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Strategies for pediatricians to debunk common vaccine myths

As misinformation continues to spread, many parents are choosing not to get their kids vaccinated or are questioning whether or not to vaccinate their children. They may also hesitate to take vaccines themselves.

The anti-vaccine movement isn't new. Anti-vaccination sentiment spread through the United States in the late 1800s when public health and the government began initiatives to vaccinate kids against smallpox.1

People still make many of the same arguments today, although the mediums are very different. With an increasing prevalence of online misinformation about vaccine safety, your patients may have a hard time sifting through the information and misinformation. As a physician, it's important to have open conversations with your patients to address their fears and share accurate information.

Ed Lewis, MD, FAAP, of Lewis Pediatrics in Rochester, NY, shares some tips for talking to patients about common vaccine myths. 

"When somebody believes something, it's very difficult to convince them otherwise, even if you present them with scientific facts," Dr. Lewis says. "But as primary care providers, we need to have a rapport with patients. Families trust us when we give them advice."

Vaccine myths & how to address them

Let's look closer at seven common vaccine myths, why they're false and how to address them with patients and parents.

Myth 1 | Vaccines make you sick

Sometimes people mistakenly believe the vaccine can give them the virus the vaccine is intended to prevent. The flu vaccine and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine are popular targets of this myth.

Severe adverse events with vaccines are rare, and allergic reactions are the most common severe reaction.2 Discuss the risks if the child in question has an egg or gelatin allergy.

Parents may feel worried if their child, especially their baby, runs a fever, has chills or feels tired after getting vaccines. Explain in advance that these reactions are normal — not serious — and are a sign that the baby's body is responding to the vaccines. It's working to protect them.

Myth 2 | Vaccines contain toxic ingredients

Toxicity is often based on dose. Too much of almost anything, even water, can prove toxic. Some vaccines do have aluminum, formaldehyde or other ingredients, but in very small amounts to keep them from being toxic.3

Vaccines go through a lengthy development and review process to demonstrate safety. Plus, over time, vaccines have become even safer with changes in production and ingredients leading to fewer side effects.4

When parents or guardians express their fears, listen and then provide them with information from reputable sources. "The most important thing is to find out what their fear is," Dr. Lewis says. "Address them with honesty and facts."

Myth 3 | Vaccines overload the immune system

Small children get many vaccines early in life. This can scare some parents, especially if their baby develops a fever or feels bad afterward. They may ask you to split the schedule up so their child only gets one at a time.

Remind parents that children are most at risk of severe illness and death from the illnesses that scientists and medical experts have designed vaccines to prevent. Delaying vaccines puts kids at risk of getting these diseases. Decades of research has shown the standard schedule is safe.5

Be understanding to parents who don't like watching their child get multiple shots at once. It's hard. But remind parents that spacing the vaccines out means more visits by which the child gets put through this process more times.

"It's a very tough choice to decide what vaccines to give when parents want to split them up," Dr. Lewis adds. "How do you decide what to hold off on? I have worked with parents to immunize their children with alternative schedules if the parents or guardians can't be dissuaded."

Myth 4 | Natural immunity is healthier & more effective than vaccine-induced immunity

Acknowledge that there's some truth to this belief. Natural infection produces better immunity than vaccines for many diseases. However, the real question for patients is the risk they're willing to face for natural immunity.

Children and guardians who may not have received a vaccine, such as the chicken pox vaccine6 or MMR, face life-threatening complications. According to the Mayo Clinic, up to 80% of infants born to mothers who had rubella during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy develop congenital rubella syndrome.7

Vaccines create immunity without the risk of contracting the disease. Some vaccines actually produce a stronger immune response than natural infection. HPV, tetanus, Haemophilus influenza (Hib) and pneumococcal vaccines all produce better immune responses.8

Myth 5 | If everyone is immune, then I don't need to get vaccinated

With many people leaning against getting vaccines, this theory doesn't hold up. Many vaccine-preventable diseases spread from person to person. In pockets where more people are unvaccinated, an outbreak can occur.

Also, remind parents that not everyone can get a vaccine. Some people have health conditions that prevent them from getting vaccinated or from producing antibodies if they do get the vaccine. The decision to vaccinate is also about protecting your community.

Myth 6 | We no longer get vaccine-preventable illnesses in the United States

Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000. Yet, in 2019, there were nearly 1,300 cases of measles across 31 states. They started from a traveler who brought the disease to the U.S. and then the disease spread in pockets of mostly unvaccinated people.9

Even polio still exists in some parts of the world. With international travel, all it takes is a plane ride to bring a disease here. Talk with parents about the risk of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, leaving their child vulnerable if more and more people choose not to vaccinate.

Myth 7 | Vaccines can cause autism

Some celebrity promotion of this myth has ingrained it in many people's psyches. The original 1998 study that connected vaccines and autism had so many flaws that it was eventually retracted. But that hasn't stopped the fear. In the past two decades, numerous other studies have found no causal connection between vaccines and autism.10

Discuss the research and the problems with the original paper that spurred this myth. The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia has a great resource you can share with parents about how to evaluate scientific information.

Listen to parents' fears and then talk about facts. Signs of autism are often present from early development, and research has found that autism develops in the womb. However, obvious signs to the parents tend to present around the same age that children receive the MMR vaccine, leading some parents to believe the vaccine caused the autism symptoms.10

How to talk to parents about vaccination

With the fear and misinformation surrounding vaccines, getting through to some parents and patients can prove difficult. Dr. Lewis said that when he enters the room, he says what vaccines the patient is due for and then listens to concerns. He likes to use a motivational interviewing approach, asking them to rate their hesitancy on a scale. Then, he follows that by asking what he can do to make them feel more comfortable.

"Most of the time the parents just want to be listened to," he says. "They don't want to be dismissed because they don't believe in vaccines."

He provides them with as much information as he can and information to take home to review. He also doesn't stop seeing patients because they aren't vaccinated. He prefers to continue working with them in the hope that someday they will get vaccinated, whether the parents decide to or the patient does as they get older. He said that one family started getting vaccines for their child after a year of hesitating.

When addressing vaccine hesitancy and debunking myths, approach each patient individually. Although scripts can prove helpful, they can also sound hollow. Be patient. Learn each patient's particular fear and address those fears specifically with facts.


Be advised that information contained herein is intended to serve as a useful reference for informational purposes only and is not complete clinical information. This information is intended for use only by competent healthcare professionals exercising judgment in providing care. McKesson cannot be held responsible for the continued currency of or for any errors or omissions in the information.

© 2021 McKesson Medical-Surgical Inc.