Health Politics/Community

Common Anti-Vax Myths About Pro-Vaxers Debunked

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It’s no secret I’m pro-vaccination.  I believe any step  I can take to protect my children and loved ones is a step worth making.  When Alister, almost 6, was born, I was hesitant about administering mass quantities of different vaccinations at once.  The junk science of Andrew Wakefield had exploded into the anti-vaccination movement, and though I never contemplated not vaccinating, I did wish to stagger Alister’s vaccinations, just to be on the safe side.

By the time Ewing was born, Andrew Wakefield’s unethical misrepresentation of science had been officially debunked, and I felt ashamed for ever buying into the hysteria that one medical “expert” in a sea of millions of dissenting ones had spearheaded for his own future financial gain, putting my child’s health and the health of those with whom he came in contact at risk.  Ewing was vaccinated according to his pediatrician’s and the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations.  There was no way, on top of his other stroke-induced medical concerns, I was going to put him at risk for further motor and cognitive damage due to a nearly preventable disease.

As more and more credible information from the scientific community about the benefits of vaccinating and the dangers of not vaccinating to both the unvaccinated child and those with whom s/he comes in contact made its way into mainstream media, I felt two things: sick that I could have compromised Alister’s health and thankful that both my children were up to date and protected.  Conversely, as more anti-vax organizations began popping up and their messages based on isolated, outdated, poorly executed, or completely absent medical studies (like the one by Andrew Wakefield) circulated the internet thanks to social media, I became nervous.

Very, very nervous.  Not about my choices to vaccinate, of course, but about the risk anti-vaxers were posing to their own children and the population as a whole.

And then it happened.  I received a call from daycare explaining that my children had had probable contact with a child infected with pertussis, or whooping cough, and that I should contact my pediatrician for treatment right away.

This probable contact stemmed from an unvaccinated child attending preschool in the same building on a waiver.  My children were vaccinated, thank God (though weren’t old enough yet to have had all of the 5 recommended shots, leaving them slightly susceptible), which meant they might show signs of the disease but certainly wouldn’t die from exposure, but they would need to be treated with antibiotics to prevent further spread of the disease to the unvaccinated, the undervaccinated, and the immunocompromised.  I don’t particularly like pumping my kids full of meds willy nilly (just because I vaccinate doesn’t mean I’m cavalier with medication), but not treating them and risking exposure to others would be irresponsible.  Highly irresponsible.  So naturally, I complied, flooded their systems with antibiotics (to which Alister eventually had an allergic reaction, an event that didn’t cause us to rule out all antibiotics as unsafe and dangerous), and went on my way.

I was never too worried about my children’s health because they had been vaccinated,  but I was rather furious at the parent who thought it would be OK, in Western, developed society, to allow her child to not only risk contracting a highly preventable disease him/herself, but also to expose others who may not be fully vaccinated due to age or who may be more susceptible due to medical complications to a disease that could kill them.

I can’t say my pro-vaccination advocacy began at this point — I think it was always there.  But I can say that I have become quite vocal about the importance of vaccination, enough so that I have read the opinions of anti-vaxers and even gotten into spats in the comments sections of articles with them (as Mr. Sammich says, a really excellent use of my time).  Through the course of reading these comments and exchanging with anti-vaxers, I’ve encountered some common myths anti-vaxers seem to believe about pro-vaxers, many of which I will attempt to debunk in what follows.

Myth #1: Pro-vaxers believe vaccinations are 100% effective.  

False.  Pro-vaxers are very aware of the efficacy rate of vaccinations.  Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control are up front about the effectiveness of vaccines, explaining that vaccines are effective anywhere from 90-100% of the time and offering possible reasons why a vaccine may be deemed ineffective for a particular individual.  Medical providers, when asked, are honest about vaccine success rates, answering questions about the efficacy of a vaccination, how long it protects a person, and when (if at all) boosters are recommended.

Pro-vaxers simply believe that a 90% chance of protection against a deadly disease is better than a 0% chance of protection.  They are well-aware that the antibodies from breast milk are not a replacement for vaccinations.  They know that good nutrition and hygiene do not protect against or prevent deadly diseases, either at all or, in rare cases, anywhere close to the protection offered by vaccinations.

Myth #2: Pro-vaxers are ignorant to the possible side effects of vaccinations.

False.  Much like with efficacy rates, pro-vaxers are very well aware of the potential dangers associated with vaccinations.  As with any medical treatment, vaccinations carry with them mild, moderate, and severe side effects to which anyone getting immunized is susceptible.  These side effects are not kept secret, and anyone can request a list of them from their practitioner at any time.

The thing that pro-vaxers realize, however, is that their children are much more likely to be harmed by a disease than by the vaccines themselves.  Compare the number of people injured by measles versus the number injured by the MMR vaccine, for example:

Pneumonia: 6 in 100
Encephalitis: 1 in 1,000
Death: 2 in 1,000

Encephalitis or severe allergic reaction:
1 in 1,000,000

Like with any safety decision they make for their children, pro-vaxers weigh the benefits vs. the risks to determine the best course of action for their children.

To illustrate the point another way, let’s for a second compare vaccinations with seat belt use.  There are many claims out there that seat belt use results in serious harm or death, much like the claims that vaccinations result in serious harm or death.  Actual evidence suggests that the number of people saved by seat belts far outweighs the number of people injured by them, much like the number of people saved by vaccinations far outweighs the number of people injured by them.

According to the CDC, “Seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about 50%.”  Also according to the CDC, “Widespread use of measles vaccine has led to a greater than 99 percent reduction in measles compared with the pre-vaccine era,” and “95% of the people who receive a single dose of MMR will develop immunity to all 3 viruses” while “a second vaccine dose gives immunity to almost all of those who did not respond to the first dose.”

Using seat belts saves 50% more people from crash-related injuries and deaths than not using seat belts.  Vaccinating for measles offers people over 95% more protection from measles infection than not vaccinating.  My guess is that most parents use seat belts on themselves and their children despite risks of potential injury and death from said seat belt use because doing so reduces bodily risk by 50%.  It stands to reason, then, that parents would choose to vaccinate against measles, particularly with such staggering evidence of its effectiveness in reducing measles — more than 99%! — and in protecting against infection — over 95%! — despite risks of potential injury and death from vaccination.

For pro-vaxers, much like parents who choose to use seat belts, the benefits of vaccinating far outweigh the risks.  We are aware of the risks, and we make informed choices based on overwhelming evidence that protection benefits from vaccines exceed risk of injury.

Myth #3: If vaccines are so great, pro-vaxers have nothing to worry about when it comes to anti-vaccination.

False.  When the majority of a population vaccinates against a disease, chances of an outbreak are rare.  This is known as herd immunity (or community immunity) and is extremely important in protecting the members of a population who cannot be fully vaccinated, either due to age (infants, for example) or medical concerns (the small population who can’t be vaccinated because of medical risk, including children undergoing chemotherapy and people with compromised immune systems due to illness or advanced age).

Pro-vaxers are legitimately concerned about increasing anti-vax trends, and rightfully so, particularly if they or someone they love fits the profile of a person depending upon herd immunity for protection.

Another consideration as far as this myth is concerned is who is truly at risk when herd immunity fails.  According to The New England Journal of Medicine, parents who refuse vaccinations tend to be white, educated, live in high income households, and have access to health insurance that offers holistic medical approaches whereas parents of undervaccinated children don’t necessarily refuse vaccinations but miss them due to health care and socioeconomic issues.  Furthermore, parents who refuse vaccinations believe the chances of infection from deadly diseases are slim and the effects of infection are not too alarming. 

Two things about this information stand out to me: 1.) Parents who refuse to vaccinate live in privileged, socioeconomically advantageous conditions that foster ignorance to the repercussions of not vaccinating (and ironically, given their education, to the countless studies that prove the benefits of vaccinating far outweigh the risks), giving them a false sense of the likelihood of their children contracting a deadly disease and the dangers associated with disease infection, putting these unvaccinated children at great risk, and 2.) Parents who refuse to vaccinate have access to a wide array of medical treatment options should their children become infected, a luxury not afforded to parents of undervaccinated children or those who don’t vaccinate for socioeconomic reasons.

While both the privileged and the underprivileged are at risk of contracting deadly diseases, the underprivileged — those without health care coverage, those living in poverty, and those uneducated about the dangers associated with not vaccinating — are less likely to receive health care comparable to that of privileged children.  It is these people, along with those who can’t vaccinate for age or medical reasons, who face fatality should herd immunity fail.

Interestingly, many anti-vaxers I have encountered — certainly not all! — are blatantly unconcerned about the vulnerable among our population (ironically, given their own children fit that description) and like to refute all evidence of herd immunity with selective, outdated medical research (I’m talking articles from the ’80s here!) or mere claims that their children are not cattle and should not be treated as such.  I’m not going to link to them here.  If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you’re also perfectly capable of conducting a Google search yourself.  They’re really easy to find, and many don’t appear in any scholarly, peer reviewed or government supported publications.  (To be fair, neither will this post.)

Some of these people have actually said things like, “Nice anecdotal evidence, but I don’t care,” “Just because others are concerned about their health doesn’t mean I’m obligated to vaccinate my children,” and “There’s the old herd immunity defense again; like you know what that even means” in correspondence with me.  I can’t help but be disturbed by their use of personal attacks instead of credible, reliable medical evidence (not outdated or selective, isolated studies, as many are wont to share) to defend their positions as well as their extremely selfish nature.  Not even an ounce of concern about the ripple effect their choices — ill-advised by a global medical community who specializes in disease research and prevention — could have for others.

Myth #4: Pro-vaxers have succumbed to Big Pharma’s fear-based attempts to make money off vaccinations.

False.  Were Big Pharma (and, in turn, the government) pushing vaccinations on the public without substantiated evidence of their effectiveness in decreasing deadly disease outbreaks and deaths, I could see how this argument might hold up.  The truth is, however, that while maybe not perfect in manufacturing and distribution, vaccinations have the support of a global medical community — not just those in the U.S. who stand to potentially profit from vaccine distribution.

Furthermore, the CDC as well as top researchers and practitioners in the medical community are clear about vaccine efficacy and risks (see myths 1-2) and address as well as refute common concerns and myths that appear in anti-vaccination literature.  Hence, pro-vaxers are not victims of scare tactics; rather, they are informed parents whose choices are based on scientific evidence researched, tested, and accepted by medical experts — evidence that far outweighs, both in accuracy and number, any evidence suggesting not vaccinating is a safer alternative for most children (excepting those who cannot for medical reasons).

Myth #5: Pro-vaxers’ children are actually the ones endangering the public because of “vaccine shedding.”

False.  First of all, vaccines can’t shed.  Only viruses can shed, and only live viruses at that.  The correct terminology is viral shedding, which occurs when a live virus reproduces and infects other cells within a person’s body or leaves the body with the potential to infect others.

Many anti-vaxers are under the assumption that all vaccines result in shedding, meaning vaccinated children are ticking time bombs of disease with the potential to spread the very things for which they’re being vaccinated to others.  This is simply not true.  While some vaccines carry the potential for viral shedding, most notably the nasal influenza spray, most do not.  Many vaccines do not contain full-on live viruses, and the ones that do, such as MMR, are considered live, attenuated viruses, which means while they carry the potential to reproduce in chick embryo cells, they are very rarely, if at all, capable of reproducing and, thus, shedding in human cells.  

Other vaccinations are inactivated (killed), such as diphtheria and tetanus, or conjugate, such as pertussis.  Because these vaccinations do not contain live viruses or bacteria, they cannot reproduce or shed.  Moreover, vaccinations like pertussis don’t even include all components of the bacteria, instead consisting of only a part of the bacteria and a carrier protein that stimulates immune response in the body but does not cause illness.

Hence, very few vaccines actually carry a potential for viral shedding, and of those that do, the chances of a vaccinated person (or even an unvaccinated person) contracting a disease from it are rare, if not impossible.  The greatest risk factor for a person to contract a deadly, communicable disease is to be unvaccinated and come in contact with another unvaccinated person infected with it.  As such, pro-vaxers are actually doing their part to reduce the number of people exposed to deadly diseases through vaccination.


Despite the many contradictory, poorly supported, and entirely mythical assertions anti-vaxers make about pro-vaxers, the evidence continues to support the pro-vaccination recommendations of doctors, scientists, researchers, and medical organizations worldwide.   Not surprisingly, with the recent discovery that I am pregnant with our third child and in the face of such overwhelming evidence supporting the benefits of and need for vaccinations, I am terrified of the potential risks to my newborn given the increasing anti-vax trend.

The booming movement toward not vaccinating seems to result in part from the public’s mistrust of the medical community and the government and in part from the absence of recent, widespread examples of the horrors of infectious diseases on children and adults alike.  This absence is largely due to the advent of vaccination, the very thing anti-vaxers advocate against.  Were the gruesome images of infection and death from nearly eradicated diseases common in today’s society in the same ways they were pre-vaccination era, I suspect anti-vaxers would be singing a different tune.  I only hope (perhaps naively?) that with the growing, localized outbreaks of pertussis and measles in areas like California and New York as well emerging anecdotal tales of anti-vaccination gone awry, anti-vaxers will join those of us who, although aware that vaccinations carry risks and are not 100% effective, realize the benefits of vaccinating far outweigh potential risks.