Last year, Malaysians were shocked to hear about the re-emergence of diphtheria cases in Malaysia. 23 cases and 5 deaths were reported last year, and this year, the number is still at a worrying level. At the same time, there are increasing numbers of parents who refuse vaccination for their children.
These two phenomena can be attributed to the rising anti-vaccination movement on Malaysian social media. This movement is fuelled by all kinds of myths and misconception related to vaccination that are being propagated by irresponsible parties. We have addressed some of the false information regarding vaccination in past Positive Parenting issues, which you can find on our website. In this article, we debunk other vaccination myths as highlighted by World Health Organization (WHO) and set things straight.
Vaccines can cause dangerous side effects that we might not be aware about
In general, vaccines are safe to the majority of the population. Even if there are occasional side effects from vaccination, usually they are mild adverse events that are minor and temporary, such as swelling, sore arm, or mild fever. These can be managed by taking paracetamol after vaccination. Adverse events that are more serious, usually due to allergies, do occur, but very rarely. This can be prevented by proper consultation with your doctor before vaccination, to identify if the vaccine is suitable for your kids. Before being given vaccines, a set of questions will be asked to recipients to screen them for any particular risks. Furthermore, there are multiple organisations, locally and globally, that monitor the safety of vaccines and the occurrence of adverse events after immunization, such as the Global Vaccine Safety Initiative (GVSI) by the WHO and our own vaccine-monitoring system by Malaysia’s Ministry of Health. Other than that, various claims purportedly linking vaccines to different diseases have been disproven. One popular claim relating MMR vaccine to autism have actually been refuted as no causal connection between these two can be found after extensive studies, and even the single research paper the anti-vaccine movement based their argument on has long been retracted.
Vaccination is unnecessary since vaccine-preventable diseases have been eliminated in my country
In Malaysia, many vaccine-preventable diseases such as polio and smallpox have been eliminated. However, it does not mean that the diseases no longer exist. As smallpox has been completely eradicated, our children no longer need smallpox vaccination. Polio, on the other hand, is still present in two countries (Afghanistan and Pakistan) and can be imported into Malaysia by travellers. Apart from that, there is a small percentage of the population who cannot be vaccinated (due to allergy, for example) and who are not responsive to vaccines. For this population, their only chance of protection comes from herd immunity, and the effect of herd immunity can only work when there is a high rate of vaccination.
Diseases disappear because of better hygiene and sanitation, not because of vaccination
Many of us today have never seen an actual case of polio or smallpox, which used to be endemic in the world several decades ago. Some people claim that better hygiene and sanitation led to the disappearance of such diseases. This claim is not false, but there are many other factors that contributed to the decrease in the incidence of diseases, and one major factor is widespread vaccination. This can be seen when there are significant drops in the incidence of disease that coincided directly with the introduction of vaccination programme. For example, right after the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, a permanent drop in the number of measles cases was observed. Additionally, an immediate increase of incidence was also observed when there was a lag in vaccination. This effect was seen in Britain, when a decreased vaccination rate during the 70s due to the scare campaign against pertussis vaccine led to a dramatic rise of incidence of the disease there. We may also witness this effect in Malaysia if the anti-vaccination movement in Malaysia continues to be a trend.
Multiple vaccinations for different diseases that are given in combination to children can overload their immune system
It is generally known that we are exposed to multiple foreign antigens in daily activity, and this also applies to our children. Thus, additional antigens from multiple vaccinations would not burden their immune system. Available scientific data has shown that combination vaccinations have no adverse effects on the immune system of a normal child. Various studies and reviews have also shown that combination vaccination is as effective and safe as a single vaccination. In fact, combination vaccination can be better for you, by providing all the benefit of a single vaccination with fewer shots. Vaccines are usually given at an early age for better protection to infants, and most vaccines are usually due at the same time. Thus, combination vaccinations would be practical in this case. Combination vaccinations also need fewer shots and hence, fewer sessions. Therefore, we can save time and money, and also ensure a complete vaccination for our children.
More vaccinated people get infected than unvaccinated people
In certain cases, the number might reflect this claim, but it does not show that vaccine is ineffective. This is due to the fact that there is a majority of people vaccinated compared to people who are unvaccinated. Also, vaccines are not 100% effective (85 to 95% effective) because some individuals are not responsive to vaccines. However, in local diphtheria cases recently, it was found that all patients were not vaccinated or did not complete the whole course of vaccination. This also shows that the effect of herd immunity has been weakened due to an increase of unvaccinated people in the population.
The advent of technology nowadays has made it easier for us to seek information on our health. However, we should learn to distinguish between real information and misinformation. Referring to experts on issues such as vaccination is important so that you will not endanger your kids and yourself in the pursuit of well-being.
An educational contribution by Malaysian Paediatric Association.