Debunking the Myths Fueling the Anti-Vaccine Movement


In the 19th and early part of the 20th century, infectious disease killed millions.  One of the most devastating epidemics in human history occurred in 1918, the influenza flu pandemic. This resulted in two million deaths globally and 500,000 deaths in the USA.

Researchers were desperate for a way to stop the spread of influenza in 1918; they went into over-drive to find a solution.  Even though the circumstances were dire, scientists learned many lessons including the beginning knowledge for developing vaccines.  Due to those advances, deaths from infectious disease began to decline in the mid-20th century through today, particularly with children and infants.

What led to this decline in mortality from infectious disease?

After 1918 a lot changed: chlorinated drinking water; improved sewage systems; improved food preservation techniques; and public education regarding hygiene greatly improved public health.  Some vaccine opponents give all the credit for the reduction of disease to better sanitation and hygiene but, as scientists, we know the facts just don’t support that theory.  Disease originates from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and things we cannot see with the naked eye.  Improved sanitation in the 1930’s through the 1940s decreased the incidence of water borne diseases (due to improvements in the quality of drinking water) and tuberculosis (due to improvement in crowded housing conditions), but other diseases remained unchecked.

Vaccination campaigns, starting in 1949 with the DTP vaccine, virtually eliminated a host of diseases including:

  • diphtheria
  • tetanus
  • pertussis
  • polio
  • measles
  • mumps
  • rubella
  • haemophilus influeza meningitis.

After a 10-year, 33-nation campaign, small pox was eradicated from the world in 1977.  The polio vaccine, introduced in 1955, lead to a massive global effort banishing the disease from the Western Hemisphere by 2000. Science and history clearly give rise to evidence that the eradication of these diseases was the direct result of these vaccination campaigns. CDC: Public Health and vaccine history

Unfortunately “success breed complacency,” as some parents fear the vaccines more than the diseases they protect us from.  There is now a rise in infectious diseases that were previously considered wiped out. Sanitation, hygiene, and food delivery methods are as rigorous as ever.  The rise in diseases such as  measles, mumps and pertussis has been linked only to populations with low vaccination rates which compromise herd immunity for the greater community.

Let’s explore some of the myths out there.

Myth #1: The mandatory vaccine program is part of a government conspiracy.

There are some crazy theories out there!  I’ve read about tracking devices being injected by the US government and also that we’re just part of one big secret experiment without our knowledge.  While it’s easy to dismiss this theory,  a pocket of the US population believes this is at least possible and shy away from vaccines. Tracking devices are easy to disprove with a microscope and a sample vaccine.  The “big secret experiment” is a bit harder to refute, but clearly, we are not seeing large scale deaths or illnesses that should be expected if the government was carrying out experimentation on its citizens.

The WHO (World Health Organization) launched a global initiative for widespread vaccination decades ago.  The campaigns reached millions of people in nearly 200 counties.  No one has been able to prove the theory despite all those countries and all that time.  Surely, it should be obvious that these theories are far-fetched.  WHO Vaccine Mission

Myth #2:  Vaccine Preventable Disease Are Not Life Threatening and Just Part of Childhood.

Statistics do not bear this out. The CDC estimates the vaccination programs launched over the last 20 years has prevented over 700,000 children’s deaths and over 21 million hospitalizations.   As an example, measles and its complications can be devastating. According to the CDC, 30% of people who contract measles develop complications such as pneumonia or encephalitis (Swelling in the brain that can lead to seizures, deafness, blindness or mental retardation).  For every 1000 children who develop measles in the US, 1 or 2 will die according to Morbidity and Mortality statistics.  In 2008, 164,000 people died from measles.  While our mortality rate is low, some countries mortality rates as high as 25 percent. Pregnant women exposed to measles run the risk of miscarriage, premature birth low birth weight babies, and congenital defects in their newborns.  WHO Measles Statistics

According to the CDC, pertussis (whooping cough) cases reached a new high in 2012, the most in one year since1955. Half of infants who contract pertussis in the first 6 months will need hospitalization.  One out of every four of these hospitalized babies will develop pneumonia and one or two per 100 will die. Other complications include uncontrollable shaking, pauses in breathing that can be life threatening and brain damage.  Pertussis Complications

Many people feel these diseases don’t pose much risk to their children because they are now fairly rare. Yet, we have seen outbreaks of these diseases, specifically measles, mumps and whooping cough occurring on an increasing basis throughout the country. The state of California just reported nearly 7,000 cases of whooping cough this year, approximately 18.1 cases per 100,000 residents.  There have been reported 3 child deaths related to this out break.  CDPH Outbreak Report August 2014

Myth #3: Too many vaccines overwhelm the child’s immune system.

Many who claim vaccines are unsafe say there are too many shots that overwhelm a baby’s immune system.  Let’s look at the numbers.  Vaccines introduce approximately 150 components to a child’s immune system.  By contrast, a child is exposed to millions of pathogens in the environment from the moment they are born.  Each of these pathogens contain 2,000 to 6,000 immunologic components.  The vaccines today are more effective with fewer antigens.  Currently, children only receive five percent of the antigen that was given out 30 years ago. CDC Safe to Give Multiple Vaccines  It has been estimated that it would be safe, based on the immunology of a child, to give 10,000 vaccines at once.  Journal of the AAP

Some suggest spreading out the vaccines so the child is not getting so many at one time. There is no evidence to prove this is beneficial and actually may be detrimental.  By spreading shots out over a longer period of time, stress to the body is also prolonged.  You’ll also deal with an unhappy child who needs more frequent visits and a shot nearly every time they visit their physician.  And the child is exposed to more infections every time they visit the doctor’s office and share the waiting room with sick kids. Most importantly, the longer a vaccine is withheld, the more time a child is vulnerable to those infectious diseases that they could be protected against by having received the vaccine.

Myth #4: Thimerosal/mercury causes neurodevelopmental damage/autism.

Perhaps, this is the biggest controversy surrounding vaccines. Many people claim the Thimerosal (which keeps vaccines sterile) is responsible for causing autism or neurodevelopmental problems. It is a derivative of ethyl mercury.  The presence of mercury is what concerns parents but most don’t realize there are two types.  There is no evidence that ethyl mercury causes any kind of damage. By contrast, methyl mercury (what used to be in thermometers of old) is a neurotoxin in high doses. Methyl mercury is found commonly in the environment, in the soil, water, food … so people are already exposed to it.  Additionally, methyl mercury has only shown to be neurotoxic at sufficiently high doses for prolonged periods of time.  The EPA and FDA are constantly studying these levels and regulating the food we eat and environmental conditions to maintain the exposure way below levels that we need to be concerned about.

In contrast, Thimerosal is an ethyl mercury derivative. This form is not normally found in the environment or the human body. In fact, if it is taken into the body, it is quickly broken down and excreted. It does not stay for any time in the body and does not have the potential to be a neurotoxin. The amount used is also very miniscule. The amount of mercury we eat in a tuna sandwich is probably much higher. CDC: Thimerosal Safety In Vaccines

While vaccines have been around since the late 1940s, autism has taken a sharp increase in the past decade. People were anecdotally looking for a connection and many turned to vaccines.  An unfortunate study, published in England, supported the idea and parents were understandably upset, wondering if their children’s shots could possibly harm them.  Of course, the Lancet has since retracted the study and the author has been disgraced for shoddy work.

We are seeing a rise in the diagnosis of autism because of improved screening methods and diagnostic criteria. Both the medical and educational communities are more aware of autism and we’re able to reach more kids who need help. In fact the incidence of autism continues to rise, yet Thimerosal has been eliminated from most vaccines. Also, we did not see a sudden spike of Autism when the vaccine program was initiated.

Myth #5: We are not harming anyone else if we don’t vaccinate our children.

This is another untruth. When a high enough percentage of the community receives a vaccination against a particular disease, the entire community is better protected, a process called Herd Immunity.

But, when the percentage is too low, then everyone is vulnerable to disease, particularly the young and the weak, whether or not they have received immunization.  We already discussed pertussis in California, which went from a few rare cases a year to several thousand.  In addition, measles has been making a comeback in the New York City area because certain populations there do not believe in vaccinations for religious reasons.

There was a recent story of a nine-week-old child who died from pertussis (whooping cough). This is a disease that was nearly wiped out but is having a recent resurgence due to the unimmunized. Some groups can’t medically receive vaccines and they are at risk too.  Death of 9 week old from whooping cough

Strikingly, not only do the vast majority of doctors support vaccines, but 79% of those polled on Sermo felt unvaccinated children should not be allowed to attend public schools because they are putting others at risk.   While it is a requirement for children to receive vaccines to be able to attend public school, they are allowed to go unvaccinated for certain religious exemptions. Many of those opposed to vaccines will claim religious reasons just so their kids do not have to get vaccinated. While that is their choice, as doctors, we know they are putting their children at risk of contracting these diseases. However, we are also concerned about the others that they are endangering. Some children are unable to receive vaccines due to medical reasons. For example, if a child had an adverse reaction to a previous dose it may be dangerous for them to get booster doses. Without the additional doses, they are not fully protected. And there are some medical conditions that it is contraindicated to receive any doses of certain vaccines. Those children do not have the choice and it is unfair to expose them. Many of those kids have compromised immune systems and cannot fight off infectious diseases.  While the healthcare communities around the world have made a concerted effort to eradicate these potentially dangerous diseases, it will never happen if the whole population does not follow the recommendations. Additionally, most of the time, these diseases are contagious prior to symptoms being obvious so it is usually too late to try to isolate the infected child. Unvaccinated children run the risk of serious medical problems by not being protected through the immunization schedule and they are putting the lives of others, possibly immunocompromised children, in jeopardy.

Myth #6: Doctors are making huge profits from vaccinations.

Believe it or not, some doctors have stopped providing vaccines for their patients because they lose money on them. I can bear this out in my own practice, giving vaccines is barely a break-even endeavor. The vaccines are costly to purchase and when you calculate in the cost of supplies and staff time, the profit, if any, is minimal.

Doctors do not give vaccines to make money. We do it as a service to our patients so they do not have to go elsewhere.  This is easy enough to prove by reading an insurance EOB (explanation of benefits) showing how much the doctor was paid for dispensing the vaccine and then Googling the cost of the vaccine itself. Most people are shocked to see how little it is. There is no conspiracy by doctors to make money by giving dangerous vaccines.  Giving “bad” vaccines is a liability for us.  We are not going to chance injecting our patients with harmful substances for the little profit we get only to open up the possibility of being sued.  It just doesn’t make sense.

Myth #7: All these infections can be easily treated with colloidal silver.

Silver has been used for years to prevent wound infections. However, the mechanism by which this happens is not by killing off the bacteria. It creates an environment that makes it impossible for bacteria to grow and flourish. If an infection does set in, the patient will still need to be treated with antibiotics. Silver is not a natural substance occurring in the body.  When a person takes an antibiotic, it is broken down and distributed throughout all the tissues in the body. Based on pathophysiology, this is impossible to happen with silver. It is filtered out as a foreign substance and most likely excreted out of the body.  There are no clinical studies proving any benefit that it works to kill off viruses, bacteria or other pathogens in the body.

Anti-Vaxxers are stepping up their campaign to abolish or limit vaccines, despite decades of research with a cohort of millions.  They still point to a few small anomalies as their proof. While an occasional bad reaction from a vaccine does happen, the millions of lives saved by vaccines can’t compare to the few unfortunate reactions that occurred.  While they are able to get support from some celebrities, the statistics and evidence of the CDC, WHO, AAP, AAFP, Unicef, Morbity and Mortality, academic medical institutions, hundreds of countries governments and nearly most medical professional organizations across the globe cannot be discounted by a few dubious sources.

Hopefully, parents will scrutinize the evidence more closely, before making the decision to keep life- saving vaccines from their children. The safety of vaccines is clear and who wants to go back to the days of rampant polio, measles, and even small pox.  Does anyone want that?

credit: Linda Girgis, MD

Bio:  Dr. Linda Girgis MD, FAAFP is a family physician that treats patients in South River, New Jersey and its surrounding communities. She holds board certification from the American Board of Family Medicine and is affiliated with both St. Peter’s University Hospital and Raritan Bay Hospital. Dr. Girgis also collaborates closely with Rutgers University, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), and other universities and medical schools where she teaches medical students and residents.  She recently completed a medical mission in Egypt.