Myth Versus Fact about Vaccines
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Safety, Effectiveness, Side Effects Explored
As we prepare to enter the annual flu season and continue battling the COVID-19 global pandemic, vaccines are a frequent topic of conversation. With so much information available, some of it is bound to be incorrect. Read on as we address 5 common vaccine misconceptions and provide truthful information on where to gather more information on vaccinations that are most appropriate for your individual medical needs.
Myth: Vaccines don’t work. I can still get sick.
Fact: Wouldn’t it be great to have guarantees in life…especially in medicine? Unfortunately, this isn’t a reasonable expectation. Vaccines don’t work 100% of the time – but they do work a lot of the time. In cases when a vaccinated person does get sick, the severity and duration of their illness generally is less than it would be if the person had not received a vaccination. The goal of vaccines is to provide as much protection for ourselves and our communities as possible, to minimize the risk of illness or death, and to lessen the symptoms which are experienced when we do get sick.
Myth: Natural immunity is better than vaccine-induced immunity.
Fact: Immunity to disease is caused by the presence of antibodies to that specific disease in a person’s system. Both vaccines and natural disease can result in disease immunity. While the initial response may be more robust with natural immunity (which is appropriate because your body is actually fighting a real disease), lasting immunity is not necessarily better. When a body is infected, it responds by producing two different kinds of antibodies: IgM and IgG. IgM antibodies are like first-responders: they are generated after the initial disease exposure and start battling disease right away, providing short-term protection. IgG antibodies are produced over several weeks following exposure and are retained for long-term protection against future re-infection. The initial production of IgM does not always convert to IgG production, especially in immunocompromised individuals. Vaccines have been proven to stimulate the production of IgG in a more predictable and often longer-lasting way than natural infection.
Myth: I don’t need a vaccine because I’ve already had that disease.
Fact: Some diseases can be contracted more than once. (Here’s looking at you, shingles!) It is believed that this can happen in diseases that do not inspire long-lasting IgG immunity. Aside from waning immunity, re-infection is more likely when diseases continue to mutate and evolve. Immunity to any disease is very specific. When a bacteria or virus mutates, it becomes unrecognizable to our bodies’ immune systems, can escape detection, and cause infection again. Vaccination can boost immunity and protect against new disease-causing strains that continue to emerge . This is why new flu vaccines are released every fall.
Myth: I don’t need vaccines because I’ve always been healthy.
Fact: Aging is one of the few certainties in life. Despite our best efforts to eat well, exercise, and stay healthy, it is undeniable that our bodies change over time: hormones drop, metabolisms slow, and muscles weaken. One of the many predictable changes which occurs is that our immune systems become less effective and we become more susceptible to disease. This change is called “immunosenescence” and usually starts around 60 years of age. The immune system naturally becomes slower to respond to infection and the number of cells available to fight disease and promote healing decreases. Additionally, many of us develop chronic medical conditions as we age, presenting additional challenges we didn’t have when we were younger. For example, healthy, youthful lungs give way to aged lungs, scarred by COPD, which are much more susceptible to inflammation and infection. While you may not have ever caught a cold or suffered from the flu before, the chances of this happening increases with age. Taking available vaccines can protect you against many common and preventable diseases such as pneumonia, influenza, and pertussis.
Myth: Vaccines make me sick.
Fact: While some vaccines (“live-attenuated” vaccines) do include a weakened version of a live virus, most do not. Attenuated vaccines are used to protect against measles/mumps/rubella, smallpox, chickenpox, and rotavirus. While the risk of contracting disease from these vaccines is exceptionally rare, they do contain very small amounts of live virus and consequently are not appropriate for everyone; specifically, immunocompromised, pregnant, or organ-transplant patients should consult with their doctors before taking these types of vaccines. No other type of vaccine (inactivated, toxoid, mRNA, viral vector, subunit, conjugate, polysaccharide, or recombinant) is biologically capable of causing disease. These vaccines include vaccines against the flu (except for FluMist), Covid-19, tetanus, whooping cough, pneumonia, shingles, polio, hepatitis A/B, and meningitis. Individuals who report illness after taking these types of vaccines either were exposed prior to immunization, experienced side effects (ex: low grade fever, fatigue, headache), were infected with strains not included in the vaccines, or experienced vaccine failure – they were not given the disease by the vaccine which they received.
What vaccinations do you need?
Vaccine recommendations vary according to a patient’s age, health conditions, and potential for exposure. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides vaccination guidelines and schedules, including information on booster shots.
Where can you find additional information?
These reliable sources provide additional vaccination information:
Finally, talk to trusted healthcare providers like your doctor or pharmacist. They are more than happy to discuss any questions or concerns which you may have, as well as to recommend vaccinations that are most appropriate for your individual medical needs.