Are vaccines safe? Why should we get our children vaccinated? How do vaccines work? These are some of the most common questions that plague parents nowadays, especially of newborns. The short answer is yes: vaccines are safe and children should definitely be vaccinated. Vaccine is a miracle of modern medicine. Vaccines have been considered to be the most effective among medical procedures for the last 50 years. They have saved more lives worldwide than any other medical device. Vaccination is a tested and proven strategy and it is so simple that it has been in practice for centuries for prevention of epidemics.
Let’s travel back in time to explore the history of vaccination. It was in ancient Greece where vaccines were observed to work effectively for the first time. In 429 BC, many people in Athens were affected by several consecutive outbreaks of smallpox. The Greek historian Thucydides noticed that those who survived the disease were never affected by it again in the future. The survivors had gained immunity to smallpox through exposure. Later, in the 10th century, the Chinese were the first to discover and use a primary form of vaccination called “variolation”. The aim was to immunize healthy people by exposing them to fragments of the scabs caused by smallpox. The scabs were inserted directly under the skin. An alternative method that was applied more often was the insertion of powdered scabs derived from smallpox pustules into the nasal chamber. The vaccines that we see today were discovered in 1796 by the British physician Edward Jenner. He proved the efficacy of this new medical device to the entire scientific community. Soon vaccination became popular all over Europe and USA. In the 1880s, Louis Pasteur developed better vaccination devices and methods. Over time, as the field of immunology made progress and scientists gained a better understanding of how diseases work, more and more vaccines were introduced to the world for eradication of diseases that were starting to become life-threatening.
How do modern vaccines work then? Modern vaccines contain an agent similar to the microorganism that causes the disease. This agent can be a weakened or dead form of the microbe, some of its toxins, or one of its surface proteins. This way, the agent or the pathogen triggers the body’s response to the disease without triggering the disease itself. When the pathogen enters the human body, the immune system recognizes it as a foreign body and attempts to destroy it. The immune system starts producing antibodies within a few days specially tailored to fight that particular pathogen. After the pathogen is gone, some specialized antibodies stick around to fight again, faster and more effectively, should the pathogen find its way back inside. Consequently, the immune system is prepared if the person is exposed to that disease after vaccination.
In order for infectious disease to not appear in our lives again it is important that we get properly vaccinated at the right time. When is the right time? Childhood! If vaccinated on time, children become immune to diseases before the diseases infect them. As a result, they get shielded against dangerous and possibly fatal diseases such as smallpox, polio, whooping cough, diphtheria, hepatitis B, measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, and meningitis C. These diseases have become less widespread than they used to be due to on-time vaccination in the past years. Polio has been completely eradicated. It is thus hard to exaggerate the effectiveness and importance of vaccination of children.
There are still a few myths about vaccination. It is wrongly believed that vaccines can overload the immune system. A very small part of a child’s immune system is used by the vaccine. In reality, children come in contact with many more bugs and germs every day as compared to a few shots of vaccine. Another “popular” myth is that homeopathy can be used as an alternative method to protect children against severe diseases. Furthermore, many believe that vaccines cause autism. Symptoms of autism spectrum disorder often appear during the first measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) and other vaccinations. Some have claimed this is due to a preservative called thimerosal. Neither the MMR vaccines nor the vaccines for chickenpox or inactivated polio ever contained thimerosal. Moreover, in 2004, it was officially elucidated that autism is not linked to vaccines containing thimerosal.
Vaccines are methodically tested for their safety and effectiveness before they become commercially available. Additionally, they are closely monitored after their introduction in the market to ensure detection of adverse effects that escape the clinical trials. The most common side effect is mild fever, which rarely happens and lasts for a maximum of one or two days. Vaccines cannot cause serious problems such as disabilities or death of a child, a family, or a community, which in fact can be caused by the harmful diseases that the vaccines prevent. Even though these diseases have become rare in some countries, they still persist around the world. There is no “excuse” for not getting your child vaccinated.