a child receiving vaccine

Vaccine Myths Debunked: The Truth About Vaccines

It seems more common than ever to know someone who mistrusts vaccines. They may have read something through social media or been counseled by a concerned friend about something they’d heard about vaccines. 

Perhaps you’ve read or heard many of these same myths, and although you know the facts, you might wonder how these myths came to be in the first place. 

Below we go over some of these common vaccine myths, why they exist, and the truth about vaccines with the facts behind the myths.

The Myths, The Whys & the Facts Behind Them

For every myth, there’s a reason behind it existing. Myths are often based on misunderstandings or misinterpretations of data. They’re made popular for many reasons, especially if they seem to make logical sense on the surface to those who aren’t well educated in that particular field.

Understanding why these myths exist is just as important as knowing the true facts behind them. 

Myth: Childhood Vaccines Cause Autism.

Why this myth exists: A British surgeon named Andrew Wakefield and 12 colleagues published a study in 1998 that suggested there was a strong correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism in children.

The facts: After the paper came out and since then, several studies have tried to replicate the claims and failed to show any link between the vaccine and autism, besides the fact that both tend to happen in early childhood. Later, 10 of the 12 colleagues listed as authors on the paper issued a retraction that said that none of the data from the study suggested a link.

The study also had several other major issues with it that eventually made it deemed a fraud, including the following and more:

  • Wakefield had financial interests in the results of the study, as it was commissioned and being paid for by lawyers for parents who were suing vaccine companies;
  • He and the other researchers failed to get ethical clearances for any of the invasive research procedures they did on the children being studied;
  • The study said they’d selected the 12 children they studied randomly, but they were recruited through anti-MMR vaccine groups;
  • Many of the facts and data presented in the study were falsified, changed to fit the narrative, or relied on the parents’ memories and opinions.

Why this myth exists: There are other reasons why this myth exists, and one, in particular, is that it seems the rates of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) seems to be much more common now than it was in the past. Many people claim there is a link to this increase in diagnostic rates due to childhood vaccines.

The facts: If you look at the prevalence of ASD diagnoses over the past few decades, you’ll find the prevalence of ASD diagnoses has gone up quite noticeably. In 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the prevalence of ASD as one in every 150 children. By 2016, that rate had gone up to one in every 54

Looking in from the outside, that number seems like a staggering change in just a matter of a decade and a half. Although the exact reasons behind this change still aren’t completely understood, there are many known factors that help contribute to it:

  • The more we learn about ASD, the easier it is to identify it and diagnosis it, so we now identify it much quicker and earlier in a child’s life;
  • With more knowledge comes changes in how we define ASD, and those definitions have become broader;
  • ASD awareness has increased significantly over the same time period, so more parents and health care professionals are aware of signs.

Myth: Vaccine Ingredients Aren’t Safe.

Why this myth exists: If you take a look at the list of ingredients or a description of ingredients that can be found in some vaccines, you might recognize a few, like thimerosal (a preservative that continues mercury), formaldehyde, or aluminum. 

The facts: These ingredients are used in some vaccines that come in multi-dose vials to prevent bacteria from contaminating the doses whenever a needle is inserted to draw a dose. You won’t see these types of vials very often, as many of our vaccines come in single-dose vials, and the U.S. removed thimerosal from all childhood vaccines as a precaution.

Still, those ingredients can sound intimidating if you look at them alone, and they can be damaging at toxic quantities, which most people aren’t at risk for. You already ingest or encounter them in your everyday life at levels much higher than what you’d find in a vaccine:

  • Although it’s not the same type of mercury that thimerosal has, we regularly encounter a more toxic type of mercury called methylmercury. Almost everyone has traces of this type of mercury in their body, and you can find it in many fish and shellfish. For most people, it doesn’t build-up to the level where it causes health effects.
  • You can find formaldehyde in many household products, in cosmetics, and in medications like antihistamines, mouthwash, or cough drops. These sources are normally much higher doses than what you’ll find in a vaccine containing it.
  • Most people ingest anywhere from 30 to 50 mg of aluminum every day from a variety of sources. The amount of aluminum in a single dose of a vaccine that contains it is maybe .125 mg to .625 mg.

Myth: If the Disease a Vaccine Protects Against Isn’t Common in My Country Anymore, I Don’t Need to Get the Vaccine.

Why this myth exists: Many of the diseases that we vaccinate against are or were nearly eradicated in many countries, so some people might believe that they don’t need to get the vaccine anymore.

The facts: Unless a disease is fully eradicated, there’s always a chance the disease can reappear. Some vaccines can’t be given until you’re older, and some people can’t get vaccines at all due to underlying conditions. That means there will always be people susceptible to getting sick from these diseases if even one person with the disease comes into their community.

We’ve seen this case with the numerous measles outbreaks over the past few years in the United States. The spread of pertussis (whooping cough) in many communities is another example. Just because the disease is now less common in our country doesn’t mean it isn’t still prevalent elsewhere in the world and able to be reintroduced back into our communities. 

Myth: It’s Better Just to Get the Disease. Some Diseases Are Just a Part of Childhood, and People in the Past Were Just Fine Without Vaccines.

Why this myth exists: Many older adults remember childhood diseases like chickenpox as just an accepted part of their childhood. Everyone seemed to get it, and most people seemed to recover fine.

The facts: Many childhood diseases of the past are preventable diseases of the present. Although some don’t seem particularly harmful, like chickenpox, they can still have a lasting impact on children at the least, whether that’s missing school, having permanent scars, or being bullied. 

At the most severe, chickenpox can prove fatal with every one per 60,000 cases resulting in death. The chickenpox virus also continues to hang out in the body and can reappear later as shingles. 

Another commonly used example of a disease we vaccine against today that used to be common before is measles. At one point, more than 90% of people had measles before they turned 10 years old, and there was a 1 in 1,000 chance that it would be fatal. For those that survived, many ended up with serious conditions. 

Getting the disease might provide a stronger immune response in your body to protect you against future infections, but it comes at a price that a vaccine doesn’t have.

There are many, many more vaccine myths that prevent thousands of people from vaccinating themselves and their children every year. Learn what the myths are and what the facts are, so you can help your community make the best and safest choice to be vaccinated.