Misconceptions about Immunization: Introduction

September 21, 2015

Immunizations should be part of routine health care obtained through one’s personal physician (or in some instances, through one’s local health department). Long-lasting protection is available against measles, mumps, German measles (rubella), poliomyelitis, tetanus (lockjaw), whooping cough (pertussis), diphtheria, chickenpox (varicella), Hemophilus influenzae b (Hib), and hepatitis B. Immunization against all of these is recommended for children by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Practice, and the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

All states now require proof of immunization or other evidence of immunity against some of these diseases for admission to school. However, the requirements vary from state to state, and exemptions may be granted for medical, moral, or religious reasons.

Immunization is also important for adults. Those unprotected against any of the above diseases (except whooping cough) should consult their physicians. Tetanus boosters should be administered every ten years. Flu shots (which give only seasonal protection) and immunization against pneumococcal pneumonia are recommended for high-risk patients, elderly individuals, and certain institutional populations.

The success of vaccination programs in the United States and Europe inspired the 20th-century concept of “disease eradication”—the idea that a selected disease can be eradicated from all human populations through global cooperation. In 1977, after a decade-long campaign involving 33 countries, smallpox was eradicated worldwide. Polio caused by wild virus has been eradicated from the Western Hemisphere; childhood vaccination levels in the United States are at an all-time high; and disease and death from diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) are at or near record lows. The CDC’s Parent’s Guide to Childhood Immunizations includes some interesting statistics about the impact of vaccination on childhood diseases.

Disease Cases per year before vaccines Cases in 2007 Percent decline
Diphtheria 175,885 0 100%
Tetanus 1,314 28 98%
Measles 503,282 43 99.9%
Mumps 152,209 800 99.5%
Rubella 47,745 12 99.9%
Congenital rubella syndrome 823 0 100%
Common Misconceptions

At least ten misconceptions can lead parents to question the wisdom of immunizing their children. If you encounter others you would like Quackwatch to address, please contact us.

  • Misconception #1: Because of better hygiene and sanitation, diseases had already begun to disappear before vaccines were introduced.
  • Misconception #2: The majority of people who get the disease have been immunized.
  • Misconception #3: There are hot lots of vaccine that have been associated with more adverse events and deaths than others. Parents should find the numbers of these lots and not allow their children to receive vaccines from them.
  • Misconception #4: Vaccines cause many harmful side effects, and even death—and may cause long-term effects we don’t even know about.
  • Misconception #5: DTP vaccine causes sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Misconception #6: Vaccine-preventable diseases have been virtually eliminated from the United States, so there is no need for my child to be vaccinated.
  • Misconception #7: Giving a child more than one vaccine at a time increases the risk of harmful side effects and can overload the immune system.
  • Misconception #8: There is no good reason to immunize against chickenpox (varicella) because it is a harmless disease.
  • Misconception #9: Vaccines cause autism.
  • Misconception #10: Hepatitis B vaccine causes chronic health problems, including multiple sclerosis.
  • Misconception #11: Thimerosal causes autism: Chelation therapy can cure it.
  • Misconception #12: Children get too many immunizations.

The Vaccine Information Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has produced a very powerful set of videos to help parents understand why vaccine are valuable. This one tells the story of a parent who nearly lost a child because she believed misinformation on the Internet. To see the other videos, click here.

Opposition by Offbeat Professionals

Large percentages of offbeat practitioners advise parents not to immunize their children. Some are rabid on the subject. Others pretend to provide a “balanced” view but greatly exaggerate what they consider negative reasons. These actions are irresponsible and can cause serious harm both to patients and to our society as a whole. For further information see:

News and Commentary

In 1802, British satirist James Gillray caricatured a scene at the Smallpox and Inoculation Hospital at St. Pancras, showing Edward Jenner administering cowpox vaccine to frightened young women, and cows emerging from different parts of people’s bodies. The cartoon was inspired by the controversy over inoculating against the dreaded disease, smallpox. Cowpox vaccine was rumored to have the ability to cause people to sprout cow-like appendages. Jenner stands calmly amid the crowd. A boy next to him holds a container labeled “VACCINE POCK hot from ye COW”; papers in the boy’s pocket are labeled “Benefits of the Vaccine.” The tub on the desk next to Jenner is labeled “OPENING MIXTURE.” A bottle next to the tub is labeled “VOMIT.” The painting on the wall depicts worshipers of the Golden Calf. (Source: Wikipedia)

Reliable Information Sources

This page was revised on September 21, 2015.