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Are Vaccines Safe?

An infectious disease expert sets the record straight on vaccine safety.
An infectious disease expert sets the record straight on vaccine safety. Photo Credit: Getty Images

Dear Doctor,

The topic of vaccines has been in the news constantly, thanks to the imminent COVID-19 vaccine. But I’m hearing a lot of conflicting information from friends and family about what to believe. Can you set the record straight about vaccine safety?

Sincerely,

“Searching for the Truth”

Dear Searching:

Vaccine misinformation is a tremendous problem in this country. And as an infectious disease expert, this has me quite alarmed. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 3 million lives are saved each year because of immunizations against potentially deadly diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, measles, pertussis, and influenza. Yet research shows that vaccination rates for both kindergarteners and teenagers in half of all states have fallen below 95%—the level needed to provide maximum protection. We see it among adults, too—less than half get the annual recommended flu shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and less than a third have had the Tdap vaccine and/or the booster. Many older adults do not get vaccinated against the pneumococcus or shingles, either, both of which are common.

But here’s the deal: Vaccines are one of the biggest breakthroughs in modern medicine. They’re quite miraculous. Nothing else improves life expectancy more than being up to date on all your vaccines. That’s not to say that they don’t have occasional side effects, but their risk/benefit ratio is amazing.

Vaccines are held to the very highest of safety standards because they’re given to millions of healthy people—including children—to prevent serious diseases. Even after clinical trials with hundreds of thousands of volunteers, the CDC’s Immunization Safety Office identifies possible side effects and conducts follow-up studies to determine whether health problems are caused by vaccines. While you may have heard the rumors that vaccines cause autism, numerous reviews—including a 2013 CDC study—looked at all the available research and concluded that there’s absolutely no link.

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Part of the problem is that vaccines have done their job a little too well. The diseases that we used to fear—think polio or congenital rubella—have been eradicated in this country due to vaccinations. But recently, diseases such as measles have made a resurgence as parents refuse to vaccinate children. And there’s a very real risk these illnesses could come back.

Concerns around vaccines may mean COVID will remain a health crisis for years. About 50% of Americans now say they will refuse the vaccine no matter what. In New York, there’s a clinical advisory task force, which I’m proud to serve on, advising on the safety and efficacy of every COVID vaccine authorized by the federal government. We hope this will reassure the public when a vaccine is available.

If you’re still worried about vaccines, speak to your doctor. I also recommend checking out the CDC’s Vaccine Safety site. Be wary of using social media for vaccine information, however. While sites like Twitter or Facebook can be great sources of support for parents, they can also have a dark side when it comes to providing accurate health information. Making sure you and your family are up to date on all necessary vaccines is one of the most important things you can do to help guarantee a healthy life.

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