Immunization myths: What you need to know

There's a lot of information available online about vaccination. What's fact or fiction? Here's what our expert has to say about it. (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

I had a sweet and intelligent young couple come into my office a few days before the birth of their first baby and the first thing they wanted to talk about was vaccination. "Aren't there too many shots? We want to give our own program of just limited shots," they said to me.

They had gotten information from the internet - not always the best place for knowledge - and now thought that they knew how to prevent serious and sometimes fatal diseases in their child.  

I know that it’s been stated numerous times by many physician and scientists about the safety and effectiveness of immunizations, but I would like to discuss some of the myths so widely disseminated as facts all over the World Wide Web.

1) Immunizations are not effective: It is absolutely true that immunizations are not effective in one person in isolation.  The best vaccine is only about 95 percent effective in preventing disease, although many of them (like the chickenpox vaccine) are effective in preventing SERIOUS disease.

Immunizations do not work in isolation, they work through the "herd effect." The herd effect is that if most people are vaccinated, then a disease cannot cause an epidemic. One person may get ill who is not immunized, but he or she has no susceptible people around them to cause the disease to be further spread through the population.

A great example is hemophilus influenza B (HIB) which caused meningitis and epiglottis. It was extremely common when I was a young doctor in the 1970s and 80s.  Not only did it cause many deaths, but it was also the leading cause of acquired deafness at that time. When the vaccine was introduced in the late 1980s, the disease essentially disappeared at the point when 60 percent of children received the vaccine. In spite of its seriousness, HIB is not that easy to catch and just 60 percent vaccination stopped it. HIB can still break through though. Two unvaccinated children and one vaccinated child in central Pennsylvania caught it three years ago and one of the unvaccinated children died, but it did not spread very far.

Some diseases, especially measles, are very infectious. You can get measles if you are susceptible and sit in a chair that someone with measles sat in four hours ago. In orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn that have low measles vaccination rates, 56 children and adults caught measles early this summer with two ending up in intensive care. All cases originated from one person from England who was not vaccinated.  In a world where everyone can go anywhere in the world in 48 hours, diseases that travel from human to human can spread very quickly.

2) Vaccines cause autism.  A paper was published in the Lancet 15 years ago with the lead author Andrew Wakefield.  It said that the worldwide increase in autism was caused by the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine. In 2010, Wakefield lost his medical license since he fudged the data on the 12 children cited in the article and he was paid to do so by a lawyer suing vaccine companies. His so-called study had only 12 children in it (since much of the data was fabricated, it actually had four real cases).  In studies involving millions of children, there has been no correlation between receiving MMR and autism.  But the myth cannot be killed and England has a poor MMR vaccination rate, has tens of thousands of cases of measles, mumps and german measles now, and is the major center for exporting these diseases around the world.

3) The mercury in vaccines causes autism.  Almost no vaccines have mercury in them anymore.  The mercury the vaccines used to have was not the organic mercury that causes disease. Autism looks nothing like mercury poisoning. A five ounce can of tuna has more than a hundred times the mercury in the old vaccines, which your children do not get anyway.

4) We are giving too many vaccines at a time and they disrupt the child's immune system (which is simply not true) and therefore I will make up my own rules.  Medical science does not always make sense.  If it is not tested, we do not know if it works no matter how logical it seems.  Let me give an example.  Give the MMR and the chicken pox vaccines the same day in separate needles and they work very effectively and safely - one in eleven get a very mild fever or rash at most.  Give the same vaccines in one needle at 12 months and the combination causes very high fevers up to 25 percent of the time. Give the MMR and Varicella two weeks apart and they do not work nearly as well as giving them together.

What does this say? Doctors know that the current vaccine rules work very well and have eliminated many very serious illnesses.  Doctors do not know that your home made immunizations schedule or even Dr. Robert Sear's vaccine schedule work, because they have never been tested.

If you have more questions, check out the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s video, Vaccines: Separating Fact from Fear.

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