Posted by Naomi Nessim, November 16, 2017 (last updated on January 22, 2019)
According to the World Health Organization, 2 to 3 million deaths are avoided each year, thanks to vaccinations. They also say that 1.5 million deaths could have been avoided if more vaccinations were given. These numbers are staggering and lend credibility to just how important vaccines are. Still, there has been debate over whether vaccines are actually safe and effective for preventing diseases like pertussis (whooping cough), measles, and polio.
With so many conflicting opinions floating around, it can be hard to understand whether you should — or shouldn’t — immunize yourself or your child. Read on for more information about how vaccines work, which vaccinations you and your child need to stay healthy, where you can get them, and when you should.
How do vaccines work?
Your immune system is composed of organs, cells, glands, and fluids. It’s one job is to keep you healthy. To do this, your immune system will “attack” any foreign bacteria or viruses, called antigens, that it finds in your body by producing proteins called antibodies. The first time your body is exposed to a particular foreign substance, your immune system needs time to develop the antibodies that protect you from getting sick. If your immune system detects that type of bacteria or virus in the future, it will recognize it and work to prevent the illness or disease faster.
This process is called immunity. Vaccines work by exposing your body to weakened or killed antigens, allowing your immune system to recognize them and produce antibodies that lead to immunity of that particular disease. Essentially, vaccines help your body develop immunity by mimicking an infection, without exposing you to symptoms of that infection.
Are vaccines safe?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says “Vaccines are the best defense we have against serious, preventable, and sometimes deadly contagious diseases. Vaccines are some of the safest medical products available, but like any other medical product, there may be risks.”
What are the potential side effects of vaccinations?
As with any type of medication, there is the potential for side effects after getting a vaccination. The side effects vary by age and by the type of vaccine. Most side effects of vaccines are not serious. Those that are serious are very rare.
Some mild side effects you may experience after getting any kind of vaccine include:
- Low-grade fever
- Redness or swelling where the shot was given
- Soreness and tenderness where the shot was given
The CDC provides a comprehensive list of the potential side effects of different vaccines, as well as how common they are in adults and children.
Do vaccines work?
Before vaccines were developed, children and adults frequently died or became severely ill due to contagious diseases like diphtheria, measles, and the flu. As more vaccines were created, death and illness rates dropped dramatically. Now, vaccinations help create immunity between 90% and 100% of the time. The Centers for Disease Control provides research highlighting the percent decrease in death from various contagious diseasesbetween the pre-vaccine era and 2006:
- Diphtheria — 100%
- Measles — 99.9%
- Mumps — 95.7%
- Pertussis (whooping cough) — 89.4%
- Polio (paralytic) — 100%
- Rubella — 99.9%
- Congenital Rubella Syndrome — 99.9%
- Tetanus — 99.9%
- H. Influenzae Type B — 99.9%
What’s in a vaccine?
In addition to the killed or weakened disease that creates immunity, vaccines can contain a number of other ingredients. The CDC outlines the potential additives in vaccines as:
- Stabilizers to help the vaccine remain unchanged during storage and transportation
- Adjuvants or enhancers to help the vaccine to be more effective
- Preservatives, to prevent contamination
The substances found in vaccines all serve a different person and vary depending on the vaccine. You can find a full list of ingredients found in each type of vaccine on the CDC’s website. If you want to know what is in a vaccination you or your child are getting, you can ask your doctor for a copy of the vaccine package insert.
Who needs to get vaccinated in 2018?
Everyone, from infants to the elderly, need to get vaccinated against different diseases. Knowing which vaccination to get and when to get it can be confusing. Every year, the CDC updates the recommended immunization schedules for different age groups. For a detailed schedule that shows which vaccines are recommended at each age, as well as more information on what each vaccine prevents, the CDC has created the following guidelines:
- Vaccination schedule for birth to age 6
- Vaccination schedule for age 7 to 18
- Vaccination schedule for adults, age 19+
Additionally, women who are pregnant or plan to become pregnant may need specific vaccinations before, during, and after pregnancy to help protect themselves and their baby.
Can I delay my child’s vaccination schedule?
While some parents choose to delay their children’s vaccines, or space out the time between each vaccination, the CDC doesn’t recommend this practice. They say that “infants and young children who follow immunization schedules that spread out or leave out shots are at risk of developing diseases during the time you delay their shots.”
Do you need vaccines to travel outside of the U.S.?
Though concern for serious diseases in the U.S. is relatively low, there are some parts of the world where contagious disease is common. In addition to routine vaccinations, if you’re traveling you’ll need one or more of the following travel vaccines, depending on where you’re going:
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Typhoid and paratyphoid fever
- Meningococcal disease
- Yellow Fever
- Japanese Encephalitis
Where you’re traveling to plays a big role in which travel immunizations you’ll need to get. The CDC provides a full list of destinations and the vaccines required to travel to them.
What you need to know about vaccinations in 2018
Though people have been somewhat vocal against vaccinations since the first was developed in 1796, the real anti-vaccine movement began in 1998. Andrew J. Wakefield published research that linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Even though the study conducted was relatively small, the research spread and many parents began refusing to vaccinate their children. Shortly after, more extensive research found that there was no link and, in fact, Wakefield misrepresented much of the research he did.
There are now many other reasons people choose not to vaccinate themselves or their children. These include (but are not limited to):
- The belief that some of the diseases vaccines protect against, namely polio, measles, and tetanus, are rare in the U.S., so vaccines are not needed. However, in 2017, Minnesota experienced a measles outbreak bigger than any in the last 30 years.
- The belief that certain vaccine-preventable diseases, like measles and chickenpox, are not serious enough to warrant a vaccine.
- The concern about the short- and long-term side effects of certain vaccines, despite evidence that serious side effects are extremely rare.
While these concerns are certainly valid, it’s important to look at the science behind vaccines to understand why doctors and researchers continue to insist that they’re necessary.
How are vaccinations approved for use?
Before any vaccine is released to the public, it goes through up to 15 years of testing in a lab, so scientists can identify which antigen can prevent a disease. Then, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves the vaccine for clinical testing, which can take several more years to complete. During clinical trials, tens of thousands of volunteers are given the vaccine and closely monitored for any adverse side effects.
Once a vaccine is approved and cleared by the FDA, it continues to be closely monitored, with assistance from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS). This organization analyzes reports of negative side effects from vaccines. Anyone can report an adverse side effectfor review.
From there, the vaccine goes under review by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) to determine whether it will be added to the children’s recommended immunization schedule. They consider factors like:
- How safe is the vaccine when given at specific ages?
- How well does the vaccine work for different age groups?
- How serious is the disease the vaccine prevents?
- How many kids would get the disease the vaccine prevents if we didn’t have the vaccine?
The only exception to this process is the flu vaccine, which is developed annually based on feedback from the World Health Organization (WHO) about which influenza viruses are most likely to spread that year.
Where can you get vaccines in 2018?
Going to urgent care for non-emergency illness or injury is more affordable than going to the emergency room and more convenient than waiting for an appointment at your primary physician’s office. But can you get vaccines at urgent care? The answer depends.
Many urgent care centers and pharmacies offer walk-in vaccinations, including the flu shot. Pediatric urgent care centers are likely to have the vaccines children need available. However, not all urgent care centers keep all types of vaccines in stock year round. For example, the flu shot may only be available from October to January. To see if an urgent care center near you offers other types of vaccinations, you can go to vaccinefinder.org and enter your address or zip code.
With so much conflicting information about vaccines available, it can be hard to decide whether you or your child need to get vaccinated. It’s good to ask questions to better understand why you’re getting a particular vaccine, what’s in the vaccine, and any potential side effects you may experience. Remember, vaccines are safe and can help keep you, your child, and your community from contracting and spreading serious diseases.