The truth about vaccines is a matter of life and death.
Beth M. Luthy’s (BS ’03, MS ’05) first child was born with a rare bile duct disorder that destroyed his liver by the time he was a year old. He was able to get a liver transplant, but the battle was just beginning. Because little Michael had to take immune-suppressing medications to prevent his body from rejecting his new liver, he could not be immunized, and he could not fight off infections.
Luthy had hoped that her vulnerable infant would be protected by the “herd effect”—if a high enough percentage of people around Michael were vaccinated, contagious diseases would be unlikely to spread to him. Instead, he caught everything. “He got chicken pox and it landed him in the ICU,: she says. “He caught whooping cough, and he was sick for six months—in the hospital for about half of that. . . . It went on and on.”
As Michael R. Luthy (BA ’12), now a healthy 26-year-old, grew up, his mother became a school nurse. Now a nurse-practitioner and associate professor in the College of Nursing, she works to spread the word that childhood vaccines are safe. She understands the concerns many parents have, but wants them to know that the science behind immunizations is solid and the truth about vaccines is a matter of life and death.
Myth 1: Vaccines Cause Autism
Only one study linking one immunization (the MMR vaccine—measles, mumps, rubella) to autism has ever been published in a respected scientific journal, The Lancet, and that article was retracted in 2010 after editors discovered the study was not simply flawed but fraudulent. In contrast, multiple studies involving several hundred thousand children conclude that the rate of autism in immunized children is the same as it is in unimmunized children.
So why does the belief that vaccines cause autism persist? Luthy believes it is partly because correlation—observing that one event follows another—is powerful. “You get your first MMR vaccine at about 12 months, and that’s also right around the same time that the first signs of autism show up. So it would be natural to connect the two,” she says. Correlation, however, is not the same as causation.
Personal experience, too, can sometimes trump science. R. Ben Moulton (MS ’99) didn’t question vaccines with his first child, but as time went on and both his first and second child began showing developmental problems and behaviors on the autism spectrum, he began to wonder about vaccines. “Not knowing where to point the blame, I started looking toward all the immunizations the children got at once as a potential culprit.”
There is no connection, Luthy says, but parents want so much to protect their children. If they can find a reason for illness in one child, they reason, perhaps they can prevent it in their next child. “I understand the fear. I was a mother with a child with an illness and nobody knew why,” she says. “So I looked for reasons on my own. I did the same thing so many parents of children with illnesses do.”
Another factor in the endurance of this myth is distrust of the pharmaceutical industry. “Some people call it ‘Big Pharma’—the idea that drug companies fund the vaccine studies and skew them because they want to make money off of our children. But that’s just not true. Pharmaceutical companies make much less from vaccines because the research is so costly and the profits are sparse.”
Myth 2: Young Immune Systems Can’t Handle So Many Vaccines at Once
Giving an hours-old infant its first vaccine (against hepatitis B) and a 2-month-old baby six vaccines (see recommended vaccination schedule link below) seems like a lot to ask of a brand new immune system. But Luthy says that babies entering into a germ-laden world are immediately bombarded by far more antigens in their environment than they are through vaccinations. “Their immune systems can handle it,” she says. Though babies catch lots of colds and other minor bugs, they needn’t catch more serious—and sometimes deadly—illnesses like whooping cough (pertussis), diphtheria, tetanus, mumps, measles, rubella, and rotavirus if they are immunized, she says.
“Children need protection the most during the first year of life,” says Luthy, “because they are so much more vulnerable when they are small. If an adult gets whooping cough, they will have an annoying cough for a few months. A baby who gets whooping cough, though, has an airway the size of a straw, and their tiny bodies can much more easily be overwhelmed. Infants are often hospitalized for whooping cough, and sometimes we can’t save them.”
To address parents’ worries about overloading their children’s immune systems, researchers have studied what it would take to overload an immune system, and learned it would take about 100,000 vaccines all given at the same time. “When we talk about four or six vaccines at once, we’re nowhere near the threshold. An ear infection challenges a child’s immune system more than a vaccine,” says Luthy.
Vaccine advocates designate parents who delay immunizations but eventually get them done as “hesitators.” These parents believe the overload idea and seek to control how much immune material their child gets and how frequently. They come up with their own vaccination schedule, believing they’re protecting their child. In Luthy’s work in a Utah County clinic, parents often bring in a book by a pediatrician who recommends an alternative schedule with fewer vaccinations spread out over more time. This approach, says Luthy, has no peer-reviewed science behind it and puts children at risk.
While it’s true that vaccines can cause side effects such as rash, fever, swelling, and soreness, the illnesses they protect against have far greater consequences, including blindness, deafness, heart defects, brain infection, paralysis, and death.
Luthy is grateful that hesitators do usually complete their children’s vaccinations by kindergarten age, but it’s better to protect them earlier. “By the time you’re 4 years old, if you catch something you’re probably not going to die,” she says, “When you’re an infant is when you’re more likely to die.”
Myth 3: Vaccines Contain Mercury
In Luthy’s clinic work, she regularly encounters parents who decline vaccines because they’re concerned about mercury poisoning. Vaccines, however, do not contain mercury. Before 1999, manufacturers used a preservative called “thiomersal” to add shelf life to vaccines. Thiomersal contains ethyl mercury, a form of organic mercury that is chemically distinct from the inorganic and toxic form, methyl mercury. Still, parental concern that any form of mercury might be contributing to a rising rate of autism caused the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to order thiomersal removed from vaccines.
When this policy was announced, says Luthy, media reports focused on the fact that “mercury” had been removed. Parents who had been concerned felt vindicated in their distrust of vaccines and the government. “This move backfired because now you have distrust that appears to be confirmed. So they couldn’t win.”
Luthy wants to be clear that is possible to have a reaction to a vaccine: “Every medication on the planet has a potential side effect—every single one, even a Tylenol.” About 1 in 100,000 children has an allergic reaction but the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks. According to details on the U.S. Center for Disease Control website (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vac-gen/side-effects.htm), reactions are overwhelmingly mild (short-lived soreness, swelling, or fever). Severe reactions (seizures, death) are extremely rare.
Choosing Facts Over Fear
Cory W. Aitchison (BS ’98), the father of three daughters, including one with autism, says when his first daughter was born 14 years ago, he knew that the benefits of vaccines outweighed the slight possibility of complications, “but when it is your own daughter, a 1-in-100,000 chance seems much more daunting.”
He remembers his thoughts as this first daughter was born: “I was overwhelmed with joy, terror, love, and uncertainty. After we had a couple of minutes with her, the nurses took our perfect daughter and started to poke, stick, and smear her will all kinds of stuff. At that moment I wondered if this was all really necessary.” But Hannah got her first vaccine in those first hours, and Aitchison and his wife, Colleen, went forward with immunizing all three of their children on schedule. They do not connect their middle daughter’s autism to vaccines and recommend that other parents follow where science leads.
“I truly understand that the decision to vaccinate can be difficult,” Aitchison says. “But my advice is to trust your doctor. Give her all the relevant facts regarding family history and make an informed decision.”
Luthy, too, empathizes with parents who agonize over immunizations. It’s their sacred responsibility to protect their children, and they feel torn. Luthy believes that if parents follow the science, they need not agonize: “The science continues to build that vaccines don’t cause autism and that infant immune systems can safely handle many vaccines at once. We just need to keep working on getting the word out.”
By M. Sue Bergin (BA ’78)
Sue Bergin is a hospice chaplain and writer.
2014 Recommended Immunizations for Children from Birth Through 6 Years Old
2-minute video “Immunization Misconceptions”
Tips for a Less Stressful Shot Visit