Vaccinations are the single most important way to protect children against serious diseases. They’re also one of the most cost effective health interventions, saving three million lives globally each year, but still many parents choose not to immunise their children. With so many conflicting pieces of advice and untruths about vaccinations filling cyberspace, it‘s no wonder some parents distrust immunisations. We rounded up 10 of the most common vaccination myths, and asked Professor Haroon Saloojee, professor in the Division of Community Paediatrics at the University of the Witwatersrand and principal paediatrician at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto to straighten the facts.
Myth 1: My child’s immune system won’t be able to handle more than one vaccine at a time.
Truth: Parents sometimes argue that giving their child more than one vaccine at a time will overwhelm their little one’s immune system. Prof. Saloojee, however, points out that babies successfully deal with thousands of antigens (foreign substances that cause the body to produce antibodies, and build up an immunity to that foreign substance) present in dust, sand and furniture every day, and that because of this, their systems have adapted to responding safely to challenges from antigens present in vaccines.
“If you stagger your child’s vaccines, their effectiveness is reduced. The body seems to deal better with a number of vaccines being provided at the exact same time than it does if they’re given separately.” The other advantage of combination vaccines, such as the 5-in-1 vaccine available in the public sector and the 6-in-1 vaccine in the private sector, is that children can receive all their compulsory vaccines at once, reducing the amount of injections your little one needs.
Myth 2: If other children in the community are vaccinated against infectious diseases, my child doesn’t need to be, because he’ll be protected.
Truth: Vaccinating your child is just about the best thing you can do for the health protection of all children. Although your child may be protected if other children are vaccinated, this is a very selfish point of view. “If, for example, 95% of children in the community have been immunised against measles, the other 5% will be protected. If measles were to come to the area, the disease will be unable to spread widely because so many children are vaccinated,” explains Prof. Saloojee. But, if every parent takes this view and depends on other children being vaccinated to protect their own child, the immunisation rate in the community will fall, allowing the disease to spread very easily.
Myth 3: Vaccines aren’t really necessary anymore now that major diseases have disappeared.
Truth: “Vaccines are the victims of their own success and have been under fire because people have forgotten that illnesses such as diphtheria and polio do exist, due to vaccines’ success at preventing many of these infectious diseases,” explains Prof Saloojee. If you stop vaccinating against diseases such as measles and polio, those diseases will come back.
Recently, a situation like this took place in the United Kingdom when a study published in a prominent medical journal, claimed that the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine causes autism. This claim led to parents not giving their children the MMR vaccine over 10 years. The immediate consequence of this was that there was a massive and continued measles outbreak in the UK. The situation has now reversed since parents have started vaccinating their children again.
Myth 4: The MMR vaccine causes autism and other disorders.
Truth: In 1998 a group of researchers led by Dr Wakefield at the Royal Free Hospital in London suggested that the MMR vaccine caused inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which then led to developmental disorders such as autism. But, reviews of hundreds of studies by expert groups around the world, including the World Health Organisation, failed to confirm this finding, and they concluded that there’s no link between measles, the measles vaccine and either Crohn’s Disease or autism.
“Indeed, several scientific and ethical flaws found in Wakefield’s research resulted in his paper being discredited and his licence to practice being revoked,” says Prof Saloojee. Experts believe that the link between autism and the MMR vaccine is coincidental because parents usually first report concerns about their child’s development between 18 and 19 months, and over 90% of children receive the MMR vaccine just before or around this time.
Myth 5: My baby might get the disease the vaccine is supposed to prevent from the vaccine itself.
Truth: There is a small possibility of a child contracting the disease from the vaccine itself as some vaccines contain live weakened virus to provoke an immune response. For example, polio, which is made with the live weakened polio virus, can lead to a child contracting this disease from the vaccine itself. However, only one in 2.4 million children may be at risk of contracting polio from the vaccine itself, but one in 100 children can be at risk of contracting polio if they aren’t vaccinated against this disease. “Vaccines are like any other medicine or medical interventions you give to a child – even paracetamol (Panado) can have adverse effects on children,” says Prof. Saloojee.
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