An Overview of the Vaccine Debate

Looking at Both Side of the Argument

The vaccine debate—including the argument as to whether vaccines are safe, effective, or could cause conditions like autism—has been in the news a lot in recent years.

A wealth of research demonstrating the efficacy and safety of vaccines (including how some have virtually erased infectious diseases that once killed millions) has done little to sway detractors who believe that untold harms are not being shared with the U.S. public.

Young girl receiving vaccine
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The detractors not only include non-medical professionals but several scientists and doctors who hold alternative views about vaccines and vaccinations in general. Among them:

  • British physician Andrew Wakefield manufactured research that ignited the theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism.
  • Pediatrician Bob Sears penned the bestseller, The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for your Child, suggesting that many essential childhood vaccines were "optional."
  • Dr. Jane M. Orient, director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeon (an organization that opposed federally mandated vaccinations as an infringement of human rights), was among the leading opponents of the COVID-19 vaccine and one of the leading proponents of the disproven COVID-19 remedy, hydroxychloroquine.

These opposing messages, facilitated by social media, have cast doubts in many parent's minds as to whether they know everything they need to know about the vaccines their children are receiving.

Claims and Controversy

Parents are often caught in the middle of a debate for which views often polar opposites. Among some of the claims made by anti-vaccination ("anti-vaxxing") proponents over the years :

  • Pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine causes no less than 36 neurological disorders (a claim made in the 1970s that led to a decrease in childhood vaccinations in the United Kingdom from 81% in 1974 to 31% by 1980).
  • Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines not only cause autism but also ulcerative colitis. Andrew Wakefield, the lead researcher of the study, has since been removed from the medical registry in the United Kingdom due to falsified scientific data.
  • COVID-19 was among other things, "caused by Bill Gates," "developed as a military weapon," and "no more dangerous than the flu"—a narrative strongly supported by 10% of survey respondents in a study published in BMC Public Health.

The impact of anti-vaxxing claims has been profound. Among other things, it has led to a resurgence of measles in the United States and Europe, despite the fact that the disease was declared eradicated in the U.S. back in 2000.

The fear is that the same repercussions may affect the uptake of COVID-19 vaccinations both domestically and abroad. In the end, vaccine rates have to be high for herd immunity to work, and, if people refuse vaccination, the hopes that the pandemic will be fully controlled will start to dim.

Common Themes

The arguments made against vaccines are not new and have been made well before the first vaccine was developed for smallpox back in the 18th century.

According to a review of research published in Open Forum Infectious Diseases in 2017, the anti-vaxxing debate has long been centered on the following seven arguments:

  • Vaccines are "toxic" and contain ingredients that can lead to an assortment of chronic health conditions.
  • Vaccines are a tool of "Big Pharma," in which the companies are willing to profit off of harm to children.
  • Governments are "pharma shills," meaning they are bought off by pharmaceutical companies to hide cures or approve drugs that are not safe.
  • A child’s immune system is too immature to handle vaccines, leading the immune system to become overwhelmed and trigger an array of abnormal health conditions.
  • Natural immunity is best, suggesting that getting a natural infection that causes disease is "better" than receiving a vaccine that may cause mild side effects.
  • Vaccines are not tested properly, suggesting a (highly unethical) approach in which two groups of people are intentionally inoculated with an infection, one of whom receives a vaccine and the other of whom doesn't.
  • Infectious diseases have declined due to improved hygiene and sanitation, suggesting that hand-washing and other sanitary interventions are all that are needed to stop epidemics.
  • Vaccines cause the body to "shed" virus, a claim that is medically true, although the amount of shed virus is rarely enough to facilitate infection.

Studies have suggested that the anti-vaxxing movement has effectively minimized the importance of childhood vaccinations in large sectors of the population. The added burden of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to further declines in vaccination rates.

According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the rate of complete recommended vaccination among babies age 5 months has declined from 66.6% in 2016 to 49.7% by May 2020.

Reasons to Get Vaccinated

Of the vaccines recommended by the CDC, the benefits of immunization are seen to overwhelmingly outweigh the potential risks. While there are some people who may need to avoid certain vaccines due to underlying health conditions, the vast majority can do so safely.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, there are five important reasons why your child should get the recommended vaccines:

  • Immunizations can save your child’s life. Consider that polio once killed up to 30% of those who developed paralytic symptoms. Due to polio vaccination, the disease is no longer a public health concern in the United States.
  • Vaccination is very safe and effective. Injection site pain and mild, flu-like symptoms may occur with vaccine shots. By contrast, serious side effects, such as a severe allergic reaction, are very rare.
  • Immunization protects others you care about. Because respiratory viruses can spread easily among children, getting your child vaccinated not only protects your child but prevents the further spread of the disease.
  • Immunizations can save you time and money. According to the non-profit Borgen Project, the average cost of a measles vaccination around the world is roughly $1.76 versus the cost of treating measles, which averages $307. In the end, the cost of prevention is invariably smaller than the cost of treatment.
  • Immunization protects future generations. Smallpox vaccinations have led to the elimination of smallpox. Rubella (German measles) vaccinations have all but eliminated birth defects caused by the infection in mothers. With persistence and increased community uptake, measles could one day be declared eliminated (again) as well.

A Word From Verywell

If uncertain about whether a vaccine is recommended or not, do not hesitate to speak with your doctor or your child's pediatrician.

If a vaccine on the immunization schedule has been missed, it is also important to speak to a doctor before heading to the local pharmacy. In some cases, additional doses may be needed.

Vaccines Doctor Discussion Guide

Get our printable guide for your next doctor's appointment to help you ask the right questions.

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