Opinion: Embrace the facts — not the myths — about vaccines

Vaccine vials. Photo by: Carlos Reusser Monsalvez

Hans Rosling was a brilliant statistician, medical doctor and communicator, who truly understood the value of immunization.

One of the greatest myth-busters working in public health, he once asked an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos: “What percentage of children today are vaccinated against measles: 30 percent, 50 percent or 85 percent?” Some of the smartest people in the world mostly got it wrong, with just one in five correctly saying 85 percent.

Hans told this story to drive home how little most of us understand about the positive impact of immunization. Such a low percentage of correct answers was, he said, clear evidence of preconceived ideas. The folks at Davos weren’t just ignorant of the facts — most of them didn’t recognize immunization as an incredibly high-impact intervention.

Sadly, Hans, who passed away in February, is no longer around to set the record straight. Immunization is actually one of the most incredible scientific innovations, and has contributed hugely to preventing deaths — mostly of children — and to dramatic rises in life expectancy and economic development. Every $1 invested in immunization returns an estimated $16 in health care savings and increased economic productivity.

Getting back to the numbers, 85 percent worldwide coverage for measles is much better than 30 percent or 50 percent, but it is still well below the 95 percent required to ensure population-wide protection. Just a few weeks ago, the Health Minister of Romania reported that 17 children had died in a measles outbreak that has infected thousands of people, most of whom live in areas where immunization coverage is low.

This can happen all too easily when kids don’t receive life-saving vaccines, and it is why we need to push much harder to increase immunization coverage — which has increased by only 1 percent globally since 2010 — for all vaccine-preventable diseases, not just for measles.

Despite all the fantastic advances in immunization over recent decades, 1.5 million children still die annually from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Despite all the fantastic advances in immunization over recent decades, 1.5 million children still die annually from vaccine-preventable diseases. And not all of our advances are secure. Last year, 25 countries reported a net decrease in immunization coverage since 2010.

There are a number of reasons for this. In some countries, consistent supply and cold storage are persisting challenges. In other cases, vaccines are available but myths around them discourage parents from immunizing their children. We need to bust myths and promote the benefits of immunization more widely.

Here are five key facts about immunization.

Fact 1: Immunization through vaccination is the safest way to protect against disease.

Whatever you might read or hear, vaccines produce an immune response similar to that produced by the natural infection, but without the serious risks of death or disability connected with natural infection.

Fact 2: It is always best to get vaccinated, even when you think the risk of infection is low.

Deadly diseases that seem to have been all but eradicated have a nasty habit of making a come-back when immunization rates drop — as we see with the recent measles outbreaks across Europe. Only by making sure everyone gets their jabs can we keep the lid permanently on vaccine-preventable diseases. We should not rely on people around us to stop the spread of disease — we all have a responsibility to do what we can.

Fact 3: Combined vaccines are safe and beneficial.

Giving several vaccines at the same time has no negative effect on a child’s immune system; reduces discomfort for the child; and saves time and money. Children are exposed to more antigens from a common cold than they are from vaccines.

Fact 4: There is no link between vaccines and autism.

There is no scientific evidence to link the MMR vaccine with autism or autistic disorders. This unfortunate rumour started with a single 1998 study which was quickly found to be seriously flawed, and was retracted by the journal that published it.

Fact 5: If we stop vaccination, deadly diseases will return.

Even with better hygiene, sanitation and access to safe water, infections still spread. When people are not vaccinated, infectious diseases that have become uncommon can quickly come back to haunt us.  

When people have questions about vaccines they should ask their health providers, and check accurate websites for information. Vaccine Safety Net, a global network of vaccine safety websites certified by the World Health Organization, provides easy access to accurate and trustworthy information on vaccines. The network has 47 member websites in 12 languages, and reaches more than 173 million users every month with credible information on vaccine safety, helping to counter harmful misinformation.

We are incredibly fortunate to live in an age that has recognized and successfully harnessed the power of vaccines. As Hans Rosling might have said, let’s stick to the facts and ensure everyone gets immunized.

Update, April 26, 2017: This article has been updated to clarify that percentage of children today who are vaccinated against measles is 85 percent.

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About the author

  • Flavia Bustreo

    Dr. Flavia Bustreo is the WHO’s assistant director-general for family, women's and children's health. Previously, she served as vice chair of the board of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance and executive director of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. Her responsibilities include the oversight of WHO’s work on immunization, reproductive, maternal, child and adolescent health, social and environmental determinants of health, gender, equity and human rights and aging.