Vaccines are a marvel of modern medicine, but could misinformed anti-vaxxers be threatening our health?
There’s a reason we’re not still dying from smallpox and measles. It’s thanks to a little thing called a vaccine. However, recently there has been a small but vocal wave of anti-vaxxers, who are refusing to get themselves and their children immunised with vital vaccinations. As a result, the number of people receiving the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) has decreased for the fourth year in a row in the UK – the lowest since 2011-12.
The World Health Organization has listed the anti-vax movement as one of the top 10 biggest health threats for 2019.
“We’re seeing measles outbreaks over Europe (there’s been a 30% spike in cases worldwide) because people have hesitated to vaccinate their children,” says GP Dr Jeff Foster.
This outlook is flawed and dangerous. Vaccines are a vital defence against infectious diseases. “They contain a weakened or slightly altered version of the disease, which stimulates the body’s immune system,” explains Dr Foster. Then if the body comes into contact with the disease, it can raise antibodies and kill it quickly.
“If enough people get vaccinated, it provides herd immunity, which stops the disease spreading and helps eradicate it. Plus, it protects those who cannot have the vaccine, as they’re unable to build an immune reaction.”
However, if large groups of people refuse vaccinations, problems develop.
“The principle of herd immunity fails, and the disease spreads, as has happened with the measles outbreak.”
Where vaccinations began
The vaccine goes back to 1796, when Edward Jenner developed a defence against smallpox. The original method involved taking material from a blister of someone infected with cowpox and inoculating it into another person’s skin. In the 1940s, scientific knowledge had developed so large-scale vaccine production was possible and disease control efforts could really start. Recommended immunisations were diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough, followed by polio in 1955, measles, mumps and rubella in the 70s and hepatitis A and B, as well as flu by 2005.
Vaccinations: the risks
You may occasionally suffer from localised bruising and bleeding, and sometimes younger children or babies may be irritable or unwell after an inoculation, but this usually disappears within a day or two. “The risk of true allergy or anaphylaxis is incredibly small,” explains Dr Foster. In truth, the benefits really do outweigh the risks.
And no, you can’t get flu from the flu vaccine. The flu shot is made from an inactivated virus that can’t transmit infection. According to the experts at Harvard Medical School, it takes a week or two to get protection from the vaccine. So if you come down with a lurgie straight after being inoculated, you were probably already infected.
Unsure about which vaccinations you have received? Check with your local surgery who should keep an electronic record.
What vaccinations do I need?
✱ 6-in-one vaccine diphtheria, hepatitis B, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and Hib (Haemophilus influenzae
Given at 8, 12 and 16 weeks
✱ Pneumococcal (PCV)
Given at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and 1 year
✱ Rotavirus (protects against common causes of childhood diarrhoea and sickness)
Given at 8 and 12 weeks
✱ MenB (protects against meningitis)
Given at 8 weeks, 16 weeks and 1 year
Given at 1 year
Given at 1 year and 3 years and 4 months
✱ Children’s flu
Given annually to children aged 2-9 years
✱ 4-in-1 pre-school booster (diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio)
Given at 3 years and 4 months
✱ HPV (girls only)
Given at 12-13 and year later
✱ 3-in-1 teenage booster (tetanus, diphtheria and polio)
Given at 14 years
✱ MenACWY (meningitis)
Given at 14 years and new university students aged 19-25
These are offered on the NHS in addition to the routine programme to ‘at risk’ groups of babies and children
Given from 1 year upwards
✱ BCG (tuberculosis)
Given from birth to 16 years
Given to children aged 6 months to 2 years and those aged 9-17, who have certain medical conditions
✱ Hepatitis B
Given to a baby born to a mother infected with hep B
Adult vaccines offered free of charge
✱ Pneumococcal (PPV)
Protecting against pneumonia, meningitis and sepsis (65 years)
✱ Flu (65 years, every year)
✱ Shingles (70 years)
Which travel vaccines do I need?
Heading further afield this summer? You may want to look into what vaccines you need. Visit your local Boots and have a chat with the pharmacist.
They will run through a questionnaire and determine which jabs are necessary for travel.
NB: Hepatitis A, typhoid and cholera should be available for free on the NHS.