A great deal of controversy surrounds the issue of immunization. A recent measles outbreak in California has once again brought the debate to the attention of the media. The resurgence of preventable diseases emphasizes the importance of understanding the facts before making informed decisions on a matter that can have serious health implications for you, your family and your community. The following explores some commonly held myths and the facts about immunization.
Myth: It is better to be immunized through disease than through vaccines.
Fact: Vaccines interact with the immune system to produce an immune response similar to that produced by natural infection, but they do not cause the disease or put the immunized person at risk of potential complications. In contrast, the price paid for getting immunity through natural infection might be intellectual disabilities from Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), birth defects from rubella, liver cancer from hepatitis B virus, or in a worst case death from measles.
Myth: Better hygiene and sanitation will make diseases disappear – vaccines are not necessary.
Fact: The diseases we can vaccinate against will return if we stop vaccination programs. While better hygiene, hand washing and clean water help protect people from infectious diseases, many infections can spread regardless of our level of cleanliness. Last year, BC experienced its largest measles outbreak in almost 30 years, which reminds us that despite how far we have come, when people are not immunized, measles (and other diseases), can and will come back.
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Myth: Influenza is just a nuisance, and the vaccine isn’t very effective.
Fact: Influenza is much more than a nuisance. It is a serious disease that kills over 300 million people worldwide every year. Pregnant women, small children, elderly people with poor health and anyone with a chronic condition, like asthma or heart disease, are at higher risk of severe infection and death. Vaccinating pregnant women has the added benefit of protecting their newborns (there is currently no vaccine for babies under six months). Vaccination offers immunity to the three most prevalent strains circulating in any given season. It is the best way to reduce your chances of severe flu and of spreading it to others. Avoiding the flu means avoiding lost income from missing days off work or school. Also healthy individuals can protect their more vulnerable family members (young children or elderly relatives) by ensuring they are immunized.
Myth: Vaccines have damaging and long-term side-effects that are yet unknown. Vaccination can even be fatal.
Fact: Most vaccine reactions are usually minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or mild fever. Very serious health events are extremely rare and are carefully monitored and investigated. You are far more likely to be seriously affected by a vaccine-preventable disease than by a vaccine. For example, in the case of polio, the disease can cause paralysis; measles can cause encephalitis and blindness, and some vaccine-preventable diseases can even result in death. While any serious injury or death caused by vaccines is one too many, the benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh the risk, and many more injuries and deaths would occur without vaccines.
Myth: A strong immune system can be just as effective as vaccination with less risk.
Fact: Having a strong immune system is important, but making sure that community immunization rates are high is essential for protecting everyone. This concept is referred to as herd immunity. If we can vaccinate everyone and protect everyone, the virus has no opportunity to establish a foothold. Herd immunity is especially important for those who can’t be immunized, like children who are on immunosuppressant therapies or who are too young to be vaccinated. If people choose not to vaccinate, we’re all more vulnerable.
Myth: Vaccines aren’t 100% safe.
This one, while technically true, is important not to overstate. Almost all vaccines are given via injections, which can cause pain, redness and tenderness at the injection site. Other rare side effects include fever, persistent crying and allergic reactions. Vaccines in Canada are effective and safe – much safer than the many diseases they prevent. The success rate of past vaccine programs is one of the reasons why so many parents hesitate now – they simply do not know how serious and widespread these diseases used to be and therefore may overlook the importance of being vaccinated against them.