Debunking Vaccine Myths Oct 03,2018

Medical ( Common Ailments )


Flu Vaccine Myths by Patrick O’Neil, MPAS, PA-C

Well, it’s that time of year again.  Flu season is upon us, and it seems as if it is here a little earlier than normal.  We saw our first two cases of flu the first week of September, which is very abnormal for us in central Texas.  The flu vaccine is now being administered just as fast as we can get patients to accept it; and it is also the time when I have to debunk the massive amount of incorrect information that is out there about the vaccine.   After you have read this article, my hope is that you will have gained a better understanding of this incredibly important vaccine.  So here goes!

First, let’s talk about some important facts.  Influenza, commonly called the flu, is an incredibly dangerous illness.  This is not the common cold people get and tell everyone, “Yeah, I got the flu”.  Influenza kills people.  In fact, in the 2017-2018 season, it killed more than 80,000 Americans.  That is a whole lot of death.  It was one of the worst flu seasons we have had in the last 40.  It is believed the virus mutated during the season and that is why it was so lethal.  Trust me though, it can be a whole lot worse.  The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920 is estimated to have killed approximately 100 MILLION people worldwide.  That is a staggering number of deaths when you realize that the world population in 1918 was only about 1.5 Billion. 

Myth #1:  Vaccines cause Autism

The anti-vaccine groups love this myth.  A British gastroenterologist, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, published an extremely poor study in The Lancet on February 28, 1998.  The study looked at 8 children with autism and surmised that because they had recently had the Measles, Mumps, Rubella vaccine that this must have caused the autism.  This study has been widely criticized and debunked over the last 20 years.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has done 9 studies into Autism, Thimerosal, and Mercury.  There has been no evidence to show that vaccines cause autism.  There have been hundreds of studies done that disprove Wakefield’s poorly done research, yet the anti-vacciners refuse to believe studies that were done with random controls and double-blinded studies.    Like “flat earth believers”, some people just prefer to ignore the facts.  (Wakefield ended up losing his license to practice medicine after they discovered he accepted more than $675,000 from a lawyer that wanted to sue vaccine makers.)

Myth #2:  The Mercury in the Vaccine will kill you

I am not going to waste a lot of time on this.  Thimerosal is used in extremely small amounts as a preservative in some vaccines.  Ethyl mercury is a byproduct of the breakdown of Thimerosal.  Ethyl mercury is not the mercury we need to worry about.  It is broken down by the body and released at a much more rapid rate than Methylmercury (half life is seven days versus 50 days for Methylmercury).  Methylmercury is the dangerous version and has worked its way into the food chain, especially seafood.  Because Methylmercury stays in the body longer it can be absorbed by the brain or into nerves resulting in damage to each.  Regardless, the use of Thimerosal has been greatly reduced in recent years and if you are worried about it, you can always request a vaccine that does not have Thimerosal.  Overall, even for the multiple shots that infants may receive during their first year, the amount of maximum cumulative exposure to mercury (in the form of Ethyl mercury) from vaccines in the FDA recommended childhood immunization schedule is within the acceptable limits for the methylmercury exposure guidelines set by FDA, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the World Health Organization.   Typical amounts of Thimerosal in a shot are around 50 micrograms, half of which is Ethyl mercury.  This is roughly equivalent to the amount of Methylmercury (as known as the "bad" mercury) you would consume in a 3 oz can of tuna.  If you were really worried about mercury poisoning, you would stop eating seafood.

Myth #3:  The Flu shot can cause the flu

FluMist, a nasal spray vaccine, has a very weak virus that remains in the nasal passages to stimulate the immune system.  It never makes its way to the lungs to reproduce and cause influenza.  Some common side effects of FluMist are runny nose, headache, and possibly some minor wheezing in children that are nasal breathers.

The injectable form of the flu vaccine contains a dead virus.  It is impossible for the injection to cause the flu.  Let me say that one more time:  It is IMPOSSIBLE to get influenza from the flu vaccine.  This is the form that many patients with weaker immune systems receive, because it is safer.  Pain at the injection site is the most common side effect.

It is normal to have a slight fever and other symptoms when the immune system is activated.  Do not confuse these symptoms with getting “the flu”.  Also, it takes about two weeks for your body to build antibodies to the flu vaccine.  It is very possible to get the flu during that two week period.  Also, do not confuse the common cold with influenza.  Remember, true influenza is incredibly strong and debilitating.  It can easily put patients in the hospital due to the severity of the illness. 

Myth #4:  Only sick people need flu shots

Actually, it is extremely important that healthy people get the vaccine also.  First, influenza can infect anyone.  It doesn’t just seek out the weak.  Second, there are many people that cannot receive the vaccine due to age, weakened immune systems, cancer patients, newborns, etc.  If everyone near these people has been vaccinated; this protects them from getting infected with the virus.  This is called “herd immunity” and is an important part of any public vaccination program.

Myth #5:  Flu shots cause Alzheimer’s Disease

In fact, the opposite may very well be true.  The Canadian Medical Association did a study that followed 4,392 subjects and showed that those subjects receiving regular vaccinations had fewer incidences of Alzheimer’s Disease.  You have to admit, that is a much larger study than Andrew Wakefield’s study of 8 children. 

So what is my recommendation?  I look at it this way:  Everything in medicine is basically Risk vs. Benefit.  I think the potential side effect risks of the vaccine are minimized by the benefits of the vaccine.  Get the vaccine and take over-the-counter medications for any symptoms you may have during the next week.  Not only may it save your life, but it very well may save the life of someone you come in contact with, that could not receive the vaccine!

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