Vaccinations have been given a bad rep, but is there any truth behind the hearsay? H&W investigates...
It may not have crossed your mind to refuse an injection for your child which promises to prevent against fatal diseases, especially given the subsidised price tag thanks to the phenomenal NHS. For some, however, conspiracy theories and concerns about safety have left a measles-shaped dent in the progress of eliminating such illnesses from our society. According to a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the anti-vaccination movement is one of the 10 greatest threats to public health in 2019 – rivalling the likes of HIV, air pollution and climate change. Momentum for this speculative approach was catalysed in the 1980s, when gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield questionably reported that the MMR vaccine was linked to autism. Since the reliability of Wakefield’s study has been thrown into question, people have been confused by conflicting ‘evidence’. H&W has set out to answer a few of your queries on the matter…
Q : Are vaccines safe and effective?
A : Yes, as is officially reported by the NHS. Each and every licensed, recommended and uniformly distributed vaccine has gone through years of safety testing. The formula will be carefully studied in a lab before being deemed eligible to be introduced to human volunteers. After meticulously following the participants and ensuring their safety, the vaccine gets approved by a board of specialists. Even individual batches are tested by the companies that produce them to make sure they’re potent (meaning that they work in the way they’re intended to), pure (ingredients that may have been used during production have been removed) and sterile (there are no outside germs infecting the batch).
Q : Do vaccines prevent deadly illnesses?
A : Since vaccines were invented, the number of babies and adults who get sick or die from vaccine-preventable diseases has significantly decreased, and some diseases have been wiped out completely. “Vaccine hesitancy represents a nihilistic return to the primitive,” claims Dr Amesh Adalja at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security (centerforhealthsecurity.org). “If it continues to spread unchallenged, it will be a wilful, self-inflicted threat to human life.” More than 41,000 cases of measles were reported in the European region between January and June 2018. In 2017, there were nearly 24,000 for the whole 12 months, which was the highest count in any year of the last decade before 2018. The WHO goal to eliminate measles from Europe by 2020 faces major problems because of regions or cities with particularly low vaccination rates and the easy transmission across borders of the measles virus, which is one of the most infectious agents known. “We’re seeing a dramatic increase in infections and extended outbreaks,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe. “We call on all countries to immediately implement broad, context-appropriate measures to stop further spread of this disease.”
Q : Do vaccines provide better immunity than natural infections?
A : The immune response to vaccines is similar to that created by natural infection, but who wants to run the risk of their child becoming ill with an unmonitored dose of a disease? Clean water and good personal, home and public hygiene help to slow down or stop some germs from spreading, but they don’t eradicate harmful bacteria. Some diseases (especially respiratory diseases that spread through the air, such as measles) are more difficult to prevent. The bottom line is that, as long as diseases are around, people will continue to get them, which can lead to fatalities if things are left to run their ‘natural’ course.
Q : Are combined vaccines safe and beneficial?
A: Combined vaccines reduce discomfort for your child and can save time (and usually money) too. Giving multiple vaccines at the same time has no notably negative effect on your immune system. So, if you’re reading this and thinking that you’d like to get your unvaccinated teenager to the doctors, they can have multiple jabs in quick succession. The most likely side effect may be a temporarily sore arm!
Q : If we stop vaccination, will disease return?
A : “One of the main problems with not vaccinating children isn’t so much related to the risk of the child themselves getting the disease,” explains Dr Jane Leonard (drjaneleonard.co.uk), “The risk also effects the population as a whole. To achieve herd immunity (to almost eradicate all cases of the disease) you need to work towards around 90 percent of the population being vaccinated. If this is never achieved, then the whole exercise is rendered far less worthwhile.” Despite the fact that levels of sanitation are higher and, in countries like ours, we’re safe in the knowledge that the water trickling from our kitchen tap is safe to drink, spread of disease can easily occur. As we’re currently seeing, diseases which were almost wiped out are now rearing their ugly heads in anti-vaxx communities in the US.
Q : What should I do if my child or teenager spends time with unvaccinated friends?
A : Herd immunity dictates that if most people are immune to a disease, it will be unlikely that anyone will get sick and infect the rest of the group, including those who are unprotected. Although many who purposefully don’t vaccinate their children or themselves claim they aren’t part of this band of people, they’re simply an unprotected member of the herd who relies on the rest of us for protection. In the UK, vaccine levels are currently in a safe position, with most children being protected against six deadly illnesses before their first birthday. It’s not necessary to prevent your son or daughter to spend time with an unvaccinated friend, but be wary if any of their peers have been recently travelling to countries where diseases such as typhoid are still fairly widespread.
Q : What can I do to help this global health threat?
A : Having teenage children can be a constant worry for more reasons than simply their attitude at school or their unmonitored social media use. Once our kids fly the nest, it can prove difficult to protect them in the way we felt we could when they resided under the same roof. One thing you can do is to ensure that they’re aware of the pros and cons of getting vaccinated against deadly diseases. “You may have been sceptical of the HPV jab when it was rolled out in schools, for instance,” explains Dr Mayoni Gooneratne, founder of The Clinic by Dr Mayoni (drmayoni.co.uk), “but it’s important to discuss these things with health professionals to ensure that your child decides what’s best for them – they may choose to get the jab given all the information available.” Allowing your teenager the freedom to decide whether to protect themselves is vital for their wellbeing. If they’re planning a long trip (the notorious gap year) or simply an exotic holiday with their friends, making sure you encourage them to discuss their travel plans with their GP is essential – they may be less protected than they think, as not all vaccines last forever. Take your doubts to your doctor as they’ll provide the most reliable advice.