August is National Immunization Awareness Month, and this is a great time to shed some light on the truth about vaccines. Just like you can use a health tracker to predict a coming illness, vaccines can help people potentially prevent illness in the first place, or in the case of the flu and COVID-19 vaccines, reduce the impact of the illness. As we enter this critical month, the team at Evidation wanted to dig into the importance of vaccines for individuals and the community as a whole.
Recognizing the importance of vaccination
Since the discovery of vaccines, some of the world's deadliest viral and bacterial illnesses have been practically eliminated or greatly reduced globally. The World Health Organization states there are 25 illnesses with current vaccines. Several diseases commonplace a century ago are now pragmatically gone, including life-altering diseases like polio, hepatitis A, and tetanus.
In other words, vaccines save lives. National Immunization Awareness Month is an excellent time to draw attention to the importance of vaccination, so more people will get on board and get vaccinated.
Debunking popular vaccine myths
Sadly, vaccines have several myths surrounding them. Like all good myths, they have a measure of truth or speculation. Here are the four most popular and the reality behind them:
1. Herd immunity is enough
Herd immunity occurs when the majority of a population is vaccinated, which reduces the chances of an outbreak. Herd immunity protects the most vulnerable populations, like infants or pregnant individuals, who can't get vaccinated. So there's a measure of truth here. But if too many people rely on herd immunity, it won't work anymore. Also, the number of vaccines needed to reach this point is high. According to Yale, herd immunity against measles doesn't start until 95% of the population gets vaccinated. If too many people buy into herd immunity for their own protection, it won't exist.
2. Vaccines contain harmful ingredients
Again, there's a measure of truth to this myth. According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, some vaccines contain ingredients that can be harmful in high doses, such as thimerosal. However, manufacturers are moving away from these ingredients when possible, and the amount in the vaccine is very small. In fact, you're naturally exposed to mercury, the main toxin in thimerosal, every time you drink milk or eat fish, and in much higher concentrations than what's in the vaccine.
3. Vaccines cause autism
One of the biggest popular claims circulating today is that vaccines cause autism. For some parents of children with autism, looking for a cause can become their mission.
This myth became popular in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield published a case study in the Lancet. It suggested that the MMR vaccine may trigger behavioral regression in children. Sadly, many considered this study fact, even though it only studied 12 people, had poor parameters, and was entirely speculative. In fact, 10 of the 12 co-authors of the paper retracted their interpretation of the results, but the misinformation was already out there.
In 2012, the National Academies performed a new study to determine if vaccines can trigger autism. It found that vaccines were very safe. In 2013, the CDC added to that study and found that the number of antigens from vaccines was the same between children who were on the autism spectrum and those who weren’t. Based on these two studies, the CDC has stated that vaccine ingredients don't cause autism.
4. I don't need vaccines against normal childhood illnesses like the flu or chickenpox.
For many people, getting vaccinated against something like the flu or chickenpox, which isn't often life-threatening, feels unnecessary. Yet, even though most people have mild symptoms of these illnesses, they can be very dangerous for some. In the United States, between 140,000 and 710,000 people are hospitalized yearly from flu complications, and between 12,000 and 52,000 die. You don't know if you or your child are in the "high risk" category or not. With the low risk of vaccines, it's a health measure worth taking.
Vaccination across the lifespan: Tailoring recommendations for different age groups
Vaccines are safe, but using a vaccine schedule to deliver them at the recommended ages helps protect children from uncomfortable vaccine reactions. It also ensures that they get as many vaccines as possible by the time they are in preschool.
The CDC has a recommended vaccine schedule that looks like this:
Birth to six months
In the first six months of life, babies should receive their first doses of:
- Hepatitis B
- Pneumococcal conjugate
- Inactivated poliovirus
Six months to two years
Between six months and two years, toddlers need several boosters for the vaccines they've already received, as well as these:
- Flu vaccine
- Hepatitis A
Later childhood and teenage vaccines
After the initial round of vaccines, children need the flu shot and COVID-19 vaccine annually. In addition, they'll need the following:
- HPV vaccine – First dose around age 11
- Meningococcal disease – First dose around age 11
- Tdap – First dose around age 11
Vaccines for adults
Adults need annual vaccines against COVID-19 and flu. In addition, they will need the Tdap vaccine on occasion to protect against tetanus. Adults who travel outside of the United States may need additional vaccines against illnesses still prevalent globally. Finally, adults need a booster for their HPV vaccination by age 26. At college age, young adults may need an MMR booster. Older adults benefit from the pneumonia and shingles vaccines.
The challenge of vaccine equity
Some of the benefits of vaccination, like herd immunity to protect the most vulnerable, don't work if people can't access vaccines. According to the WHO and other global health organizations, countries with low economic status often struggle to obtain and distribute vaccinations. Even within the US, people who don't have health insurance may not have the funds to get vaccines for their children or themselves.
To combat this, in 2020, the CDC pioneered the Partnering for Vaccine Equity program, which increased funding for adult immunization programs. While more work needs to happen, this has gone far in increasing vaccination rates in underserved communities.
The COVID-19 vaccine is the newest vaccine to make global headlines, as we're just a few years past the height of the pandemic. Since its introduction at the end of 2020, at least 80% of the US population has received at least one dose of the vaccine. This has prevented over 18 million hospitalizations and 3 million potential deaths.
This vaccine shows the power of working fast to protect against a global threat. Its swift development and free administration helped curb the effects of the pandemic. Continued use of the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters in the future may help keep new variants at bay.
What's the bottom line? Immunizations are safe and provide protection for our kids and the community at large. During National Immunization Awareness Month, take a moment to check your vaccine history and make sure you're up-to-date.
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