The Potent Danger of Global Vaccine Hesitancy
Updated: Aug 30
By Mirra Ramakrishnan, Marquette High School, St. Louis, MO
“Vaccination causes autism.”
“People were fine before vaccines existed.”
“Vaccines can overload the immune system and have side-effects.”
The truths behind these fears are extremely meager. And, if believed, they can have profound consequences.
An estimated 19.4 million infants worldwide did not receive routine immunization services (WHO, 2019). There are two parts to this issue - people who cannot afford or do not have access to vaccines and people who choose not to get vaccinated. And, during a global pandemic that we are currently facing, the second part is a bit deranging.
“Vaccines cause autism.” For this point, it is not that the truths are meager. It is simply that there is no truth. Studies have consistently shown no association between vaccines and an increased risk of acquiring autism (CDC, 2020). In fact, this was also proved to be true for individuals who already possess a higher risk of autism due to a family history of the disorder (CDC, 2020). France has the lowest levels of trust in vaccines globally (Wires, 2019), and one of the main reasons behind this issue is the surreal thought that vaccinated children get autism. It is important to recognize the difference between “vaccinated children have autism” versus “vaccinated children get autism.” Though vaccinated children with autism exist, it is false that vaccines cause autism.
Furthermore, an ingredient that people fear in vaccines is thimerosal, an organomercury compound designated to play a role as a preservative and prevent contamination with harmful microbes. Every time a new needle is inserted into a vial, the possibility of the emergence of harmful microbes increases. And, thimerosal serves to prevent them as a vaccine contaminated with numerous bacteria can cause fatal effects.
To reduce public fear, many countries, including the United States, Denmark, the United Kingdom, and Italy, had decided to take out or significantly reduce thimerosal content in vaccines (WHO). The decision was made as a precaution to avoid exposure of mercury in young infants despite no evidence deeming thimerosal as dangerous. Many studies have been done with this compound and have concluded that autism rates continued to increase despite the removal of thimerosal in vaccines (CDC, 2015).
For the second misconception, stating that people were fine before vaccines, it is crucial to note that the change in time and human activity plays an immense role in the emergence of diseases globally. In the early times, humans tended to be in small bands isolated from each other. So, even if there were a disease outbreak, the results are not as massive. Interactions between humans and animals over time also play a role in disease transmission. Today, about three-quarters of new emerging infections in humans come from pathogens that were in animals (CDC, 2017). As more people began trading and traveling on a global scale along with animal interactions, easier disease transmission pathways were created.
The third misconception is that vaccines can overload the immune system and have side-effects. That is like choosing not to eat food because food overloads our immune system and is susceptible to side effects. Vaccines are meant to overload one’s immune system. While some may believe that naturally acquired immunity - immunity from having the disease itself- is better than vaccines, it is important to acknowledge that there are still deadly natural infections.
Unfortunately, pathogens are becoming smarter over time with means of infecting, and methods under active immunity are needed. And, vaccines can be the solution. While it is true that vaccines can cause side-effects in some individuals, the common side-effects are very mild. Certainly, the side-effects of vaccines do less harm than vaccine-preventable diseases.
There are various consequences of not getting vaccinated, especially amidst a pandemic. The possibility of co-infections can increase without getting vaccinated. Recently, research shows that vaccines against pneumococcus and Hib can help reduce the risk of secondary infection from bacteria causing complications of COVID-19 symptoms (Boonstra, 2020). Additionally, some people cannot receive certain vaccines due to medical reasons such as cancer therapy. The immunity of their surroundings plays a key role in their survival as it is their only form of protection from vaccine-preventable diseases. If immunization rates drop, vaccine-preventable diseases may spike again.
Vaccination should be a priority made globally. Various programs like UNICEF and Gavi are rising to help the needy to get them life-saving vaccinations. But, at the same time, there are people out there who refuse vaccines. Refuse to prioritize their health. Refuse to prioritize global health. And, this is an issue to be addressed.
Boonstra, D. N. (2020, April 21). Are Routine Vaccines Important During the COVID-19 Pandemic?https://www.unitypoint.org/blankchildrens/pedsgeekmd-article.aspx?id=40db0f95-f142-4126-83f2-ebae9fedb947.
Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research. Thimerosal and Vaccines. https://www.fda.gov/vaccines-blood-biologics/safety-availability-biologics/thimerosal-and-vaccine
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015, October 27). Thimerosal in Vaccines Thimerosal. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/thimerosal/index.html.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, July 14). Zoonotic Diseases. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/basics/zoonotic-diseases.html.
Immunization coverage. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/immunization-coverage.
No MMR Vaccine-Autism Link in Large Study. https://www.autismspeaks.org/science-news/no-mmr-autism-link-large-study-vaccinated-vs-unvaccinated-kids.
Vaccines Do Not Cause Autism. (2020, March 26). https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/autism.html.
Wires, N. (2019, June 19). France has lowest levels of trust in vaccines globally. https://www.france24.com/en/20190619-france-has-lowest-levels-trust-vaccines-globally.