It is perhaps one of the biggest ironies of our times that despite being a leading producer and exporter of vaccines, India has one-third of the unimmunized children around the world. It is a quite startling fact that not even half of Indian children go through the complete immunization cycle. 1 The poor response to vaccines is an outcome of a population that is largely uneducated or poorly educated as well as the influence of anti-vaccine propaganda machinery. The truth that most people do not realise about vaccines is that failing to get immunized on time can make you more susceptible to any illness.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a study underscoring this fact. The researchers gathered data about measles and pertussis outbreaks in recent times. It was discovered that unvaccinated people formed the majority of measles and pertussis cases 2 (pertussis reduces immunity, thus, in the absence of a pertussis vaccine, various disease outbreaks occur).

Despite the presence of ample evidence supporting the invaluable contribution made by vaccines towards global well-being, there are several myths and misconceptions around the subject. Some of the most prevalent ones include the following.

Diseases were already on the wane when vaccines came into the picture thanks to better hygiene and sanitation.

This is one of the commonest anti-vaccine theories that one comes across, and the idea here is to establish the futility of vaccines. While it is beyond doubt that better socioeconomic conditions impact disease outbreaks, it is not the game-changer. Better nutrition, antibiotics and treatment procedures have reduced mortality rates among the sick, and there have been lesser instances of disease transmission. However, when we objectively assess the disease outbreaks over the years, we can clearly see the direct and huge impact of vaccines, even in the 21 st century.

To quote an example, there has been an actual and permanent reduction in measles outbreak since the approval and wide-spread usage of measles vaccine started in 1963 3.

Even the sanitary conditions today are not any better than they were in 1990, so to attribute the success of disease control to anything other than vaccination would be incorrect.

Majority of people who get the disease have been vaccinated

This is another of the popular anti-vaccine arguments, and it implies that they are harmful. However, this is a twisted way of representing the facts to support a hypothetical situation. It is true that in case of a disease outbreak, patients who had been previously vaccinated are usually more in number compared to those who were not vaccinated. However, to understand the real reasoning, we need to look at an example.

Let’s say, in a batch of 100 people, 90 were vaccinated and the remaining 10 were not. When the disease spread, 15 out of the 90 vaccinated people were affected and 10 out of those 10 who were not immunized fell ill. If we look at raw numbers, we might say 15 vaccinated people fell ill compared to only 10 non-vaccinated people. However, the reality is that only one-sixth of the vaccinated people were affected while 100% of the non- vaccinated people were affected. Hence, it stands proven that vaccines are very potent protection against diseases.

Presence of ‘hot lots’ of faulty vaccines that should be avoided

This again is a misconception or wrong interpretation of an occurrence that is used to add credibility to a baseless theory. Most of the times, reports about specific vaccine lots highlight temporary side-effects or previously ‘deemed safe’ side effects such as soreness, temporary pains or fever. They don’t necessarily have to be ‘potentially fatal’ or unforeseen side-effects. Also, at times, deaths caused by non-related reasons are also attributed to a recently administered vaccine especially among the infants who are anyway at high risk to a large number of factors other than faulty vaccines. Even the vaccine lots vary in size depending upon the communities or geographies they are being used in. There might be lots comprising less than a thousand vaccines or those comprising millions of vaccines that would be administered over a much longer period of time, thus, resulting in more instances of side-effects and to weigh both on the same criteria happens to be another negative tactic used by anti-vaccine propaganda.

Vaccines have fatal or long-term side effects which are kept hidden from us

Vaccines are extremely safe despite the negative notion about them. The occurrence of a vaccine-induced fatality is very rare, in fact, so negligible at times then it can’t even be quantified statistically. Even in the rarest of circumstances where deaths occur after administration of a vaccine, the investigation usually reveals the actual cause to be human error or miscalculation and not a faulty vaccine.

No disease hence no need for vaccines

This is a classic and most absurd argument. It is a fact that vaccines have helped us win the battle against a number of preventable diseases. In many countries, some of these preventable diseases are no longer observed or are extremely rare and isolated occurrences. In such cases, it is stated that there is no need to administer vaccines against non-existent diseases. There are faults with such an argument at two major levels. In this global age, people travel constantly. Even if there are no preventable diseases in one country, it doesn’t rule out the possibility of getting affected by the disease in another country. There are also chances of someone from another country landing with a preventable and communicable disease that would then cause an outbreak among an unprotected population.

In conclusion

It is important for the healthcare workers administering vaccines to pay attention to and show empathy towards a patient’s concerns, fears and apprehensions regarding vaccination or at least to take them into consideration before they are administered. There is no doubt that vaccines are lifesavers, but it is imperative to cultivate a stronger feeling of trust between the healthcare workers and the patients. Such trust-building interactions will also help in identifying the arguments which yield positive results and convince those who are apprehensive to accept immunization!

(The writer of the article is Head of the Clinical Advisory Board, healthi)