Risk of infection
It is very hard to get accurate figures for the risk of infection because most people are vaccinated, and so exposure to the diseases you can get vaccinated against goes unknown. However, combined cases of Measles, Mumps and Rubella (some of the most commonly vaccinated viruses) in America is around 100 a year 1,2, and it is similar in other developed countries that vaccinate most of their population. The majority of these cases are actually imported, so the actual cases of domestic infection are much much less. However, if we use the actual reported figure of 100 cases, it means 0.0000003% of the American population suffer from these diseases. This is a tiny proportion of the population, but you need to remember that this is so small because so many people are vaccinated. Many more people could have been exposed to virus, but not become infected. Measles for example, is a very contagious virus, so in a population that isn’t vaccinated it would spread very rapidly and cause many deaths. By having so many people vaccinated, the virus struggles to spread.
If you look at Indonesia, a country which has a relatively similar population to America but very little vaccinations, their incidence of common vaccinatable diseases is roughly 7285 people a year, which is roughly 0.0028% of the population. It still looks like a tiny proportion of the population, but it shows that by not vaccinating 9333 times more people will get one of these diseases, which is a massive increase.
There are other factors to consider of course. For example, what are the reporting procedures for these diseases like in Indonesia? Do they under report? How much of an impact does population density, hygiene or even climate have on the spread of these diseases? These are things that cannot easily be factored into the calculation, but as a rough estimate for comparison purposes, we can say that roughly 0.0028% of the population gets these diseases when there is no vaccination, and when there is widespread vaccination, 0.0000003% of the population will get the diseases.
Risk of vaccination reaction
Reporting and collecting data about vaccination reactions is mandatory, so we have a pretty good idea of how many people have reactions, and how many are serious. VAERS, the company who collects the data in America makes its information public, and you can download data for any given year here. From the 2015 data you can see that there were 43124 reported reactions to vaccines, which range from an itchy arm to serious complications (including death).
Of these 43124 cases, 438 people are reported being disabled, and 147 died. In some cases, there isn’t a cause and effect relationship established between the vaccine and death and the timing is just coincidental, but must be recorded in case there was a connection. This figure obviously cannot take into account any potential long term issues which may have arisen from a vaccine and only surfaced years after. There are no long term risks identified, and it is obviously very hard to find a relationship between something that happened years ago and a disease or disability. However, the sheer fact that most of the developed world is vaccinated, and not all experiencing the same disability ‘X’ years down the line shows that if there are any long term risks, they are extremely small.
This puts the total number of people seriously affected by a vaccine (death or disability) at 585, which is about 0.00018% of the population. This makes the risk of getting a serious reaction from a vaccine about 15.5 time less than the risk of getting a disease which you can be easily vaccinated against.
Do vaccines cause autism and other neurological issues?
Although cases of neurological diseases as a result of vaccines are included in the 438 people mentioned above, there is a lot of concern about this, so I wanted to elaborate on it a bit more. Autism specifically has never been recorded as a result of a vaccine to the best of my knowledge. However, in that 438 of people who get disabled, there are some cases where people have developed neurological issues. You will often hear about the case of Hannah Poling, who developed encephalopathy3 (which has autism-like symptoms 4) shortly after a vaccine. Although no cause and effect relationship was established, the family was awarded compensation (which is discussed below) because the condition developed shortly after a vaccine, and so a connection was likely. This one high profile case doesn’t mean that vaccines cause neurological diseases any more than other disabilities though, which occur in approximately 0.00018% of the population.
I do not pretend to be an expert on vaccines, and in this article I have presented facts about the risk of a reaction compared to the risks of getting a disease. People seem to be able to argue all day about what vaccines may do or may not do, and blindly spew abstracts of studies they don’t understand at each other without consideration for the others arguments. It is a complex scientific field no doubt, and if you want to read more about MMR and the risks associated I would refer you to the highly respected Ben Goldacre’s blog, who has done far more reserach in this field than most, and is a big advocate of transparency in scientific trials.
However, for me, I like the black and white nature of facts. Reaction reporting is mandatory, and so the figures for this are pretty accurate. Small scale suggestive studies conducted by researchers with a preconceived idea of what to expect can be unreliable, and so I have avoided them in this article.
What poses the greater risk?
I’ve thrown a lot of figures about, so to make comparisons easier, I’ve put everything in a table below.
|Vaccinated Population||un-vaccinated Population|
|Serious Reaction to Vaccine||0.00018%||0.00%|
Overall, your risk of getting seriously ill, disabled or even dying, is much less if you are vaccinated. In fact, you are 15.5 times less likely to have serious health problems if you have a vaccine, which is pretty significant, and makes getting vaccinated a safer, despite the small risk of developing complications.
Getting everyone vaccinated is a government supported scheme in most developed countries, because statistically it offers better public health. Governments recognise that some people do have serious adverse reactions vaccines, and because the vaccines were taken on the recommendation of the government, the government will take responsibility for their recommendations and offer financial support for those seriously affected. You will have to check your governments criteria etc for getting compensation if you are interested, as each government has a different policy. Obviously, if you are seriously disabled no amount of money can rectify the damage, but some is better than nothing, and you would get nothing if you got a debilitating disease.
Widespread vaccines are good, but there is a risk to a small population of people. These few who do react badly to vaccines pay the price for the many to be protected against these diseases.
You hear a lot of scary stories about the adverse effects of vaccinations, and they are sad and worrying. Cases of serious reactions to vaccinations are extremely rare though, and get over played by the media. However, as I have demonstrated here, the risk of getting a serious and potentially fatal disease is much higher than having a serious reaction to a vaccination. In addition to this, in the unlikely event that you do have a reaction to a vaccine, your government will offer some support to you, which although doesn’t make up for the disability, is still better than the nothing you would get if you got a disease.
- CDC. (2008). Measles — United States, January 1–April 25, 2008. Available: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm57e501a1.htm?s_cid=mm57e501a1_e. Last accessed 15/3/16.
- World Health Organisation. (2016). Rubella reported cases. Available: http://apps.who.int/immunization_monitoring/globalsummary/timeseries/tsincidencerubella.html. Last accessed 15/3/16.
- Paul A. Offit, M.D. (2008). Vaccines and Autism Revisited — The Hannah Poling Case. New England Journal of Medicine.
- CDC. (20125). Mitochondrial Disease – Frequently Asked Questions. Available: www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/mitochondrial-faq.html. Last accessed 16/3/15.