Safety concerns about vaccines date back to Edward Jenner’s first vaccination efforts against smallpox in 1796.
Medicine has come a long way since then and scientists have developed vaccines that prevent over 20 life-threatening diseases, yet the safety concerns linger on.
Vaccines have been highly successful in saving lives. The World Health Organization estimates that globally they prevent 2 to 3 million deaths each year. (1) However, they can also have side effects like any other therapy which may occasionally lead to death.
These adverse effects have been magnified by false information, misleading public opinion. According to a Gallup poll, 10% of adult Americans believe, in 2020, that vaccines cause autism in children (with a further 46% who are unsure about vaccines’ negative effects). (2)
The answer to this article’s opening question is a definite “yes”, vaccines are safe, and their safety is based on science: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) keeps close tabs on vaccine safety by conducting focused research, analyzing vaccine-related reactions and potential risk factors. (3)
The Adverse Effects of Vaccines
Let’s examine the potential risks of vaccinations.
Fainting is very uncommon and can follow any type of vaccination; it provokes 140 head injuries each year in the US and can be avoided by monitoring patients after they receive their shot. (4)
Vaccines can cause minor allergic reactions but occasionally some of them can be serious, provoking a condition known as anaphylaxis which can be life-threatening. Nevertheless, the risk of anaphylaxis is extremely low (roughly 1 case every 1.5 million vaccinations). (5)
The jabs that may provoke serious allergic reactions are measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), hepatitis B, diphtheria-tetanus, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP), Haemophilus influenza type b, and the oral polio vaccine which, by the way, is no longer used in the US.
Screening people with allergic history can help prevent anaphylaxis, but it may not appear until someone is vaccinated. The best option is to take your shots with a healthcare provider that can cope with this type of emergency.
People with a weakened immune system due to congenital immunosuppressing diseases, HIV, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy for cancer, or those using immunosuppressive drugs (transplant and autoimmune disorder patients) should check with their physician before receiving any vaccine. The CDC recommends that these patients avoid live or attenuated live vaccines such as MMR, chickenpox, LAIV, zoster, yellow fever, Ty21a oral typhoid, and rotavirus. (6)
Potentially Risky Vaccines
We singled out some common vaccines to check their risks.
People with egg allergies should discuss influenza vaccination options with their doctor because some flu shots are made with eggs and may contain traces of egg protein.
The Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine prevents this common sexually transmitted disease which causes some 31,500 cancers in the US each year. Adverse reactions are uncommon; only 6 in 1,000,000 of them are serious.
- Yellow Fever
You will need this shot if you plan to visit certain countries in Africa or South America. It can provoke two types of adverse reactions which mostly affect those aged over 60: one is an organ system failure with a 63% mortality rate (1 out of every 250,000 doses); the other is a severe yet rarely fatal neurological disorder affecting 1 in 100,000 individuals. (7)
This vaccine may provoke a rare yet serious condition in children called intussusception, in which the bowel telescopes into a neighboring section, causing intestinal blockage which can result in death. A study estimated that vaccinating the 4.3 million babies born in the US each year against rotavirus prevents 14 deaths, 50,000 hospitalizations, and 170,000 ER visits. The downside, it provokes 0.2 deaths. (8)
- Measles and the Fake Autism Claim
A scientific paper published in 1998 in The Lancet linked the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine with autism. The magazine belatedly retracted the paper in 2010 and its lead author Dr. Andrew Wakefield was stripped of his medical license in the UK, yet the false claim has lived on till today. (9)
Measles is deadly; it kills 2 out of every 1,000 who get it and causes permanent hearing loss in 10% of the children it infects. Yet the fake autism claim has promoted MMR vaccine hesitancy.
The vaccine itself may provoke fever, leading to febrile seizures without serious long-term effects in 1 out of every 4,000 children. One in 40,000 subjects may suffer from immune thrombocytopenic purpura, a coagulation disorder that isn’t life-threatening either.
Its pros outweigh its cons!
Vaccination prevents over 100 deaths, 3.5 million cases, and 9,000 hospitalizations in the US each year. Its side effects are negligible, a mild rash, a light fever, or a sore arm from the shot.
- DTP vaccine
DTP is the most used vaccine in the world. It prevents three deadly diseases: Diphtheria, tetanus (which kills one in ten of those it afflicts), and pertussis or whooping cough, which kills 300,000 children every year.
Its safety has been questioned by several studies. One published in 2017 found that DTP vaccination in Africa “was associated with 5-fold higher mortality than being unvaccinated … suggest[ing] that DTP vaccine may kill more children from other causes than it saves from diphtheria, tetanus or pertussis…” (10)
However, most of the evidence against the DPT vaccine was generated by only one group of doctors (11) whose studies have been criticized for not being controlled randomized tests and therefore “judged to be at high risk of bias.” (12)
So, feel reassured, vaccines are safe and monitored by health authorities. They are subjected to intense safety scrutiny by the scientific community.
Vaccines Are Safe
Immunizations have side effects, but these are generally mild and not life-threatening. Only very rarely does a vaccination end in death. They have saved millions of lives and prevented pain, disease, and anguish.
- (1) WHO, Vaccines, and Immunization
- (2) Well Being. Jan. 14, 2020, Fewer in U.S. Continue to See Vaccines as Important. RJ Reihnart
- (3) CDC
- (4) M M Braun, P A Patriarca, S S Ellenberg. Syncope after immunization. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 1997 Mar;151(3):255-9.
- (5) Bohlke K, Davis RL, Marcy SM, Braun MM, DeStefano F, Black SB, et al. Risk of anaphylaxis after vaccination of children and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2003;112(4):815–20.
- (6) Altered Immunocompetence. CDC
- (7) Miller ER, Moro PL, Cano M, Shimabukuro TT. Deaths following vaccination: What does the evidence show?. Vaccine. 2015;33(29):3288-3292.
- (8) Rishi Desai et al. Potential intussusception risk versus benefits of rotavirus vaccination in the United States. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2013 Jan; 32(1):1-7
- (9) Eggertson L. Lancet retracts 12-year-old article linking autism to MMR vaccines. CMAJ. 2010;182(4):E199-E200.
- (10) Mogensen SW, Andersen A, Rodrigues A, Benn CS, Aaby P. The Introduction of Diphtheria-Tetanus-Pertussis and Oral Polio Vaccine Among Young Infants in an Urban African Community: A Natural Experiment. EBioMedicine. 2017;17:192-198.
- (11) WHO/SAGE. Epidemiology review Report to SAGE
- (12) Higgins Julian P T, Soares-Weiser Karla, López-López José A, et al. Association of BCG, DTP, and measles-containing vaccines with childhood mortality: systematic review BMJ 2016; 355:i5170
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