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Experts say vaccines are safe and have proven effective in reducing the spread of disease, in particular childhood illnesses such as measles and mumps. Getty Images
  • A new study analyzed nearly 20 years of vaccine data, concluding that vaccines are “remarkably safe.”
  • Experts say the anti-vaccination movement threatens to undo the gains achieved by immunizations as old illnesses re-emerge and herd immunity is compromised.
  • They say it’s important for people to educate themselves and talk to their physicians about any concerns they have regarding vaccines.

A large-scale study released today has reinforced the safety and efficacy of vaccines — an important reminder as the world waits for a vaccine to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic.

A research team from Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center in Israel analyzed 57 vaccines that were approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) between 1996 and 2015.

During this time frame, hundreds of millions of vaccines were administered, prompting hundreds of thousands of reports to the FDA’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

Out of these reports, the FDA modified 58 labels for 25 vaccines. The most common VAERS reports concerned issues such as people who are immunocompromised, preterm infants, and people with allergies.

The findings highlight the safety of vaccines, along with the effectiveness of the FDA’s reporting system.

The researchers called vaccines “remarkably safe.” They also noted that vaccines are “one of the greatest achievements of modern public health, saving countless lives and all but eliminating once prevalent diseases such as mumps, measles, and poliomyelitis.”

Researchers and experts say this study provides crucial data, particularly in a world where vaccination rates have fallen due to skepticism over immunizations.

“The current COVID-19 pandemic is a reminder of life with contagious infectious diseases without an effective vaccine,” the researchers wrote in their study.

In the United States, vaccines go through a rigorous development process before they’re released to the public.

After the exploratory and preclinical phase, vaccines are tested in three or four trials before undergoing regulatory review and, eventually, approval.

This long process is one of the reasons that highly anticipated vaccines, such as an eventual vaccine for COVID-19, take a long time to develop.

Dr. Michael Levin, a pediatrician and principal investigator at M3 Wake Research-Clinical Research Center of Nevada, is involved in phase III trials of a COVID-19 vaccine.

He told Healthline that it’s important to recognize not just the rigorous vetting process but also the ongoing tweaks that help existing vaccines keep pace with viruses.

“Vaccines are constantly being improved. Modifications in pediatric vaccines have occurred with polio, rotavirus, and pertussis, to name a few,” he explained. “However, even before these changes, the benefits of the vaccines were incredible. I have never seen a child harmed by any vaccine in all my years of practice. While the influenza vaccine has years in which it appears less effective, it still reduces cases and severity of illness. I take it every year.”

The anti-vaccination movement can be traced to a widely discredited paper authored by Andrew Wakefield in 1998.

Wakefield suggested that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was linked to autism. Wakefield lost his medical license for this misinformation, but he effectively launched the modern-day anti-vaccination movement — one that’s been bolstered by celebrity claims in the years since.

Dr. Stephen Cobb, a family medicine specialist who’s sat on Colorado’s Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Project, told Healthline that the anti-vaccination movement has proven itself to be persistent.

“The media seized these stories, igniting public fear and confusion over the safety of vaccines, and, of course, social media only fueled the flames of misinformation,” he said. “Wakefield’s theory has been thoroughly debunked but remains one of the most notorious and damaging pieces of research in the history of medicine. There is no disputing the science that there’s zero link between vaccines and autism.”

It may be tempting to scoff at people who don’t vaccinate their children, but Dr. Navya Mysore, the primary program director of reproductive and sexual health as well as a family physician at One Medical Group, says it’s important to take a more nuanced approach.

“When speaking to a patient who is unsure about vaccines, it’s important to take a step back and understand where that hesitancy is coming from,” she told Healthline. “Many patients come to our office knowing all the data but are still unsure for many different reasons. One could be hesitant because of a family member who had a negative experience or they could be nervous about the rare potential side effects.”

“I think it’s important that every healthcare provider in our medical community address the misinformation out there and replace it with accurate, evidence-based information,” she added.

A critical aspect of vaccines, one that’s often missed, is the fact that getting vaccinated doesn’t just help the person receiving the vaccine — it helps everyone.

Levin says that parents who don’t get their children vaccinated because their kids never get sick really ought to thank those who do get vaccinated.

“They should thank other families because the herd immunity created by most people vaccinating keeps the disease-causing pathogens at low to non-existent levels,” he said. “In rare instances, vaccines are contraindicated, but the herd immunity protects those people, ideally. However, when many don’t vaccinate, a population can encounter the pathogen, which will spread among the growing population without immunity. This is why we are seeing pertussis and measles again.”

With the world still in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are anxiously awaiting a vaccine.

Researchers around the world are collaborating on various candidate vaccines and it isn’t known when a vaccine might get approved. It also remains to be seen how a vaccine will be received if the anti-vaccination movement continues to wield its influence.

“COVID-19 is now shining the spotlight on vaccines,” said Levin. “The individuals participating in the COVID vaccine studies to arrive at a safe and effective vaccine are the new heroes in the fight to end the pandemic as they help determine the safety and efficacy that will hopefully benefit the rest of us.”

Cobb says that the pandemic also emphasizes the importance of getting vaccinated against all possible infections.

“All the respiratory illnesses that gain prevalence in our colder months – flu, pneumonia, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — can easily be confused with COVID-19 and we don’t have adequate testing right now to properly differentiate,” he said.

“Bottom line, vaccines are safe. They aren’t perfectly safe, but complication rates are far lower in comparison to the risk of contracting a deadly infection,” he added. “Vaccines are likely a victim of their own success — something to consider for new parents. We’ve managed diseases like polio so effectively that today’s parent, even most physicians, haven’t personally witnessed its effects. This year in particular, it’s critical to stay on top of vaccines — for kids and adults alike.”