An Overview of the Vaccine Debate

Looking at Both Sides of the Argument

There is a wealth of research demonstrating the efficacy and safety of vaccines—including how some have virtually eradicated infectious diseases that once killed millions. However, this has done little to sway those who believe that untold harms are being hidden from the American public.

The vaccine debate—including the argument as to whether vaccines are safe, effective, or could cause conditions like autism—has received a lot of attention from the media in recent years. With so much conflicting information being publicized, it can be a challenge to discern what is true and what is not. Therefore, it is important to learn the facts before making health decisions.

Young girl receiving vaccine
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Claims and Controversy

Those who are part of the anti-vaccination movement include not only non-medical professionals but several scientists and healthcare providers who hold alternative views about vaccines and vaccination in general.

Some notable examples include:

  • British healthcare provider Andrew Wakefield, who in 1998 published research linking the MMR vaccine and autism. That study has since been retracted, and he was later removed from the medical registry in the United Kingdom for falsifying scientific data.
  • Pediatrician Bob Sears, who wrote the bestseller "The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for your Child," which suggested that many essential childhood vaccines were "optional." However, he was subsequently put on probation by the Medical Review Board of California in 2018 for alleged medical negligence and the inappropriate writing of medical exemptions for vaccinations.
  • Dr. Jane M. Orient, director of the Association of American Healthcare Providers and Surgeons, who was among the leading opponents of the COVID-19 vaccine and one of the leading proponents of using hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19 during the pandemic.

These opposing views and claims, along with other information promoted by the news and social media, have led some people to question whether they know everything they need to know about vaccines.

Common Concerns Regarding Vaccines

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.

The following are some of the common arguments against vaccines:

  • Vaccines contain "toxic" ingredients that can lead to an assortment of chronic health conditions such as autism.
  • Vaccines are a tool of "Big Pharma," in which manufacturers 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 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 one group of people is given a vaccine, another group is not, and both are intentionally inoculated with the same virus or bacteria.
  • Infectious diseases have declined due in part to improved hygiene and sanitation, suggesting that hand-washing and other sanitary interventions are all that are needed to prevent epidemics.
  • Vaccines cause the body to "shed" virus, a claim that is medically true, although the amount of shed virus is rarely enough to cause infection.

The impact of anti-vaccination claims has been profound. For example, it has led to a resurgence of measles in the United States and Europe, despite the fact that the disease was declared eliminated in the U.S. back in 2000.

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

There is also concern that the same repercussions may affect COVID-19 vaccination rates—both domestically and abroad. Ultimately, vaccine rates must be high for herd immunity to be effective.

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. Declines in vaccination coverage were seen in other age groups as well.

Benefits of Vaccination

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. However, serious side effects, such as a severe allergic reaction, are very rare.
  • Immunization protects others. Because respiratory viruses can spread easily among children, getting your child vaccinated not only protects your child but prevents the further spread of 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, whereas the average cost of treating measles is $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 eradication of smallpox. Rubella (German measles) vaccinations have helped eliminate birth defects caused by infection of pregnant mothers in the developed world. With persistence and increased community uptake, measles could one day be declared eliminated (again) as well.

A Word From Verywell

If you have any questions or concerns about vaccinations, do not hesitate to speak with your healthcare provider or your child's pediatrician.

If a vaccine on the immunization schedule has been missed, speak to a healthcare provider before seeking the vaccination on your own (such as at a pharmacy or clinic). In some cases, additional doses may be needed.

Vaccines Healthcare Provider Discussion Guide

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

Doctor Discussion Guide Child
14 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Vincent Iannelli, MD
 Vincent Iannelli, MD, is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Dr. Iannelli has cared for children for more than 20 years.