In recent times, we’ve seen an explosion of misinformation about vaccines.
However, I don’t see the “controversy” around vaccines as a medical controversy, but rather as a misinformation controversy. Because we have good data behind vaccines, and we have lots of it.
I encourage parents to consider the source when it comes to vaccine information. Are you getting info from an expert in their field? Are there ulterior motives behind what they are telling you? Also, can you verify it using multiple sources? What does the preponderance of studies show?
I’m not saying that we should blanket-ly accept all vaccines as good or bad. As a college professor of mine always harped, “In God we trust, let all others bring good data.” The decision of how, when and if to immunize children should be driven by good quality scientific studies to prove the shots are safe and effective. What follows are scientific answers to the misinformation I commonly hear from parents about vaccines, and some of the scientific findings to answer them.
Misinformation: Vaccines Are Untested
Fact: There is actually a higher level of scrutiny for the testing and regulation of vaccines than there is for any medication or nutritional or herbal supplement. The process of licensing a vaccine is detailed in the following infographic. First a vaccine is tested for safety and efficacy in animals. If it passes, it graduates to trials in small numbers of human volunteers which assess safety. If the data show it is safe, it graduates to trials with larger number to assess whether it is effective in preventing disease. These later trials involve up to tens of thousands of participants. When a vaccine has good data, it is presented to independent scientists at the FDA for approval as well as inspections of each lot of vaccine and manufacturing site. After the FDA approves the vaccine itself, then another independent committee of scientists and doctors called the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) at the CDC review the data and decide whether to place it on the recommended immunization schedule. Members of that committee, by requirement, have no relationship with vaccine manufacturers. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Academy of Family Physicians weigh in as well.
Misinformation: Vaccines Are Not Regulated. There are reports showing that vaccines cause many side effects.
Fact: Many times people refer to “reports” made to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). This is an information collecting database designed to cast a broad net monitoring for any possible side effects. The fact that a potential vaccine reaction is reported in VAERS doesn’t mean it was caused by a vaccine. Anyone can enter a report in to VAERS at any time- patient, parent or anyone else whether in healthcare or not. (There are reports of children turning in to a green hulk after getting immunized.) Scientists monitor the reports that come in. If there appears to be a trend, then that side effect is then investigated by further scientific study. To do that, scientists use a mega database called the Vaccine Safety DataLink (VSD) to compare large groups of vaccinated children with large groups of unvaccinated children. If a side effect is caused by a shot, it should show up more often in the vaccinated group than the unvaccinated group. There is no system like this set up for any other medical intervention, and goes to show how careful the medical community actually is about vaccines. On-going studies are being done all the time, and have occasionally led to doctors pulling the plug on certain vaccines, such as with Rotashield in 1998 when they found that there was 1-2 more cases of intussusception than expected for every 10,000 vaccinated children. This was subsequently replaced with two safer options, Rotateq, and Rotarix, which on-going surveillance has demonstrated don’t cause the same problem.
Misinformation: Mercury in Vaccines is Causing Autism
Fact: There is no mercury in our vaccines. Mercury poisoning is caused by methyl-mercury. There is none of this in any vaccines. Some vaccines, in the past, contained a preservative called thimerosal, also known as ethyl-mercury which is related, but very different. This was included to prevent growth of bacteria in vaccines, and there has never been evidence that it caused mercury poisoning or any other harm. It was removed as a precaution in 2000-2001 from all vaccines except for some multi-dose vials that aren’t commonly used for kids anyway. Thus, there is no thimerosal in any current childhood vaccines. Notably, the MMR vaccine never contained thimerosal. Furthermore, the symptoms of mercury poisoning are very different from the symptoms of Autism. Mercury itself has never been linked to Autism.
Misinformation: Aluminum in Vaccines is Causing Autism
Fact: Aluminum is a naturally occurring element found in breastmilk, formula, soil, air, even naturally occurring in our own bloodstream. Aluminum is included in very minute amounts in shots, far less than a baby gets from their mom’s milk or formula. The reason? It is an adjuvant to which the immune system responds, allowing vaccines to use lower doses of antigen to produce the same immune-generating response. This allows vaccines to have fewer antigens and therefore fewer side effects. Studies evaluating pre-vaccine vs. post-vaccine levels show no change in blood aluminum levels with vaccination. Again, there is no evidence of aluminum increasing risk for autism.
Misinformation: Formaldehyde in Vaccines is Causing Autism
Fact: Formaldehyde is also natural occurring chemical in the body, a natural byproduct of biological processes that occur inside of our cells. It is a byproduct of the vaccine-making process as well, and after being largely removed in the final manufacturing steps, remains in trace amounts in some vaccines. Formaldehyde makes vaccines safer by preventing the growth of bacteria in vaccines. The trace level does not increase the level of formaldehyde in the body after a round of shots is given.
Misinformation: Well, Something in the Vaccines is Causing Autism
Fact: Notice that over the last 20 years, the goalposts for vaccines causing autism have kept changing. First it was the MMR vaccine, but science debunked that. Then it was Aluminum, then Formaldehyde. But there is no evidence that any of these are responsible for causing autism diagnoses.
If there was something in the shots causing autism, then shouldn’t there be more autism in vaccinated kids than unvaccinated kids? But that’s exactly what we are not seeing. A large study compared vaccinated children with unvaccinated children, and both groups performed exactly the same on neuropsychological testing that looked for learning disabilities and other neuropsychological outcomes. Dozens of studies involving over a million kids have shown no higher rates of autism in kids that were vaccinated compared to kids that weren’t. (Click here to read a summary of some of them).
Also, if vaccines were causing autism, shouldn’t we see less autism in countries like England and Japan, in which immunization rates have dropped? Unfortunately, dropping vaccines hasn’t made a dent in the amount of kids with autism. They have had increases in vaccine-preventable disease like measles.
That and other data have lead the Institute of Medicine, the Center for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Practice to conclude that there is no evidence that vaccines cause autism.
Furthermore, research on autism is pointing other directions. Science has identified abnormalities in the brains of autistic children even as fetuses, and there are genetic factors that are associated with autism such as having a sibling and other family members with autism, paternal age, short interval between sibling births, and other factors. The more we learn about autism, the more we doubt vaccines being responsible.
Misinformation: Vaccines Contain Aborted Fetal Tissue
Fact: A few vaccines (rubella, varicella, and Hepatitis A) require the growth of virus in cells. Whenever a cell grows a virus, it dies. So scientists use cells that can divide multiple times in order to have a large supply of cells to use to grow the viruses. Fetal cells can divide many more times than other cells. So cells from two fetuses that were electively aborted in the early 1960s and then donated were used to grow viruses that were used to develop those vaccines. The vaccines did not contain fetal tissue. No further fetal cells have been used since then. The vaccines that are in use today do not contain any fetal cells either, or any human DNA (genetic material).
Misinformation: Pharmaceutical Companies And Doctors Are Pushing These Vaccines For Profit as part of a conspiracy theory
Fact: Doctors do not get kickbacks or a cut out of the cost of vaccines. Doctors’ practices actually loose money at times in order to vaccinate, because of the practical concerns related to storing, supplying and administering the shots. Pediatricians don’t vaccinate kids to make money, they do it to keep kids healthy. Trust me when I say I am not in bed with pharma. If there is any way I can get money out of the hands of pharma CEOs and back to my patients’, I am all for it.
Vaccines actually save parents money. In the 20 years between 1993 and 2013, it was estimated that vaccines saved $295 billion in direct savings and $1.38 trillion in indirect societal costs. These figures are many times greater than the value of the entire vaccine market. With the vaccine market being only 2-3% of the total pharmaceutical industry, they are also not nearly as lucrative to pharmaceutical companies as other products.
Misinformation: The CDC, Institute of Medicine, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Family Physicians, American Medical Association Are All In On It Too.
Fact: To say that financial profit is the main driving force behind the organizations that recommend vaccines is a cynical way to view healthcare. I’m not naive to the fact that healthcare in the USA exists within the framework of a capitalist society. But to say vaccines are solely a corrupt money-making scheme created to cause chronic disease and make money off of children ignores the benefit our industry gives to society and the professional ethic of those who are privileged to work within it. It would also require the coordinated nefarious cooperation of multiple independent professional organizations around the world, not to mention the thousands of doctors who in reality have no incentive to immunize besides their desire to keep kids healthy. In reality, there is a system set up to make sure vaccines are effective and safe (see question #1). Whether you believe that your child’s doctor is just a pawn in this elaborate conspiracy probably comes down to how much you trust your doctor and whether they have your child’s best interest at heart.