The Pitt News

Take a shot: Students, professionals debate vaccines

By Anjana Murali / Staff Writer

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

Debilitating headache. Sore throat. Five hour naps. The works. For Colleen Hilla, being sick is a perpetual cycle.

Hilla gets the flu annually, among other seasonal ailments, and she doesn’t get vaccinated for it because of a bad experience with flu shots in third grade.  

“I’ve had the flu every year since I was four years old,” Hilla, a freshman material science and engineering major, said. “And I do not like getting shots.”

Hilla is part of a growing number of millennials who are growing skeptical of vaccines for various personal or medical reasons. This trend, according to a study published on Jan. 30 by YouGov, a web-based market research firm, indicates that 43 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 said parents should decide whether or not their children get vaccinated. 

Full-time, first-year students and those living on campus must get vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) because of state and University requirements, according to Marian Vanek, director of Student Health Services. According to Vanek, only 0.1 percent of Pitt students are unvaccinated due to an exemption policy, which allows students to sign a waiver declining the MMR vaccine based on medical or religious beliefs that prohibit immunization. 

Hilla agrees with the 43 percent from YouGov’s study that it should be the patient’s or parent’s choice, and not mandated by law. While Hilla received Pitt’s required vaccines, she chose not to receive the flu vaccine, she said, because even when she did, she still got the flu. Because of this, she has been skeptical of its effectiveness.

“For me, it’s not worth it to go through the procedure of getting a shot for a vaccine that might not work,” Hilla said.

Some people assume causal relationships when it comes to vaccines and being sick, according to Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia . 

“They often go into a doctor’s office where they get the vaccine, where they are sitting in a waiting room where there are sick people,” Offit, who’s also an attending physician at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said. “They then get the vaccine, they go home, they invariably have caught the infection that was going around in that waiting room, but assume it was the vaccine that did it.”

In a worst-case scenario, the side effects of receiving a vaccine include a low-grade fever, pain, redness, tenderness and fainting. According to Offit, effects can also occasionally include an immediate or type-1 sensitivity allergic response, which usually occurs within 15 minutes. 

“This whole business about vaccines causing serious side-effects … I don’t know what people are talking about,” Offit said. “[Vaccines] are frankly the safest, best-tested things we put into our bodies. The problem is that they don’t prevent everything else that happens in the first years of life, so people are always going to make those temporal associations.”

The debate on vaccines’ benefits began in 1998 when Andrew Wakefield, a former British surgeon and medical researcher, published a later-retracted study that linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine to the development of autism. 

Even though subsequent studies disproved Wakefield’s findings, Offit says, a stigma still surrounds vaccination.

Celebrity Jenny McCarthy has publicly spoken against vaccines. She has claimed that vaccines caused her son to become autistic and her activism has stirred controversy in the media, helping to revive the anti-vaccine movement. 

Offit has noticed this revival in working with his own patients who come into Offit’s office are cautious about vaccinating their children, he said. 

“Once you scare people, it’s hard to unscare them,” Offit said.

YouGov’s January study also found that 21 percent of responders under the age of 30 said vaccinations “definitely” or “probably” cause autism. For respondents older than 65, only three percent said vaccines can cause autism. 

A vaccination program enabled the U.S. to eradicate measles in 2000, according to the Center for Disease Control. 

Last year saw a reawakening of measles in 644 reported cases, the CDC found, because some parents do not vaccinate their children. So far this year, states have reported a total of 154 cases of measles.

“Childhood communicable diseases, which we thought were eradicated years ago … can strike at any time in the U.S.,” Vanek said. Vaccine-preventable diseases are still active elsewhere in the world, she said, and can resurface after international travel.

The disease’s vanishment also contributes to a lack of fear, Offit said, fueling the anti-vaccine movement. 

“As a child of the ’50s and ’60s, I had the chicken pox, measles and mumps, so I remember how miserable they made me,” Offit said. “Even though I survived, I still knew what it meant to suffer those diseases, so I made sure to vaccinate my children.”

Today, vaccinations are a “matter of faith”  for Offet’s adult children. 

 “They are not compelled by [these diseases].”

A common argument by anti-vaxxers is that their children are getting too many vaccines too soon, Offit said, which is somehow overwhelming or weakening the immune system.

“They focus on the traits, quantities of additives or manufacturing residuals in vaccines like formaldehyde or ethyl mercury and claim that those are doing harm,” Offit said. “They are just looking for reasons to not vaccinate.”

Offit cited the fact that, right now in the U.S., parents give their children 14 different vaccines in their first years of life, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists in a 2015 report. That can mean as many as 26 inoculations during those years and five shots at one time to prevent diseases most people don’t see, using biological fluids most people don’t understand, Offit said.

Whether they understand the the process or not, some individuals have immediate negative side effects when exposed to certain vaccines.

Rebecca Wages, a freshman emergency medicine major, is part of the 0.1 percent of Pitt students who are exempt from getting the required vaccines.

Wages is allergic to the preservatives in some vaccines, and, as a result, is often not able to protect herself against some illnesses such as the flu and shingles. She said she gets the flu once every flu season. 

Vanek said although Pitt allows students to submit waivers to become an exception to the rule, even one infected person can spread a disease to people not immune and result in an outbreak.

“When significant numbers of people choose not to be vaccinated, herd immunity breaks down,” Vanek said.

Erika Yih, one of the medical student coordinators of the Integrative Health Interest Group at Pitt Medical School, said integrative medicine, which is the idea of using additional therapies to supplement mainstream health care like vaccines, can help restore patients’ health . 

Although Yih remains open to integrative medicine, she supports vaccinations and believes they are effective contributions to medicine.

“Being open-minded about non-mainstream approaches does not mean abandoning the approaches that have been proven to be beneficial,” Yih said.

Vanek said vaccines are the only way to prevent spikes in infections.

“When these diseases resurface, the infection can range from a mild case to a more severe and even life-threatening condition,” Vanek said. “Vaccination is effective in preventing these diseases.”

Leave a comment.

The University of Pittsburgh's Daily Student Newspaper
Take a shot: Students, professionals debate vaccines