Vaccines: How They Work and some Common Myths

By Pebbles Mendoza


President Duterte has on numerous occasions stated that the country will not return to work; there will be no return to school for kids; and travel restrictions will remain in place, until a vaccine for Covid-19 is available. But for many, there is still a fear of vaccines, especially after the Dengvaxia crisis in the country.


So, are they safe or not?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were 17,298 reported cases of measles in the Philippines between January and November 2018. This was a staggering 367 percent increase over the same period a year earlier, which only saw 3,706 reported cases. As of June 2018, there were at least 16 measles-related deaths in the country for the year. There were outbreaks in Zamboanga City, Bicol, and elsewhere.


What is alarming about this is that measles, while it is highly contagious and serious, is preventable through a safe and cost-effective vaccine. WHO says that there was at least an 80 percent drop in deaths from measles from 2000 to 2017, thanks to the efficacy of the vaccine. It has saved at least 2.1 million lives during this time.


WHO also warns that the disease is still common in developing countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. To inhibit the virus from spreading in the Philippines, the government often provides the vaccine for free.


Yet despite the fact that a proven life-saving vaccine is available, vaccination rates in the country have dropped since last year. In fact, the Department of Health (DOH) reports that only six out of ten children received their scheduled vaccines as of November 2018. This means only 60 percent of children are being immunized.


A threshold of 85 to 90 percent is needed for most diseases to trigger herd immunity. The same threshold is also the DOH’s annual target of immunizations. This means that the level of immunity in the country is way below what is needed to curb fast-spreading viruses such as measles.


Partly to blame for this is the diminished trust for public officials after the Dengvaxia scare. Given the importance of immunization, the government even went door-to-door offering measles vaccinations, but despite this, many parents opted to hide their children rather than give consent to health workers to administer the medication.


Other vaccination programs are also suffering. The vaccine against cervical cancer has been proven effective in various countries in halting the growth of cancer. The reception in the Philippines was initially good, with at least 77 percent of the female student body availing of the vaccine. After the Dengvaxia issue, however, only eight percent of them returned for the second dose.


This cannot go on. While it is understandable that fear and mistrust in the system are partly to blame for the low immunization rates, the fact remains that it is the public who will suffer in the long term if these diseases - which are preventable - continue to claim lives.


Science Behind Vaccines

The science news website Live Science explains this concisely when it says, “Vaccines are like a training course for the immune system. They prepare the body to fight disease without exposing it to disease symptoms.”


Think of it this way: when viruses or bacteria enter the body, the immune system creates antibodies which fight the antigens (or foreign invaders) to protect the body from further infection. However, sometimes developing the proper antibodies takes several days. For some diseases, like whooping cough or measles, four days is too long a wait. The disease may have advanced to the point of taking the patient’s life.


With vaccines, weakened or dead versions of the antigens are introduced to the body. While these antigens cannot cause an infection, the immune system is activated and produces the proper antibodies for the antigens. Since the antigens did not really pose enough threat, many of the antibodies break down, but the memory of them remains in the body. As a result, if ever the vaccinated individual is actually exposed to the antigen in real life, the body is immediately able to ramp up antibody production. The antigens are therefore extinguished before they can cause serious harm.


Understandably though, there are some concerns about the safety of administering vaccines. Here are some of the common myths about vaccines:


  • Vaccines can cause autism.

In 1997, British surgeon Andrew Wakefield published an article in a medical journal that suggested the popular measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine increased autism numbers in British children. Eventually, the article was retracted, and Wakefield lost his medical license. The claim had no basis, whatsoever, but it was grabbed by anti-vaccination movements as gospel.


But no, vaccines do not cause autism. In fact, recent studies show that autism develops in utero (when the fetus is in the womb), showing that it is too early for babies to receive vaccinations if they are in the womb.


  • The immune system of infants can’t handle so many vaccines.

There are standard protocols for the scheduled immunizations of infants, mainly because they are the ones who need protection the most. In fact, a single infant has the ability to theoretically respond to 10,000 vaccines given at the same time, says UK-based Public Health. Their immune system can handle the vaccines, and they will be protected from life-threatening diseases in the future because of them.


  • Vaccines use toxins!

Mercury, formaldehyde, and aluminum are toxins, yes. However, only trace amounts of them are used in vaccines, and they are not harmful to the body. All vaccines go through rigorous testing by the US Food and Drug Administration and they are safe. In fact, our bodies produce more formaldehyde than is introduced by vaccines.


  • Natural immunity is strong enough to combat any disease.

While it is true that surviving a disease, such as measles, naturally will give you better immunity than being vaccinated, you will also be putting yourself at unnecessary risk. If you do not vaccinate your child to give him the chance to develop immunity before measles strikes, he faces a 1 in 500 chance of dying from its symptoms. To compare with those who have severe allergic reactions to the vaccines you are trying to avoid, there is less than a one in one million chance that he is going to get sick from an MMR vaccine.


With any luck, these facts are going to help you make an informed decision whether or not you should get vaccinated. I don’t believe that Covid is going to leave us any time soon, so as long as the vaccine has been thoroughly tested, especially for long-term side effects, and fully approved by our global medical professional bodies, then it’s make your mind up time.


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