With the coronavirus pandemic likely to continue well into 2021, and with two vaccines—the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines—now in the beginning stages of distribution, Door County Medical Center decided to delve more deeply into what vaccines are, the importance of vaccines to national and global health and economic stability, and also to discuss some of the misconceptions that surround vaccines.
What are vaccines?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains vaccines and how they work by defining four different terms:
- Immunity: “Protection from an infectious disease.” If your body’s immune system is able to recognize an infection—primarily bacterial, viral or fungal—and neutralize it before you become sick, then you are immune to the disease and can be exposed to it without becoming infected.
- Vaccine: “A product that stimulates a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease.” Vaccines stimulate the immune system by introducing molecules from the pathogen—called antigens—into your body, thereby allowing your immune system to recognize the pathogen. The next time you are exposed to that pathogen, the immune system will be able to recognize it and neutralize it before you get sick.
- Vaccination: “The act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce immunity to a specific disease.” This is generally performed with a needle injection, but some vaccines can also be administered orally or with a nasal spray.
- Immunization: “A process by which a person becomes protected against disease through vaccination. The term is often used interchangeably with vaccination or inoculation.
The health benefits of vaccines
Records from 16th-century England indicate that 1 in 3 children died before reaching the age of 15, often from a combination of dysentery, scarlet fever, whooping cough, influenza, small pox and pneumonia—vaccines now exist and prevent all of the listed diseases except dysentery and scarlet fever. Indeed, the process of vaccinating people against infectious disease is one of modern medicine’s greatest successes. In the 20th Century alone, vaccines were developed that prevented 27 major infectious diseases, and by the end of the last century, diseases like polio and measles were virtually eradicated from the developed world.
The health benefits of vaccines to individuals and society as a whole are extensive. Some of the major benefits are as follows:
- Reduction of infectious disease morbidity (illness) and mortality (death): It is estimated that vaccines prevent nearly 6 million deaths per year globally. In 2009, it is estimated that in the U.S. alone a course of 13 vaccines given to children prevented approximately 20 million cases of disease and 42,000 deaths.
- Eradication or near eradication of diseases: While the only disease to have been eradicated by vaccines is small pox, polio has been nearly eradicated, and as of June 2020, has only been reported in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- Herd immunity: Not everyone can be vaccinated, particularly people that are immunocompromised, and children younger than 6 months. However, when enough people have developed immunity to a disease—usually between 50% and 90% of a given population—the disease will no longer be able to spread. As a result, those who have not been vaccinated will be protected as well. This is referred to as “herd immunity,” and it is usually achieved through immunization.
- Reduction in secondary infections: Because vaccines prevent viral infections, the secondary bacterial infections that often follow a viral infection are prevented as well. A reduction in secondary bacterial infections also slows the need for antibiotics, which in turn, slows the rise in antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- Prevention of cancer: Chronic Hepatitis B can result in liver cancer (hepatocellular carcinoma), and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) can cause several different types of cancer, including: cervical, vaginal, vulvar, anal, and penile cancers. Vaccines for Hepatitis B and HPV will not only prevent infection, but also prevent the cancers that will develop as a result of these infections.
Economic and societal benefits of vaccines
It seems intuitive that less endemic disease and better physical health would result in better social and economic health. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that the economic growth enjoyed by higher-income nations in the last century can, in part, be attributed to the development of vaccines. For example, in comparison to medical care and other public health measures, vaccines are highly cost effective. It is estimated that “for every dollar invested in vaccination in the world’s 94 lowest-income countries, US $16 are expected to be saved in healthcare costs, lost wages and lost productivity due to illness.” Additionally, the Center’s for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that vaccinations save the U.S. $69 billion annually on health care costs, and that childhood vaccinations between 1994 and 2018 “saved the U.S. nearly $406 billion in direct medical costs and $1.88 trillion in total society costs.” Additionally, vaccines boost productivity and, through the aforementioned reduced healthcare costs, allow individuals, families and societies to invest in the future.
Common vaccine myths
There are several prevalent misconceptions about vaccines that prevent people from inoculating themselves and their children every year. 3 of the most common misconceptions are listed below:
- Vaccines cause autism: The belief that vaccines—in particular, the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine (MMR)—cause autism is connected to a 1997 study published by the British surgeon Andrew Wakefield. Other researchers were unable to reproduce his findings, and it was later found that Dr. Wakefield had misrepresented his results. His paper was subsequently retracted by the medical journal The Lancet, and his medical license was revoked. Recently, scientists have discovered that autism begins before birth, with the development of the brain, possibly as early as the first trimester of pregnancy.
- Infant immune systems can’t handle so many vaccines: It has been found that, “based on the number of antibodies present in the blood, a baby would theoretically have the ability to respond to 10,000 vaccines at one time,” and that all 14 scheduled vaccinations, even if given at the same time, would only use up 0.1% of a baby’s immune capacity.
- Vaccines contain unsafe toxins: While it is true that in the past vaccines have contained ethylmercury as a preservative, which is different than methylmercury—the type of mercury that is known to be toxic—today, only the influenza vaccine contains ethylmercury, and at levels that are far below what the EPA or FDA consider unsafe.
Vaccines have saved many millions of lives over the last century and are essential to maintaining the health and wellbeing of not only our own community, but also the health and wellbeing of the global community. The positive effects of vaccines are broad and their benefits extend into better economic and societal health. For more information on vaccines please visit the CDC website at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/index.html. To schedule your vaccination at Door County Medical Center, please call: 920.743.5566, or visit our website at: https://www.dcmedical.org