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Myths and Facts about Vaccine Hesitancy

Vaccine Myths and Facts: How to Respond to Common Concerns

Despite decades of data affirming the efficacy of vaccines in preventing disease and illness, vaccine hesitancy started long before the pandemic.

In fact, a 2019 report from the World Health Organization (WHO) listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten leading threats to global health.1

Although the buzz and urgency around COVID vaccinations have subsided, there's still a hum of hesitancy about vaccine safety.

What the statistics say about vaccine hesitancy

A 2021 Statista report states that 79% of people worldwide strongly or somewhat agreed that vaccines are safe, and 58% of American adults believed in the importance of childhood vaccines,while COVID-19 vaccine acceptance was 75.2% in the 23 countries surveyed, per a study published by Nature Communications.3

Still, more recent statistics paint a less encouraging picture. According to The Hill, childhood immunization rates continue to decline: the target rate for kindergarten-age students getting their measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine of 95% has not been met (it fell to 93% in the period between 2021-2022, leaving about 250,000 students vulnerable), and less than 5% of the U.S. population are up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccine booster. The cost of the vaccines is the most cited reason for parents not immunizing their children.4

Whether the uncertainty is rooted in myth, fact, or cost, the general public often makes decisions based on information gleaned in word-of-mouth conversations, mainstream and alternative news reports and insights shared on social media.

These varied, often unvetted sources may be wildly or mildly inaccurate, representing one of the most significant challenges to vaccine acceptance. According to the Journal of General Internal Medicine, exposure to misinformation was directly correlated with vaccine hesitancy.5

Providers, therefore, have the opportunity to dispel myths, affirm facts and direct patients to more reputable sources of information while building rapport and trust. Here, we'll address some of the most common vaccine concerns and how to respond to them.

Myth 1: Vaccines are toxic and will make you sick.

Fact: Although some vaccines may contain trace amounts of formaldehyde and aluminum, the doses are not large enough to cause illness.

Certain vaccines may have allergenic ingredients like egg or gelatin, which could cause a reaction in patients with allergies. Providers tasked with administering vaccines must check with patients first to ensure certain vaccines won't cause an allergic reaction.6

According to the CDC, there are three systems designed to ensure the safety of vaccines and monitor reports of adverse effects:7

  • The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was established in 1990 and offers an option for consumers to submit their own data.
  • The Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) is a collaborative network for monitoring adverse reactions, also established in 1990.
  • The Clinical Immunization Safety Assessment Project (CISA) was established in 2001 and focuses on research around vaccine safety.

Myth 2: Vaccines cause autism

Fact: A flawed, discredited study published in 1998 by the medical journal Lancet perpetuated this myth. However, since that time, Lancet retracted that study and hundreds more worldwide studies have found no connection between a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and vaccinations.8

Those worldwide studies included research from the National Academy of Medicine, which reviewed the safety of eight vaccines administered to both children and adults. These vaccines were reported to be very safe (with rare exceptions).9

Other studies exploring a possible link between vaccinations and autism were focused on potentially problematic ingredients such as thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. None of the studies resulted in a direct causal connection between vaccines and ASD.9

Myth 3: Natural immunity is more effective than vaccine-induced immunity

Fact: While natural immunity is important in disease prevention, it's often not enough to protect the body from potential life-threatening or life-altering complications related to contracting certain diseases. Instead, vaccines help to build strong immunity without acquiring the disease or experiencing the serious symptoms of the actual disease.10

There are two types of immunity: active and passive.11

  • Active immunity is developed via vaccinations or exposure to the disease. It lasts longer than passive immunity, even though the protection takes time to build up.
  • Passive immunity is passed to a newborn through the mother's placenta or by receiving antibody-containing blood products such as immune globulin. This type of immunity offers immediate protection; however, its results are short-lived.

Myth 4: Vaccines will give you the disease

Fact: Many people are unclear on the process of vaccination, which can create a lack of confidence in or resistance to vaccines.

By imitating the infection, vaccines stimulate the immune response. However, they do not cause the illness or infection since they typically contain only a weakened pathogen, inactive pathogen or part of a pathogen — none of which are enough to develop the illness.10

The bottom line: Despite the widespread availability of misinformation, most people still recognize the importance of vaccinations.2 If vaccine-hesitant patients bring up questions or concerns, these responses can help address misinformation and empower decision-making around vaccination.

For more information, read this recent article on strategies for combating vaccine hesitancy.