Since Edward Jenner's discovery of the cowpox vaccine in 1796 anti-vaccine arguments have frequently been found in the literature. In this era of social media, anti-vaccination messages have got wings. The rapid development of coronavirus vaccines has only increased fears. WhatsApp messages or Facebook/Twitter timeline are filled with rumours, unscientific views and infodemic. People are more likely to see negative messages about vaccines on social media than positive ones.
Disinformation around vaccines can endanger lives, so let us try to dispel some - any vaccine uses your body's natural defences to build resistance to specific infections by training your immune system to create antibodies, just as it does when it's exposed to a disease. However, because vaccines contain only dead or weakened forms of germs they do not cause the disease or put you at risk of its complications. The immune system remembers the disease and if you are then exposed to the germ in the future, your immune system can quickly destroy it before you become unwell.
Adverse event following immunization (AEFI) is any untoward medical occurrence which does not necessarily have a causal relationship with the usage of the vaccine. Most vaccine adverse events are minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or mild fever. More serious adverse events occur rarely, on the order of one per thousands to one per millions of doses.
Here are fact-checks of some of the myths going around in social media.
Myth: Natural immunity is better than vaccine-acquired immunity. A vaccine may weaken the immune system.
Vaccines stimulate the immune system to produce an immune response similar to natural infection, it does not weaken or overload the immune system in any way. If you wanted to gain immunity to measles by contracting the disease, you would face a 1 in 500 chance of death from your symptoms. In contrast, the number of people who have had severe allergic reactions from a measles vaccine is less than one in a million.
However, in the case of Covid-19 vaccines, scientists have a difference of opinion as some believe that natural immunity is better while many others advocate vaccine-acquired immunity.
Myth: Vaccinations cause the diseases that they are meant to prevent.
Vaccines 'mimic' the diseases they prevent. The process of producing antibodies can sometimes cause a low fever or minor swelling, but not the actual diseases.
Myth: Vaccines contain unsafe toxins.
It's true that vaccines do contain trace amounts of formaldehyde, mercury and aluminium as an adjuvant but in quantities, that's safe for children.
Myth: The effectiveness of vaccinations has never been proven.
The number of cases for every vaccine-preventable disease plummets in the years after a vaccine for that disease is made widely available.
Smallpox killed hundreds of millions of people and was one of the most feared diseases for over 3,000 years. Today it is completely gone thanks to immunization efforts. Polio and Syphilis once affecting millions are rarely diagnosed now. Vaccination prevents 20 -30 millions death worldwide.
Myth: Vaccines cause autism.
There's no relationship between any vaccine and autism - autism usually is determined before birth - well before any vaccinations.
The 1998 study which raised concerns about a possible link between measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism was later found to be seriously flawed and fraudulent. The paper was subsequently retracted by the journal that published it, and the doctor that published it lost his medical license.
Myth: Not vaccinating my child affects only my child.
Herd immunity means having a high enough percentage of people in a population who are immune from a disease that there are few susceptible people left to infect. But when a population dips below that amount of vaccinated people needed to prevent an illness from spreading, a disease that was nearly eradicated can resurface with a vengeance — spreading quickly and threatening many lives.
Not getting vaccinated is like failing to stop at a four-way intersection, if three people stop and one doesn't, the risk of an accident is relatively small. If two or three people don't stop, the risk is much higher to everyone at the intersection.
Myth: I know someone who was vaccinated but got the disease.
No vaccine is 100 per cent effective. For reasons related to the individual, not all vaccinated persons develop immunity. Most routine childhood vaccines are effective for 85 per cent to 95 per cent of recipients. But 100 per cent of the children who had not been vaccinated may get the disease compared with 5-15 per cent of those who had been vaccinated.
Myth: Infant immune systems can't handle so many vaccines. The vaccine schedule is too aggressive and should be spaced out.
The immunization schedule is determined by decades of medical evidence when vaccines are most effective in preventing these diseases. Infant immune systems are stronger, a baby would theoretically have the ability to respond to around 10,000 vaccines at one time. Babies are exposed to countless bacteria and viruses every day, and immunizations are negligible in comparison.
Though there are more vaccinations than ever before, today's vaccines are far more efficient. Small children are actually exposed to fewer immunologic components overall than children in past decades.
Myth: Vaccine Causes Infertility
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that a vaccine could cause infertility in either men or women. I remember as a child I used to hear about oral Polio vaccine causing impotency which had a huge negative impact on polio eradication drive. The same lie is been propagated now about the Corona vaccine.
Myth: If you've had Covid-19 already, you don't need to get vaccinated.
While a previous coronavirus infection might provide people with antibodies against reinfection, experts are not yet sure how long this protection lasts.
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests “people may be advised to get a Covid-19 vaccine even if they have been sick with Covid-19 before”.
Myth: Once you receive the coronavirus vaccine, you're immune for life.
It's also unknown how long immunity from a coronavirus vaccine will last and whether it will need to be administered more than once, or even on a regular basis, like the flu shot.
Myth: Corona vaccines use a live version of the coronavirus.
None of the vaccines uses the live virus that causes Covid-19. The leading vaccine candidates use scientific techniques to train the human body to recognize and fight the coronavirus by either introducing dead virus or a harmless piece of the virus (not the entire germ) to the body.
Myth: Corona vaccines can alter your DNA.
While vaccines send genetic instructions to the body, these disappear quickly and do not alter your DNA.
Think of mRNA/dsDNA as an instruction manual: It directs the body to build an immune response to a specific infection. The time that this dsDNA/mRNA survives in the cells is relatively brief, a span of hours. What you are really doing is sticking a recipe card into the cell making protein for a few hours.
Myth: You don't need both doses of Corona vaccines.
You need both doses 3-12 weeks apart. The first shot starts building protection; the second shot boosts that protection.
Myth: If you have got the flu shot this year, you don't need a coronavirus vaccine.
While the flu and Covid-19 share a similar list of symptoms, they are two different illnesses, caused by two different viruses.
Myth: You can ditch your mask, forget social distancing after you get vaccinated with Corona vaccines.
"A vaccine will complement the other tools we have, not replace them."
Contact tracing, testing more and more people, isolation, and the quarantine will need to continue. We have to continue to follow social distancing norms, mask-wearing and hand hygiene practices,
India’s immunization programme with Intensified Mission Indradhanush strategy is the largest in the world, with annual cohorts of around 27 million infants and 30 million pregnant women with about 400 million doses over nine million sessions. The whole program has been derailed because of Coronavirus pandemic. With a target to administer 500 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine by June 2021, India has to double up its already stretched vaccination delivery system and also has to educate its under-informed and misinformed populations.
Well-planned and implemented communication is an important component of limiting the spread of rumours.
(Dr Kafeel Khan is with the department of Peadiatrics, BRD Medical College, Gorakhpur, UP)