Despite the importance of immunisation programmes in public healthcare, a number of myths about vaccines are still causing parents to refrain from getting their children vaccinated.
While the number of families choosing not to vaccinate are still relatively few, this number is still an alarming one. According to the Health Ministry, some 1,541 children in 2015 were not vaccinated because their parents were resistant to the idea.
Speaking to Reuters last year, Health Minister Datuk Dr Subramaniam said Malaysians who refuse vaccinations are concerned over supposed side-effects, as well as the ‘halal’ status of the vaccines. He added that these anti-vaccination communities were a concern, as there had been in a rise in diseases, such as diphtheria and measles, which are easily preventable.
Here, we take a look at some of the more common myths about vaccines, as well as the facts behind them.
Myth 1: Vaccines cause autism
The autism myth goes back all the way to 1998, when The Lancet published a study from England that purportedly showed a link between vaccines and autism. The study, conducted by one Andrew Wakefield, was subsequently retracted when Wakefield was shown to have to falsified the data and used unethical methods to produce his fraudulent results. Wakefield was also stripped of his medical license as a result.
The 1998 study still continues to fuel anti-vaccination movements today. This is despite numerous studies conducted since then that show no link between vaccines and autism – the American Academy of Paediatrics for instance, lists over 40 studies that support this. Meanwhile, anti-vaccination parents show up personal anecdotes of children supposedly developing autism after being vaccinated, but there is no real proof of these claims. Furthermore, no scientist has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings from 1998.
Although Wakefield has been debunked by the global scientific community time and time again, he is still peddling half-truths and pseudoscience to an alarming amount of support. More recently, he has fashioned himself as “whistleblower” of the pharmaceutical industry, and is using emotion rather than science to garner support for his views.
This emotive method of presenting ill-conceived claims as scientific proof was also present in a similar myth which spread across social media here last year – that microcephaly (where children are born with a small head or brain) was due to vaccines such as TDAP (Tetanus, Diptheria and Pertussis) instead of the Zika virus. Posting heart-wrenching pictures of Brazilian babies with microcephaly, several social media users claimed the condition occurred after pregnant mothers were injected with the TDAP vaccine – a claim that was completely false.
Myth 2: Vaccines contain dangerous substances
Thiomersal is a well-known antiseptic and antifungal agent derived from mercury, and is widely used in vaccines as a preservative. The agent particularly helps prevent microbial growth when storing vaccines. In recent years, with rising public concern over the risks of using thiomersal on infants, numerous studies have been conducted to test its potential harm. The research has concluded that there is no evidence that the presence of thiomersal was harmful in vaccines.
The World Health Organisation meanwhile, states that concerns about the toxicity of thiomersal are “theoretical” and the benefits of using vaccines that have the agent “far outweigh any theoretical risk of toxicity”.
Some vaccines also contain aluminium gels to help stimulate the immune system to fight against the germ or virus that is present in the vaccine. It should be noted that the trace amount of aluminium found in any vaccine, is much less than the aluminium present in infant formula, breast milk, and even water.
Vaccines also contain trace amounts of formaldehyde – but so do our bodies. Infants for instance, have 10 times as much formaldehyde in their tiny bodies than the amount of the substance in any vaccine presently in use.
Myth 3: Muslims are obliged to refuse non-halal vaccines
During the outbreak of diphtheria cases in Kedah last year, it was revealed that many parents who refused vaccinations chose to do so because they were worried about whether the vaccines were halal. Some claimed that they had heard the vaccines under the Health Ministry’s immunisation programme contained religiously forbidden (haram) substances, such as porcine-derived substances.
However, the Health Ministry has repeatedly assured the public that the 10 vaccines delivered under the national immunisation programme are free from pork gelatine. In fact, the gelatine used as a stabiliser in the measles, mumps, and Ruebella (MMR) vaccine is bovine-derived.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s National Fatwa Council, has ruled vaccination permissible under Islamic law, and even allows for vaccines with non-halal components if there is an absence of halal alternatives. The reasoning given here is that even when a product contains non-halal components, the value of saving a life is a necessity that outweighs the inclusion of these components.
Myth 3: ‘Natural’ immunity is better than vaccines, and alternative medicine is a more ‘natural’ replacement for vaccines
‘Natural’ immunity here refers to the immunity that comes from the body contracting and battling an infectious illness. Research has proven that immunity derived from vaccination is just as good as so-called ‘natural’ immunity – but vaccines also have the bonus advantage of not having to contract a potentially fatal infection.
Meanwhile, regulated alternative and traditional medicines in Malaysia are seen as complementary, and are not meant to be substitutes for modern medicine. Complicated surgery for instance, is not seen as being under the purview of alternative medicine, so it is dangerous to turn to homeopathic or traditional medicines to ward off infectious diseases.
Speaking at a forum on immunisation last year, Malaysian Homeopathy Council president Zainul Azmi Ahmad further warned the public that there is no such thing as homeopathic vaccinations. He was reported in the Malay Mail Online as saying that homeopathic practitioners who claim otherwise are contravening the code of ethics held by the field. “The code tells us not to claim that certain medicines can solve health problems without proof and there is no proof that homeopathy can replace vaccinations,” he reportedly said.
Myth 4: Vaccines can cause adverse side-effects, so it’s better not to take them
Just like any other medical treatment or procedure, vaccines do have a risk of allergic reactions or side effects in some people. This risk however, needs to be balanced with the risk of contracting the disease or infection the vaccine is meant to protect you from – which is always significantly higher and far worse. By comparison, even taking paracetamol can prove to be fatal, because you may be allergic to it.
Some children may have a mild or moderate reaction to taking a vaccine, such as swelling and fever. This is said to occur in one in a thousand children. Additionally, these reactions actually mean that the vaccine is working, as the body is creating antibodies to fight off the weakened virus or bacteria present in the vaccine.
Myth 5: Combined vaccination shots overload a child’s immune system
Some vaccination shots are actually a combination of several vaccines, such as the MMR shot. This leads some parents to argue that such shots would be too much for their child to take all at once.
However, the minute a baby is out of the womb, it is immediately exposed to a range of bacteria and viruses floating around them – from the food they eat, to touching the things around, right down to the air they breathe. While an infant or child’s body is able to fight off any possible infections from most of these types of microbes, their immune systems may not be able to handle more serious diseases such as polio or tetanus on their own.
The other argument anti-vaccination groups make is that vaccinating your child is akin to loading them with ‘disease’. Vaccines do contain germs, but weakened or even killed versions of them. The idea is to expose the child to “trial infections” without the risk of actual disease, so as to trigger the development of antibodies. Should the threat of a real infection arise, the child’s body is then easily able to develop these same antibodies to fight off the disease.
Myth 6: These are diseases of the past, so we do not have to worry them any more
This appears to be a case for vaccines being too effective for their own good. While many younger Malaysians may have not seen a polio victim with their own eyes, the country is not yet considered polio-free. Although polio cases are very rare, and usually occur in the more remote areas, it is still an existing risk. A child who contracts polio could be paralysed for life, and the disease may sometimes even cause death.
While the global eradication of smallpox was due to the success of a stringent, worldwide immunisation programme, the WHO notes that if we were to stop vaccinating, dormant diseases could reoccur fairly quickly. “Of more immediate interest is the major epidemics of diphtheria that occurred in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, where low primary immunisation rates for children and the lack of booster vaccinations for adults resulted in an increase from 839 cases in 1989 to nearly 50,000 cases and 1,700 deaths in 1994,” it says in a report on immunisation.
A local example of this would be the recurrence of tuberculosis in recent years. With the increased migration of other nationalities into the country, there was been an increase in the disease as not all these foreign nationals have been vaccinated against tuberculosis.
Myth 7: It is my personal choice to not vaccinate, and it does not affect other people
Some anti-vaccination proponents argue that it is their choice not to vaccinate, and that they are merely exercising their autonomy to decide. But what if one’s personal choice actually puts an entire community at risk?
There will always be a portion of the population who are unable to receive vaccines; this includes newborn infants, the elderly, pregnant women, those with weakened immune systems, and the very ill such as cancer patients. Such individuals rely on the rest of us who are vaccinated to keep them safe from infectious diseases. But if too many people choose not to vaccinate themselves, it increases the collective danger of enabling diseases to spread.
In a Facebook post highlighting the importance of vaccinations, the Health department’s director-general Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah puts it succinctly: “One unimmunised person puts the well-being of greater society at risk. Living in a civilised society requires certain obligations and not wantonly bringing back vaccine-preventable diseases. There’s simply no choice when it comes to saving children’s lives.”