Dispelling Vaccination Myths & Exploring How They Work

Jul 23, 2019

Our world is a much different place since vaccines became a common part of medical care. Once common diseases like polio and small pox have been eradicated or are rarely contracted today.

But there remains a lot of public skepticism over the safety of vaccines, which has led to outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles. According to the Center for Disease Control, there are currently 30 U.S. states experiencing measles outbreaks, including three states that border Wisconsin: Illinois, Michigan and Iowa. 

"Vaccines take advantage of the immune system," says Dr. Joyce Sanchez, a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin who specializes in infectious diseases.

"[They] prime the human body to recognize germs if it comes into contact with them later on ... Our bodies have white blood cells (or immune cells) that essentially develop an antibody — when it comes into contact with the germ later on down the line, the body can remember what it came into contact with, flag the germ more readily ... so that the person doesn't come down with illness," she explains.

Common Vaccine Myths

There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to vaccines.  Sanchez debunks some of these common myths:

If you get vaccinated, you'll become ill.

"Some vaccines do cause some adverse effects. Usually they're very, very minor things like a low-grade fever or some muscle soreness in the arm where the injection occurred," says Sanchez. 

She explains the different ways vaccines are derived: 

Sometimes vaccines come in the form of a weakened virus, "where they're mutated so your body can recognize them but they don't actually cause illness. Another form is a killed virus, where [your body is] basically seeing pieces of a virus but [it's] not actively multiplying or causing illness. Other forms ... like the tetanus vaccine ... take a toxin that the bacteria produces but the toxin itself is not harmful."

Getting many shots in one visit may traumatize a child. 

"One shot, or even just a visit to a pediatrician, causes stress to a baby ... There have been studies looking at levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone released by kids, and it shows that just a regular visit or one vaccine is no different than five," she explains.

Some diseases, like measles or chicken pox, aren't serious enough to be vaccinated against. 

"For the vast majority of people who get measles it can be a mild illness," says Sanchez. "[But] one in 1,000 children and adults who contract measles actually develop very serious complications."

There's no danger in extending the schedule of vaccines suggested by doctors.

"When we study vaccines, we study them on a specific schedule to understand ... how effective they are in real life," Sanchez says. "[When] elongating the amount of time between vaccines, you're unnecessarily exposing your child to vaccine-preventable diseases."

Sanchez says that part of the skepticism is due to people no longer remembering what things were like before vaccines became a regular part of medical care. 

"Vaccines, it's been said, are a victim of their own success ... For example, in the 1950s, polio [was] responsible for half a million paralyzed people and deaths in the United States. We don't see polio anymore because the vaccine is so efficacious," she says.