Important information for parents: the facts about vaccination.

Immunisation saves lives.

boy_vacSince the humble observations about cowpox made by Edward Jenner in the 1700s, vaccination programs have saved millions of lives and dramatically decreased child mortality and suffering. Diseases such as smallpox are now consigned to history, while polio has virtually disappeared.

But sadly there are some people who are vehemently opposed to vaccinations. While they will tell you they are ‘pro-choice’ not ‘anti-vaccination’, their actions indicate otherwise. And by choosing not to vaccinate, they are placing the health of you and your children at risk from infection with preventable diseases.

In Australia, the deceptively titled ‘Australian Vaccination Network’ (AVN) spreads misinformation about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. They claim that vaccines contain toxic quantities of mercury, aluminium, anti-freeze and formaldehyde. Further, they claim that vaccines cause autism, despite the fact that, as a result of concerted scientific research, a link between vaccines and autism has been unequivocally dismissed.

Ultimately, the decision to vaccinate or not lies with you, the parent. Before you make your choice we urge you to seek out unbiased, accurate advice from reputable medical sources. The Australian Vaccination Network is no such source.

Following is a brief overview of some of the more common myths and misconceptions about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccinations, sourced from scientific papers and government bodies, all based on years of research. For more detailed information please follow the links below or those provided under each post.

Australian Skeptics strongly advise that you consult your GP or visit any of the following sites for accurate and reliable information on vaccination. The following is intended as a guide only and should not be construed as medical advice.

A great general resource for parents wanting to know more about vaccination can be found in the Australian Government publication;
Understanding Childhood Immunisation Booklet

General questions about vaccination can be found on the Australian Governments website;
Frequently asked Questions About Immunisation

For more detailed information about vaccines, with references to scientific studies, see the Australian Government’s Handbook;
Immunisation Myths and Realities, Responding to Arguments about Immunisation

What’s the difference between immunisation and vaccination?

Vaccination means having a vaccine – that is actually getting the injection. Immunisation means both receiving a vaccine and becoming immune to a disease, as a result of being vaccinated.

What is herd immunity and why is it important?

Herd immunity is used to explain the prevention of the spread of disease between person to person and throughout the population. When the majority of people are vaccinated, it is more difficult for an infection to spread, hence even unvaccinated people can be protected. This is particularly important for those people who cannot be vaccinated such as the very young, the immune compromised people such as the elderly and those who are very ill, such as people undergoing chemotherapy .

Myth: Vaccines are unsafe and not tested.

All vaccines currently available in Australia must pass stringent safety testing before being approved for use by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) which is our government body responsible for regulating pharmaceticals. This testing is required by law and is usually done over many years during the vaccine’s development.

It takes anywhere between 10 to 15 years to develop and test a vaccine before use and even after it is approved, the safety of vaccines is monitored by the Adverse Drug Reactions Advisory Committee and other organisations. The results of any adverse reactions are published for the public to see on the TGA website under Safety Alerts and Advisory Information.

No effective drug including vaccines, can be considered 100% safe. Because of the complex nature of the human body, a drug which has an effect will also have side effects. We see this with aspirin for example, which is effective in pain relief but has also been associated with stomach ulcers and bleeding. However, every effort is made to ensure vaccines are as safe as possible for you and your family.

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Myth: Vaccines cause autism.

This myth stems from a study published in The Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. In actual fact, the suggestion of this link was not demonstrated in this small pilot study of just eleven children but came after at the subsequent press conference. Once the rumour was picked up by the media, the story became well and truly entrenched.  It is a fact that some vaccines contain trace amounts of a compound called thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative used in the manufacturing process of some vaccines and other medicines to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi, which could otherwise cause illness or injury.

Despite concerted scientific research, no evidence for a link between thimerosal and autism has been found. And even as rates of vaccination fall in some parts of the world, partly as a result of scaremongering by the anti-vaccine movement, autism rates continue to rise.

Whilst thimerosal remains in some adult vaccines, it has not been in childhood vaccines since the year 2000. Even though thimerosal is a mercury based compound, it should not be confused with toxic forms of mercury since it does not accumulate in the body, unlike other forms of mercury like those found in foods such as fish.

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Myth: Vaccines don’t work because children who are vaccinated can still get the disease.

Some people argue that since children who have been vaccinated can also get the disease, vaccines are not effective. Firstly, no vaccine is 100% effective, and since everyone is different not all vaccinated persons develop immunity. Most childhood vaccines are effective for 85% to 95% of people.

The effectiveness of some vaccines wears off over time, which explains why we need to get booster shots even when we are adults. Tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough) are examples of vaccines that require adult boosters. Vaccines don’t stop a virus getting into our bodies, but rather help to prevent illness and stop the virus from spreading further. So whilst children who have been vaccinated may still get the disease, the infection will be less serious and of a shorter duration.

Myth: Vaccines weaken the immune system.

Some parents worry that vaccines weaken or overwhelm the immune system, particularly when given to babies or when multiple vaccines are given at the same time. Vaccines do not weaken the immune system, in fact by their very nature they strengthen it by priming it to respond to specific diseases.

When a person is vaccinated, their body produces an immune response in the same way their body would after exposure to a disease, but without the person suffering symptoms of the disease. When a person comes in contact with that disease in the future, their immune system will respond fast enough to prevent the person developing the disease.

Children are exposed to many foreign particles on a daily basis through activities such as routine eating, drinking and playing. Vaccines only contain a small number of these, in comparison to what children encounter every day in their environment. The amount of antigens that children fight every day (2,000 – 6,000) is much more than the number of antigens in any combination of vaccines (about 150 for the entire vaccination schedule).

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Myth: Vaccines cause or spread the diseases they are supposed to prevent.

Vaccines, in most cases, do not cause the diseases they are designed to prevent. This is because the majority of vaccines are prepared from inactivated particles or a small part of the organism. These particles are no longer alive, meaning they cannot cause disease. Since vaccines, such as the flu vaccine, are designed to illicit an immune response, you may experience “flu-like symptoms”, but this is not the flu.

In the past, there were extremely rare cases of paralysis with the oral version of the polio vaccination – about 1 in 2.5 million doses, but this vaccine is no longer used in Australia. The risk of complications and illness from contracting the disease far outweighs any risk from a vaccine.

Myth: Improved living standards, not vaccination have reduced disease.

Whilst improved living standards have made a big difference to the health of the population, this is only a very small part of the equation for the reduction in the rate of infectious diseases.

This is easy to see when you look at the rate of infectious disease before and after the introduction of a vaccine. For example, coinciding with the introduction of the national meningococcal C immunisation program in January 2003, the notification rate decreased by 39% while the hospitalisation rate decreased by 47%. When the influenza Type B vaccination was introduced into Australia in 1992 there were 560 cases but in 2006, there were only 22. Living conditions in Australia have changed only marginally since 1992.

Myth: Infectious diseases are not serious; children are meant to get them.

Vaccines target serious infections that have previously caused much harm and suffering.  For example, measles deaths in Africa fell from 396,000 to 36,000 between 2000 and 2006, as a direct result of vaccination programmes and other reduction strategies. Whilst a 91% reduction is significant, it remains that 36,000 children still died from measles. Polio is another example of a serious childhood illness. Many of us are too young to remember the polio epidemic of the 1930s and 1940s when children were confined to iron lungs or forced to walk with calipers.

As an example of an epidemic of a preventable disease, New South Wales is currently experiencing a whooping cough epidemic and three babies have recently died from the disease in Australia. Some of the complications from whooping cough are experienced exclusively by unvaccinated people and include seizures and pneumonia. Whooping cough is much more than just a bad cough.

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