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Facts About Vaccines

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Updated December 06, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Vaccines

The CDC lists vaccination as the greatest public health achievement of the 20th century.

The World Health Organization also calls vaccines "one of the most successful and cost-effective public health interventions," which help prevent "an estimated 2.5 million child deaths every year in all age groups from diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (whooping cough), and measles."

Vaccines could do so much more, though.

Increased vaccination rates could likely help prevent:

  • disease in the 24 million children in the world who don't have access to complete the routine vaccine series they should get before they turn 12 months old
  • the death of 1.3 million infants and young children from pneumococcal disease and rotavirus
  • about 200,000 measles deaths
  • over 100,000 deaths from neonatal tetanus
  • continued cases of endemic polio in Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan

Vaccine Facts

Getting the facts about vaccines and avoiding vaccine misinformation can help make sure your kids are fully vaccinated and safe from vaccine-preventable infections:

  • By the time they start school, most kids following the current immunization schedule will get up to about 34 doses of 10 different vaccines (including a yearly flu vaccine), but perhaps as few as 20 actual shots if they get available combination vaccines, like Pediarix (DTaP-HepB-IPV) or Pentacel (DTaP-IPV-Hib), Kinrix (DTaP-IPV), and Proquad (MMR-Var), etc., and the Flumist nasal spray once they are two years old.

  • Although you should try to get vaccine doses according to the recommended immunization schedule, vaccine doses usually still count, even if they were given up to four days too early.

  • Live vaccine shots, such as MMR and Varivax, should either be given at the same time or at least 28 days apart.

  • You usually don't have to restart a vaccine series if you are late in getting the next or final dose in a vaccine series.

  • Thimerosal-free versions of vaccines in the childhood immunization schedule have been available since 2001. Even the flu vaccine is now readily available as a preservative-free shot.

  • Thimerosal in vaccines was never linked to autism.

  • Even with the removal of thimerosal, there are still other vaccine additives and preservatives in some vaccines that help them work better, including formaldehyde and aluminum. Most are left over in residual amounts from the way that vaccines are made, and some, like formaldehyde, are less than the amount naturally found in children.

  • Although not routinely given to kids, vaccines that are not a part of our immunization schedule are available to protect against a number of other vaccine-preventable illnesses, such as cholera, yellow fever, typhoid, rabies, tuberculosis (BCG), shingles, and Japanese encephalitis (JE), etc.

  • You can't get the flu from a flu vaccine. Neither the inactivated (killed) flu shot or cold-adapted, attenuated (weakened) live virus flu nasal spray can cause flu illness in those people who get them.

  • Vaccines do not contain anti-freeze.

  • The Lancet report by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that helped start a lot of the fear about a connection between vaccines and autism was never replicated by other researchers, has been retracted, and found to be based on fraudulent research.

  • Fainting (syncope) can occur, usually within 15 minutes of vaccination, especially in teens getting the HPV, Tdap, and meningococcal vaccines, which is why pediatricians typically recommend that teens should be seated or lying down during vaccination and should be observed for 15 minutes after getting shots.

  • When vaccination levels dropped between 1989 and 1991, cases of measles increased to the highest levels seen since the measles vaccine was licensed, with 55,467 cases in three years, 11,251 hospitalizations, and 166 deaths. Cases of measles quickly dropped again after intensive vaccination campaigns increased kids' vaccine rates.

  • More than 80 candidate vaccines are in late stages of clinical testing, including vaccines for malaria and dengue fever.

Vaccine-Preventable Illnesses

Vaccines that are routinely given to children according to the 2011 immunization schedule protect them against 17 vaccine-preventable illnesses, including infections caused by:

  • varicella virus - chicken pox / shingles
  • diphtheria
  • flu
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b
  • hepatitis A
  • hepatitis B
  • human papillomavirus virus (HPV)
  • measles
  • Neisseria meningitidis (meningococcal bacteria)
  • mumps
  • pertussis (whooping cough)
  • Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococcal bacteria)
  • polio
  • rotavirus
  • rubella
  • tetanus

Unlike smallpox, none of these vaccine-preventable illnesses has been eliminated.

Although once rare in the United States, small outbreaks of measles are becoming more common, and we have seen record numbers of measles in recent years, with many of the cases in children whose parents refused to have them vaccinated.

Other recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses include:

  • an ongoing pertussis outbreak in California and many other states
  • measles outbreaks in several states, which almost tripled the measles cases in 2008 to a total of 140 cases, many linked to a few unvaccinated children who had traveled out of the United States, and while many unvaccinated kids with non-medical exemptions got measles during this outbreak, it also affected many kids too young to get their MMR vaccine yet. These measles outbreaks continue, with 2011 becoming another record year, over 220 cases, the most in 15 years.
  • mumps outbreaks in Iowa (2006) and New York and New Jersey (2009)

Vaccinated kids do sometimes get sick in these outbreaks, especially when exposed to an infection like the mumps, in which the vaccine is only 76 to 95% effective, even after two doses, but the risk for kids who didn't get vaccines is typically much higher.

Which leads to one of the clearest vaccine facts: unvaccinated kids can put other children at risk for getting a vaccine-preventable illness, either because they were too young to be vaccinated, couldn't be vaccinated, or because their vaccine didn't work.



Sources:

American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Recommended Childhood and Adolescent Immunization Schedule - United States, 2011. Pediatrics. 2011;127;387-388.

Kreesten M. Madsen. Thimerosal and the Occurrence of Autism: Negative Ecological Evidence From Danish Population-Based Data. Pediatrics, Sep 2003; 112: 604 - 606.

CDC. Misconceptions about Seasonal Influenza and Influenza Vaccines. Accessed February 2011.

CDC. Public-Sector Vaccination Efforts in Response to the Resurgence of Measles Among Preschool-Aged Children -- United States, 1989-1991. MMWR. July 24, 1992 / 41(29);522-525.

Measles --- United States, January 1--April 25, 2008. MMWR. May 1, 2008 / 57 (Early Release);1-4

General Recommendations on Immunization. Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR. January 28, 2011 / 60(RR02);1-60.

Paul A. Offit, MD. Addressing Parents' Concerns: Do Vaccines Contain Harmful Preservatives, Adjuvants, Additives, or Residuals? PEDIATRICS Vol. 112 No. 6 December 2003, pp. 1394-1397

WHO. State of the world's vaccines and immunization. Third edition. 2009.

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