoid. This is misleading for two reasons:
Reason 1: Most surveillance systems report events that are temporally associated with receipt of vaccine; these reports should not be interpreted to imply causality. In other words, an adverse report following vaccination does not mean that the vaccine caused the event. Statistically, a certain number of serious illnesses, even deaths, can be expected to occur by chance alone among children recently vaccinated. Although vaccines are known to cause minor, temporary side effects such as soreness or fever, there is little, if any, evidence linking vaccination with permanent health problems or death. The point is that just because an adverse event has been reported by the surveillance system; it does not mean a vaccine caused it.
Reason 2: Vaccine lots are not the same. The sizes of vaccine lots might vary from several hundred thousand doses to several million, and some are in distribution much longer than others. Naturally, a larger lot or one that is in distribution for a longer period will be associated with more adverse events, simply by chance. Also, more coincidental deaths are associated with vaccines given in infancy than later in childhood, since the background death rates for children are highest during the first year of life. So knowing that lot A has been associated with x number of adverse events while lot B has been associated with y number would not necessarily say anything about the relative safety of the two lots, even if the vaccine did cause the events. Reviewing published lists of “hot lots” will not help parents identify the best or worst vaccines for their children. If the number and type of adverse event reports for a particular vaccine lot suggested that it was associated with more serious adverse events or deaths than are expected by chance, most countries have a system which results in the lot being recalled.
Myth 4: “Vaccines cause many harmful side effects, illnesses, and even death – not to mention possible long-term effects we don’t even know about.”
Vaccines are very safe, despite implications to the contrary in many anti-vaccination publications. Most vaccine adverse events are minor and temporary, such as soreness or mild fever. These can often be controlled by taking paracetamol after vaccination. More serious adverse events occur rarely (on the order of one per thousands to one per millions of doses), and some are so rare that risk cannot be accurately assessed. As for vaccines causing death, again so few deaths can plausibly be attributed to vaccines that it is hard to assess the risk statistically. Each death reported would be thoroughly examined to assess whether it is related to administration of the vaccine, and if so, what exactly is the cause. When, after careful investigation, an event is felt to be a genuine vaccine-related event, it is most frequently found to be a programmatic error, not related to vaccine manufacture.
Diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) vaccine and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
One myth that won’t seem to go away is that DTP vaccine causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). This belief came about because a moderate proportion of children who die of SIDS have been vaccinated with DTP; on the surface, this seems to point toward a causal connection. This logic is faulty, however, you might as well say that eating bread causes car crashes since most drivers who crash their cars could probably be shown to have eaten bread within the past 24 hours.
If you consider that most SIDS deaths occur during the age range when three shots of DTP are given, you would expect DTP shots to precede a fair number of SIDS deaths simply by chance. In fact, when a number of well-controlled studies were conducted during the 1980s, the investigators found, nearly unanimously, that the number of SIDS deaths temporally associated with DTP vaccination was within the range expected to occur by chance. In other words, the SIDS deaths would have occurred even if no vaccinations had been given. In fact, in several of the studies, children who had recently received a DTP shot were less likely to get SIDS.
Looking at risk alone is not enough. However one must always look at both risks and benefits. Even one serious adverse effect in a million doses of vaccine cannot be justified if there is no benefit from the vaccination. If there were no vaccines, there would be many more cases of the disease, and along with them, more serious side effects and more deaths. For example, according to an analysis of the benefit and risk of DTP immunization, if there was no immunization program, pertussis cases could increase 71-fold and deaths due to pertussis could increase four-fold. Comparing the risk from disease with the risk from the vaccines can give us an idea of the benefits we get from vaccinating our children.
The fact is that a child is far more likely to be seriously injured by one of these diseases than by any vaccine. While any serious injury or death caused by vaccines is too many, it is also clear that the benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh the slight risk, and that many, many more injuries and deaths would occur without vaccinations.
Myth 5: “Vaccine-preventable diseases have been virtually eliminated from my country, so there is no need for my child to be vaccinated.”
It is true that vaccination has enabled us to reduce most vaccine-preventable diseases to very low levels in many countries. However, some of them are still quite prevalent and epidemic, in other parts of the world. Travellers can unknowingly bring these diseases into any country, and if the community were not protected by vaccinations, these diseases could quickly spread throughout the population, causing new epidemics.
At the same time, the relatively few cases that a country may currently have could very quickly become tens or hundreds of thousands of cases without the protection given by vaccines. We should therefore still be vaccinated, for two reasons.
- The first is to protect ourselves. Even if we think our chances of getting any of these diseases are small, the diseases still exist and can still infect anyone who is not protected.
- The second is to protect those around us. There is a small number of people who cannot be vaccinated (because of severe allergies to vaccine components, for example), and a small percentage of people don’t respond to vaccines. These people are susceptible to disease, and their only hope of protection is that people around them are immune and cannot pass the disease on to them.
A successful vaccination program, like a successful society, depends on the cooperation of every individual to ensure the good of all. We would think it irresponsible of a driver to ignore all traffic regulations on the presumption that other drivers will watch out for him or her. In the same way, we shouldn’t rely on people around us to stop the spread of disease; we, too, must do what we can.
Myth 6: “Giving a child multiple vaccinations for different diseases at the same time increases the risk of harmful side effects and can overload the immune system.”
Children are exposed to many foreign antigens every day. Eating food introduces new bacteria into the body, and numerous bacteria live in the mouth and nose, exposing the immune system to still more antigens. An upper respiratory viral infection exposes a child to four to ten antigens, and a case of “strep throat” to 25 – 50. According to “Adverse events Associated with childhood vaccines”, a 1994 report from the Institute of Medicine in the United States, “In the face of these normal events, it seems unlikely that the number of separate antigens contained in childhood vaccines, whether given orally or by injection, would represent an appreciable added burden on the immune system that would be immunosuppressive.”
Indeed, available scientific data show that simultaneous vaccination with multiple vaccines has no adverse effect on the normal childhood immune system. Numerous studies and reviews conducted to examine the effects of giving various combinations of vaccines simultaneously have shown that the recommended vaccines are as effective in combination as they are individually and that such combinations carry no greater risk for adverse side effects.
Continuous research finds ways to combine more antigens in a single vaccine injection (for example, measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and chickenpox). This will provide all the advantages of the individual vaccines but will require fewer shots.
There are two practical factors in favor of giving a child several vaccinations during the same visit.
- First, we want to immunize children as early as possible to give them protection during the vulnerable early months of their lives. This means giving inactivated vaccines beginning at two months and live vaccines at 12 months. The various vaccine doses thus tend to fall due at the same time.
- Second, giving several vaccinations at the same time will mean fewer clinic visits for vaccinations, which saves parents both time and money and may be less traumatic for the child. In countries where there is a likelihood of reduced contact with the health care system, there is an added advantage of ensuring that there are no missed opportunities to complete the recommended vaccinations for a child.
Delaying vaccination or missing scheduled shots is playing Russian roulette with the innocent child. The simple truth is that the child is being left unprotected, at a time when he/she is the most vulnerable.
- Vaccines given at government health facilities:
- Bacillus Calmette–Guérin (BCG), vaccine that gives protection against tuberculosis
- DTaP is the combination of diphtheria(D), tetanus(T) and accelullar pertussis(aP)
- DT is a booster dose which protects against diphtheria (D) and tetanus (T)
- Hib is Haemophilus Influenza type B
- MMR is the combination of Measles(M), Mumps(M) and Rubella(R)
- MR vaccine provides protection against Measles (M) and Rubella (R). MR Dose 2 at 7 years old, until year 2022
- JE is vaccine against Japanese Encephalitis. This vaccine is only provided in Sarawak
- HPV is Human Papillomavirus. This vaccine is provided only for girls aged 13 years. Dose 2 is given 6 months after dose 1
DidYouKNow >>>>> Immunisation in the Immunisation Schedule, National Immunisation Program is provided FREE OF CHARGE in all Ministry of Health Malaysia facilities
1) Kathleen R.S. et. al.; Adverse events associated with childhood vaccines: evidence bearing on causality; 1994; National Academy Press.
2) Myths and concerns about vaccination; Myths and realities: a guide for providers; http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf; accessed Oct. 2017.
3) Immunisation Schedule Malaysia; http://www.myhealth.gov.my/en/immunisation-schedule; Portal MyHealth; accessed Oct. 2017.