Ask Dr. M: Why do my loved ones and I need vaccinations?

Question: With so much in the media these days around vaccinations, I’m left wondering — is it worth it to vaccinate my kids? What are the risks?

As a physician, my answer is unequivocally “yes.” Vaccines are one of the most monumental innovations in health care history, and are widely considered to have saved more lives in the past several decades than any other intervention. Canada and other countries with publicly-funded vaccination programs have largely contributed to the eradication of many vaccine-preventable illnesses, but unfortunately some diseases like measles and mumps are still present. If left unvaccinated, your child is at a greater risk of contracting these diseases, and could also put others — such as infants, the elderly, and the immunosuppressed — at serious risk.

“Vaccines are one of the most monumental innovations in health care history, and are widely considered to have saved more lives in the past several decades than any other intervention.”

But I do understand that there are concerns around vaccinations and their efficacy. Let me shed some more light on the subject, and dispel some popularized myths that have led many to believe leaving their children unvaccinated is a wise decision.

Myth #1: Vaccines are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent

This is the most important myth to dispel, but also the one that has spread the widest. When infrequent and unfortunate anecdotes are shared among communities of concerned parents, it can seem like adverse reactions to vaccinations are more common than they actually are.

The chance of an allergic reaction to a vaccine is less than 1 in 1 million. The most common vaccine side effects are mild and harmless, including: a low fever, being fussy, being sleepier than usual, or a stiff, slightly swollen or sore arm (or leg) where the needle went in. These side effects are your body’s natural response to build immunity against the disease, and are generally not a cause for concern. Other claims — such as vaccines causing autism — have been proven false, resulting in the firm conclusion that there is no connection between autism and vaccinations.

“The chance of an allergic reaction to a vaccine is less than 1 in 1 million.”

On the flip side, side effects to measles, mumps, and rubella (which are vaccinated against with the MMR vaccine) can include: meningitis (infection of the lining of the brain and spinal cord), deafness, infertility, rash, fever, and pink eye, which could all lead to complications including pneumonia, brain damage, and even death.

Myth #2: Vaccines contain toxic chemicals

Some of the most common, fear-inducing chemicals included in vaccines include Formaldehyde, Thimerosal, Aluminum. Thankfully, there’s truly nothing to be afraid of. Here are some important facts to remember:

The human body naturally produces formaldehyde; in fact, an infant’s body contains about 10 times the amount of formaldehyde found in 1 dose of a vaccine.

Thimerosal was once commonly used in vaccines to stop harmful bacteria and fungi from growing inside multi-dose vaccine vials. Today it has been mostly removed as an additive, and yet during its long history of use in preventing contamination of vaccines, thimerosal has never been found to cause any harm. Even so, parents of children need not worry — routine vaccines used for children in Canada come in single dose vials and are therefore thimerosal free.

Aluminum is found in air, food, and water, and there is actually less aluminum in vaccines than the amount found in breast milk or infant formula.

“Even with chemical additives, vaccines are extremely safe and well-tolerated.”

There is a desire for patients and their families to be ‘all natural’ and avoid synthetic medications. For the most part, I don’t see harm in this movement, so long as it does not seek to replace standards of care and well-validated interventions. Even with chemical additives, vaccines are extremely safe and well-tolerated.

Myth #3: Herd immunity (or community protection) doesn’t exist

Herd immunity, or community protection, is the concept that contagious disease spread can be significantly reduced or eliminated if enough people in the population have immunity. Herd immunity only works when everyone is on board and requires nearly all people in a group to be vaccinated.

On one hand, herd immunity and high vaccination rates are important to protect those in our population who cannot receive vaccinations for medical reasons. On the other hand, herd immunity does not protect you or your child from illnesses that are not transmitted between people (like tetanus), so it is important not to rely on others being vaccinated in these cases and ensure you are vaccinated yourself.

This is a great infographic from the Public Health Agency of Canada on how vaccines have helped to completely or nearly eradicate serious diseases from our population.

Thanks to long-term high rates of vaccination in the population, these diseases are being carried and spread at much, much lower rates, meaning the immunocompromised are less likely to come into contact with them and fall ill. Even if someone visits a country where vaccinations are less common, when they return to Canada the chances of that disease being spread remain extremely low when the majority of the population is vaccinated.

Myth #4: Vaccinations are painful for my child

Many parents fear that their child will experience significant pain during the vaccination process. While pain is not completely unavoidable — needles are involved, after all — there are many things parents can do to minimize discomfort, like breastfeeding infants prior to and during the immunization, or applying a topical anesthetic gel, cream or patch on the area 30 minutes before the vaccination. For other ideas and resources on how to make the vaccination experience as pleasant and tolerable as possible for both you and your child, check out this guide.

Myth #5: I’m not at risk, so I don’t need the vaccine

Everyone it at risk, full stop. Many believe that if they are healthy and strong, they don’t need to worry about keeping their vaccinations up to date because they are unlikely to catch a disease like whooping cough, and if they do, their hearty immune systems will be able to easily fight it off. Unfortunately, not everyone is in this position, including: infants and children too young to be fully vaccinated; adults 65 years of age and older; or people with health conditions that affect their immune system (such as those undergoing chemotherapy to treat cancer or other serious health conditions.) Sometimes healthy people who are unvaccinated become carriers of disease, and while they may not experience any symptoms, they can easily pass on the infection to someone who is unable to fight it off. This is why remembering how critical herd immunity is is important — so the strong can protect the weak. Plus, even if you are healthy, you can still be significantly affected by vaccine-preventable illnesses and experience complications. Data shows that things such as health and high socioeconomic status are not protective against these illnesses.

If you’re unsure as to whether or not it’s a good idea to vaccinate your child, or yourself, it’s important to turn to the people with the most reliable information — your doctor, nurse, pharmacist, or public health department.

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Keep track of your own vaccination schedule with the Dot Health app, and learn more about vaccinations here, here, and here.

Dr. Shaun Mehta is a medical resident and Dot Health’s team physician
shaun@dothealth.ca

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