Despite the mounting evidence that vaccines are really safe and even beneficial for babies, vaccine scares just don’t seem to go away. Some of these do have roots in the past, when technology wasn't as advanced as it is today, that resulted in the contamination of vaccines. Others, however are due to studies that link them to certain side effects although these studies were later discredited.
There are, of course, babies who shouldn't get certain vaccines. This is particularly if they're allergic to them, have a history of adverse reactions or have certain medical conditions (which varies per vaccine). But, of course, parents still have the discretion to choose whether or not to vaccinate their child if they well understand the risks.
To run you through the history of vaccines, here are many vaccines that have been controversial in history.
The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is one that prevents illness from pneumococcal infections such as pneumonia and meningitis. These infections are caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae. It has undergone controversy when a meta-analysis found that it was ineffective. However, this inefficacy was specifically noted for the elderly and adults with chronic illnesses. The papers on its overall efficacy, however, were mixed. Doctors still find it an important vaccine, particularly for kids, so that by being immune to the bacteria, they’re less likely to transmit it to people at risk.
The HPV vaccine can be a touchy subject for parents. It prevents cervical cancer, which can be triggered by the sexually transmitted HPV infection. There may also be other causes, but HPV is the leading cause. It’s recommended for preteen girls so that they can gain immunity to the virus well before they’re sexually active. Some parents, however, consider it unnecessary insisting that their preteens aren’t going to be sexually active any time soon. However, given that it can be difficult to monitor the sex lives or absence thereof of teenage girls, it’s probably better off that everyone gets it so we can keep the virus from spreading. Besides, whether a girl decides to be sexually active at fifteen or twenty-five, getting the vaccine does significantly prevent the dangers of cervical cancer.
The rotavirus vaccine prevents a viral infection that is a widespread cause of diarrhea in young children. In 2010, administration of this vaccine was suspended due to the detection of the viral strains PCV-1 and PCV-2 in the vaccines. This was studied for a while until the FDA determined that these viruses do not infect humans. In addition, the benefits of the vaccine in preventing rotavirus was greater than the risks involved in not getting vaccinated.
Cholera is another diarrheal illness that is rampant in developing countries. It can cause severe dehydration and death if left untreated. It is commonly recommended if you are traveling to a country with a cholera outbreak. The vaccine uses a killed or inactivated virus to help the body develop immunity.
However, it may not be recommended for use by pregnant mothers. It is currently in the Pregnancy Safety Level C, which means that its risk for use by pregnant mothers is yet to be ruled out. If you are pregnant or think you may be, don’t get this vaccination and talk to your doctor about your other options to prevent infection.
Tuberculosis is yet another illness common in developing countries. You may therefore need to get it if you’re traveling somewhere where there is a tuberculosis epidemic. It is controversial because its protective effect varies. For some reason, it provides little effect for some individuals. In others, however, it can be extremely protective against tuberculosis. Despite this variation, however, it is still essential for countries with high rates of tuberculosis. This is because the risk of getting the illness is so high that any protection is better than none.
Smallpox was known in Britain as “the pox,” which is probably what those angry English people in historical dramas mean when they wish “a pox upon you.” That or what was known as the “great pox,” which is now called syphilis.
Smallpox is an old, unsightly disease that has an overall mortality rate of about 30 percent. Fortunately, however, Dr. Edward Jenner managed to produce a vaccine for smallpox, which was introduced to the general population in 1798.
Vaccines then were not as safe as vaccines now. However, smallpox was such a deadly, contagious illness that the risk of contracting it far outweighed the risk of the vaccine. It did, however, meet staunch opposition from religious folk who deemed it “unnatural” and proponents of a competing process called variolation, which was deadlier and more uncomfortable.
However, the vaccine won out and smallpox was soon declared eradicated in 1979. The last recorded case was in the United Kingdom in 1978 where a medical photographer involved in smallpox research accidentally contracted it in a laboratory and died. Because the disease was eradicated, we no longer have to get smallpox vaccines.
The whooping cough, known also as pertussis or the hundred day cough, is another very contagious childhood illness that gets its name from the characteristic whooping sound as a person gasps for air after a fit of coughing. It’s particularly more severe in younger children, especially those who are below six months of age.
The original diphtheria vaccine became controversial in the 1970s because it had the common side effect of high fever, which sometimes resulted in benign febrile seizures. In addition, some claimed that it was a cause of sudden infant death syndrome, although there wasn’t much proof to back these claims. Because of this, the United Kingdom halted the administration of the vaccine. Soon after, however, a pertussis outbreak that resulted in some deaths encouraged further study of the vaccine, which proved it to be safe and that the side effects typically went away.
The modern acellular variety of the vaccine is associated with fewer side effects. Nowadays it is incorporated in the DTaP vaccine, which also includes immunity for diphtheria and tetanus.
Worldwide, measles is among the leading causes of death in young children. It’s less prevalent today because of the introduction of a MMR vaccine, which can also give immunity for mumps and rubella. Like pertussis, it tends to be more serious in younger children, as well as persons 20 years of age and above.
There is a bigger controversy surrounding the MMR vaccine, which we’ll get to later. However, one controversy that particularly involves measles is one that occurred in the Netherlands between 1999 and 2000. During this time, an epidemic swept the country. A study found that the incidences of measles occurred in clusters, around areas where communities of people who had religious objections to vaccination could be found. A whopping 81% of those who got measles said they didn’t get vaccinated because of their religion.
This study is available in its entirety through Oxford University Press and is considered one of the best examples of the benefits of herd immunity.
Diphtheria is another contagious childhood disease that is characterized by a thick, gray lining made out of dead tissue covering the throat and tonsils. It’s also associated with breathing problems, a sore throat, and swollen lymph nodes.
The corresponding vaccine, which was touched earlier as it is a component of DTaP, was associated with a number of side effects. It is important to note that side effects are common effects of a vaccine that are both harmless and temporary. This is opposed to an adverse reaction, which is more serious. In the rare case that your child experiences an adverse reaction, the doctor will note this in his medical record and he will not receive a booster dose.
The mortality rate for diphtheria with proper treatment is somewhere between 5% and 10%, although in young children, as well as adults above 40 years of age, the mortality rate is around 20%. If left untreated, however, the mortality rate for diphtheria is around 50%.
MMR is probably the vaccine that has gotten the worst press. Most of this is due to a 1998 paper published by Andrew Wakefield and colleagues claiming that the vaccine causes autism. In the years following its publication, the number of parents who choose to vaccinate their kids fell dramatically.
Succeeding studies failed to replicate Wakefield’s findings. Later, it was found out that there was personal interest involved. His colleagues have since refuted the paper and Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine.
Many parents still believe their children get autism after vaccination. However, they do not take into account the fact that the onset of autism is around the same time as vaccinations take place, regardless of whether the child is vaccinated or not. This is because the symptoms are clearer around the time a baby normally displays social communication cues. Just because the two are seen together at a specific age does not automatically mean causality.
Hepatitis B is a serious viral infection of the liver that is transmissible through blood and bodily fluids. Some parents are afraid of vaccinating their child against this condition because the shot may come with side effects like a fever or a sore arm. Some are also concerned that the vaccine is given at such an early age. However, the small risks involved in the vaccine are nothing compared to the benefits.
For some people, acute or the “short” stage of hepatitis comes and goes with few symptoms and resolve completely. About ten percent of people who get infected with the virus, however, develop chronic hepatitis. This can result in serious problems later in life, including liver cirrhosis and liver cancer. But the risk of the illness getting chronic is higher the younger a child is. About 90% of infants who get the virus, usually from their mothers, get hepatitis. Up to the age of five years old, the risk is up to 50%.
The meningococcal vaccine is another common childhood vaccine. It is not recommended for kids with a history of allergy to any of the vaccine’s components. It may come with side effects such as fever and pain. Some claim that the vaccine actually causes Guillain-Barre syndrome, a condition that causes paralysis. However, two major studies trying to explore this link have found that the vaccine does not cause GBS.
The bacteria that this vaccine protects against is called Neisseria meningitidis and is the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children. Initially, it may mimic symptoms of flu before it develops into something serious. Its distinguishing symptoms include a stiff neck, projectile vomiting, a bad headache, light sensitivity and, in infants, a bulge over the fontanel. Overall bacterial meningitis has a death rate of about ten percent. However, if not treated immediately, it can cause death within days of the first symptoms.
You may remember the H1N1 outbreak of 2009. The H1N1 is a mutation of the flu virus that is believed to originate from infected pigs. The mortality rate was estimated to be at less than 20%. However, the most alarming part of the outbreak was that it was primarily in otherwise healthy people under 65-years old. In contrast, most “regular” flu deaths occur in people above 65 who also have other health conditions.
A vaccine was made in a rush and, because of this, many parents were concerned about their child getting the vaccine. Unlike that of the meningococcal vaccine, scientists have actually found a slight increased risk of getting Guillain-Barre syndrome following a flu vaccine. However, kids who get the flu or other infections also have an increased risk of getting GBS.
In any case, at the time of the outbreak, the risk of contracting and dying from H1N1 was incredibly high compared to the risk of getting GBS.
Interesting story about the polio vaccine: the inactivated polio vaccine, the kind that is more common in the United States, was developed by Jonas Salk in 1955. Just three years before this, the US had a massive polio outbreak in which more than 3,000 people died, while more than 21,000 were left disabled. When Salk discovered the vaccine and it was found to be successful, he could have used it to earn a lot of money. He, however, chose not to, so that the vaccine could be distributed at a low cost. When asked about who owned the vaccine, Salk simply responded: “Well, the people, I would say.”
The only public controversy surrounding this vaccine was in 1955, when a laboratory producing the vaccine accidentally contaminated some vaccines with a live polio virus. This resulted in 56 polio cases and five deaths. This was a call for pharmaceutical companies to refine their procedures to ensure that something like this would not happen again.
Varicella, more commonly known as chicken pox, is a usually mild childhood illness that involves fever and a skin rash, which later develops into blisters and then scabs. In babies and in adults, however, a varicella infection is more dangerous. In addition, people who have contracted varicella have an increased risk of developing a painful and sometimes debilitating illness called shingles.
The vaccine has a few more side effects than other vaccines. There is, of course, low-grade fever and pain at the injection site. However, it may also cause a mild rash, cough, vomiting or a headache. It is also associated with rare adverse reactions such as seizures, easy bleeding and high fever, all of which warrant a visit to your doctor. Before taking the vaccine, you should first discuss with your doctor any allergies or illnesses your child has.
However, doctors have determined that the risk of getting side effects is far lower than the risks involved in a chicken pox infection.