By Zachary Crees & Shawn Joseph
Medical students and members of the student group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford
Many scientists and physicians consider the discovery and development of vaccines to be one of the greatest advances of medical history. Nevertheless, as long as vaccines have been saving human lives from preventable disease, there have also been a few anti-vaccinationists loudly proclaiming the dangers of vaccines.
For the past 200 years in the face of deadly and terrifying diseases, the benefit of vaccines has far outweighed the fear of the anti-vaccinationist myths, and because of this, deadly diseases like smallpox, measles and polio have either been eradicated worldwide or at least eliminated in well-vaccinated populations.
In the absence of such powerful reminders, however, the anti-vaccine movement has enjoyed increasing popularity and spread many harmful myths about vaccines. The result has become a very serious public health concern, with preventable and potentially lethal diseases breaking out among unvaccinated populations where the disease was previously well-controlled.
So, what are some of these myths that are showing up in magazines, online, on TV, and being discussed around the water cooler? Some popular ones include “the flu vaccine causes Alzheimer’s,” “childhood immunizations cause autism” and “vaccines contain toxins and poisons.”
In the coming weeks, we will examine these popular anti-vaccine claims to separate the myth from the facts, beginning with the flu vaccine and Alzheimer’s.
The flu vaccine and Alzheimer’s
Myth: Some anti-vaccinationists argue that repeated exposure to the annual flu vaccine can lead to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease, which is a disease of the brain causing memory loss and eventual death. This myth was popularized by Dr. Hugh Fudenberg, who argued that metals like aluminum contained in flu shots can build up in the brain, eventually causing Alzheimer’s.
What anti-vaccinationists fail to mention: Federal regulations limit aluminum content in vaccines to 0.85-1.25mg, while the average human body contains 30-50mg and is quite capable of eliminating excess aluminum in the urine. This means a healthy body naturally contains 30 to 50 times more aluminum than a vaccine like the flu shot.
Furthermore, Dr. Fudenberg’s claims have never been published in any credible scientific journals, and several attempts to replicate his claims have failed.
Published research from reputable scientists has revealed that exposure to vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, polio and the flu is NOT associated with higher risk of Alzheimer’s compared to unvaccinated individuals. In fact, one study found exposure to vaccines was correlated with LOWER risk of Alzheimer’s. The authors hypothesized that early protection from flu and other diseases may actually protect against development of Alzheimer’s.
In addition, the influenza virus is a major threat to children and the elderly, whose weaker immune systems leave them susceptible to infections and other complications, like pneumonia. Data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 53,667 deaths associated with the flu and flu complications in 2011 alone. In fact, the flu ranks as one of the top 10 causes of death in the USA, rivaling diseases like cancer and heart disease.
The bottom line: If a vaccine could protect you from cancer or heart attacks, would you take it? If so, then why not the flu vaccine? Considering that the flu vaccine is widely available at a relatively low cost and after comparing the risks and benefits, the evidence suggests getting your yearly flu shot is both safe and effective.
Stay tuned for “Common vaccine myths, part 2,” where we’ll discuss the Holy Grail of anti-vaccinationists: Childhood vaccines and autism.
From the March 13-19, 2013, issue