Education And Debate

Myths in Medicine: Immunisation

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6961.1073 (Published 22 October 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:1073
  1. N Begg,
  2. A Nicoll
  1. Public Health Laboratory Service, PHLS Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre, London NW9 5EQ
  1. Correspondence to: Dr Begg.

    Myths in immunisation are as old as immunisation itself. When Edward Jenner first developed his smallpox vaccine in 1796 there was concern that material from cowpox sores was used. Cartoonists drew children growing horns and some extraordinary side effects were described: “A child ran upon on all fours like a beast, bellowing like a cow, and butting with its head like a bull.” The rapid pace of vaccine development this century has been paralleled by a whole new generation of myths. The nature of these myths is mostly such that children are inappropriately denied immunisation, which could allow the continued circulation of preventable infections.1

    Why do immunisation myths exist?

    Where ignorance exists myths flourish. The scientific basis of immunisation may be only partly understood by those who give vaccines. Although an increasing proportion of immunisations are being given by general practitioners,2 the typical undergraduate medical curriculum only contains one lecture on the subject. Nurses often actually administer immunisation and are a potent source of advice for parents. Immunisation practice for nurses is, however, often learnt by imitation and from handed down oral “wisdom” rather than being formally taught.

    Ignorance has been compounded by the dissemination of contradictory information. Vaccine manufacturers' product inserts, perhaps written with litigation in mind, have frequently been at variance with national policy.3,4 Doctors may refer to a variety of publications other than the official Department of Health memorandum for guidance, including the British National Formulary, the Monthly Index of Medical Specialties, and the Data Sheet Compendium. Each of these three sources has in the past been found to contain incorrect information.3,5 Authoritative guidance did not become available until 1984, when the DoH memorandum was first published.6 Previously there existed only a plethora of leaflets and out of date health circulars on the …

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