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Doctors discuss 9 vaccine myths

When it comes to vaccines, it is easy to be confused.
/ Source: TODAY

The race to find a vaccine for the coronavirus is well underway: Earlier this year, the Trump administration launched Operation Warp Speed, an initiative to fast-track a vaccine. The White House has focused on five vaccine projects, and two are anticipated to proceed into advanced stages of human trials this summer. While health experts are optimistic, the public is wary of a coronavirus vaccine — even though it doesn't exist yet.

In late May, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that nearly 25% of Americans have "little to no interest" in taking a coronavirus vaccine. For years, vaccine refusals have increased as people worry about the safety of them and this wariness translates into the fear of a theoretical coronavirus vaccine. Yet, doctors stress vaccines are safe and it is especially important to vaccinate your children.

“I don’t think parents realize how rigorously studied vaccines are,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, the acting director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's Center for Preparedness and Response, told TODAY last year. “We know vaccines are safe because we study them.”

Yet, she and others acknowledge that it’s easy to become confused with the overwhelming amount of information available.

“It is really important that people aren’t scared into getting the measles vaccine, but they are getting the information to restore their trust in the vaccination program,” she said. “We want everyone to feel good about vaccinating their children.”

Messonnier and other experts share some common myths they hear about vaccines and the facts behind them.

1. Myth: A vaccine can be rushed.

False: Among those who responded to the Reuters/Ipsos poll and said they had little or no interest in a COVID-19 vaccine, nearly half expressed worry about the speed a possible vaccine is being developed. Experts stress that all vaccine safety protocols are being followed.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are general stages of vaccine development: exploratory, pre-clinical, clinical, regulatory review and approval, manufacturing and quality control.

Clinical development is comprised of three phases. Phase one involves a small group of people receiving the trial vaccine. In phase two, the vaccine is given to a second larger group of people who the vaccine is intended for (age, physical health). In phase three, it's tested on thousands of people and is evaluated for efficacy and safety. If it succeeds then, it will be safe for the general population (though doctors continue to study it). Next the U.S. Food and Drug Administration oversees a multi-step approval process. After approving a vaccine, the FDA continues to oversee its production to ensure continuing safety.

"We don't want to skip one of these important steps of making sure that the vaccine is safe and the vaccine is effective," Dr. Dan McGee a pediatric physician at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, told TODAY. "I'd be a little leery if someone next month said, 'Hey we got a corona vaccine ready.' I'd be a little worried about getting that unless I know it's been through the different phases of testing."

2. Myth: The risk of COVID-19 is more important than childhood vaccinations.

False: The World Health Organization estimated that 80 million children could miss their regular vaccines because of the pandemic, increasing their chances of developing preventable illnesses.

"Just because the coronavirus is out there doesn't mean that measles and whooping cough have gone away," McGee said. "We still have to keep our eye out for them and the best way we can do that is by preventing children from getting it."

The CDC's vaccine schedule provides a timeline when children should receive vaccines so they provide the most protections. Doctors normally give measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, for example, at about 12 months, and a second dose when kids are about 4 to 6 years old. Delaying a dose makes children vulnerable.

“When you delay getting a vaccine you have unnecessary risk during the period of time that you could have been vaccinated,” Messonnier said.

McGee said that when people delay vaccines they’re more likely to forget to get all the needed shots.

“There is less compliance when you spread out the schedule,” he said.

3. Myth: Measles, chickenpox, polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases are harmless.

False: This myth is especially important to debunk now as millions of children worldwide are at risk due to possible delays in vaccine schedules.

While many who develop chickenpox or measles will have only a mild illness, these diseases can still have deadly complications. People can develop encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), pneumonia or infections.

“Some of them will get severely sick and some will be hospitalized and some of those children will die,” Messonnier said. “If you are the parent of that child … why risk it?”

4. Myth: Vaccines cause autism.

False: “This is a really important myth to get straight. Scientific studies and scientific reviews continue to show no relationship between vaccines and autism. Period,” Messonnier said.

McGee agreed.

“Vaccines do not cause autism,” he said. “There is absolutely no link.”

A recent Danish study confirmed what the experts reinforced. The study found that children who receive the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine are 7% less likely to develop autism than their unvaccinated peers.

“This is considered a pretty definitive study,” Dr. Glenn Fennelly, an infectious disease specialist and professor of pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told TODAY. “The measles, mumps and rubella vaccine doesn’t trigger autism.”

5. Myth: Vaccines cause illness.

False: Some vaccines, such as the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, use a weakened form of the live virus to offer protection, what’s also known as an attenuated vaccine. But that doesn’t cause illness in people who get the shot, and it doesn't mean the person can pass it along.

“You can’t spread it,” McGee said.

Some experience a measles-like rash after receiving the MMR vaccine, but it doesn’t mean the person has measles.

“It is not contagious,” McGee explained. “You can get the rash but there is no fever or illness.”

A lot of people also believe the flu vaccine will give you the flu — it won't. It's biologically impossible for you to catch the flu from being vaccinated.

6. Myth: Pregnant women can’t get vaccinated.

Partially true: While doctors do not recommend that women get the MMR vaccine while pregnant, there are other vaccines they certainly should get, including the flu and whooping cough vaccines.

“There are some vaccines we recommend for pregnant women,” Messonnier explained. “Even for women who aren’t vaccinated and are pregnant you can get vaccinated as soon as possible (after delivery).”

Women who are unvaccinated and thinking of starting a family should consider getting their vaccinations first. Rubella, in particular, can “cause birth defects,” McGee said.

It is safe for pregnant women to get the flu vaccine, according to the CDC. An earlier study raised the possibility of early miscarriage from the flu shot, but a recent CDC report found no association between miscarriage and pregnant women who had received flu shots for three recent seasons. Pregnant women are especially vulnerable to flu symptoms.

7. Myth: The flu vaccine can cause coronavirus.

False: The flu vaccine doesn't increase anyone's risk of developing the coronavirus. In fact, experts urge people to get the flu vaccine as soon as they are available to reduce their risk of contracting flu and needing hospitalization.

"The flu virus won't give you the coronavirus," McGee said. "Getting the flu vaccine doesn't make you more susceptible to coronavirus. It it just doesn't happen. There's no data to support it."

8. Myth: You don’t need to be vaccinated because other people are.

False: People think that herd immunity can protect everyone who isn’t immunized. But Fennelly stresses that 90% of the population must be immunized for it to work. The U.S. government's target for MMR vaccination is 95%. Many of the recent measles outbreaks are happening in communities with low immunization rates, which means they're vulnerable.

9. Myth: Vaccines overwhelm the child’s system with too many antigens.

False: Sometimes children receive several vaccines at once, an experience that often ends in tears. It might seem as if all those antigens in the vaccines can overwhelm a baby’s immune system, but children can handle it.

“It does not overload the baby’s immune system,” Messonnier said. “I understand to a parent that it can be really traumatic."

McGee agreed and added that kids often encounter loads of germs.

“Any time your kid face plants into a carpet they are getting 1000 times more antigens,” he said.

This story was updated in June 2020 to include information about the coronavirus.