Talk to Patients About: Vaccines and Cancer
By Sean Price Texas Medicine April 2021

Vaccines are one of medicine’s best tools against cancer. The shots for human papillomavirus (HPV) and hepatitis B prevent a range of cancers and save thousands of lives each year.

But anti-vaccine advocates have tried – incorrectly – to paint just the opposite picture in several ways.

Some blame additives – used to make vaccines more effective at stopping disease – as cancer culprits.

“There’s no data and no evidence that this happens,” said Roy Chemaly, MD, professor of medicine and chief infection control officer at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

For instance, aluminum appears in many vaccines as an adjuvant designed to improve the body’s immune response. Aluminum is a common metal found in the air, food, and water. The amount found in any vaccine is very low and not readily absorbed by the body, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More importantly, aluminum and other commonly used additives have been studied exhaustively, and there’s no reason to believe they cause cancer, Dr. Chemaly says.

Likewise, because some vaccines are produced from cell lines taken from cancerous tumors, anti-vaccine activists say the resulting vaccines can cause cancer as well.

“That’s far-fetched and nonsensical,” said Donald Murphey, MD, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. While cancer cells are used in some cases because of their ability to replicate quickly, he says scientists employ the technique for research and production, and cancer cells do not end up in the vaccine.

Still, as rates for some cancers – like leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – have risen in children, anti-vaccine activists tie the statistic to increasing use of vaccines.

“[Anti-vaccine activists] talk about how we have an increase in this type of cancer so it must be coming from vaccines, because when we started vaccinating children for different infectious diseases, that’s when we started seeing more cancers,” Dr. Chemaly said. “This is not true.”

So far, the uptick in cancer rates has no clear scientific explanation, but no large scientific study has ever shown a link between vaccines and cancer, Dr. Chemaly said. Meanwhile, he adds, there are many other factors that clearly do affect cancer rates, including genetic predisposition, family history, environmental exposure, lifestyle factors like obesity, and infections like HPV and hepatitis B.


Tex Med. 2021;117(4):48
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Last Updated On

April 01, 2021

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Sean Price


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Sean Price is a reporter for Texas Medicine and Texas Medicine Today. He grew up in Fort Worth and graduated from the University of Texas at Austin. He's worked as an award-winning writer and editor for a variety of national magazine, book, and website publishers in New York and Washington. He's also helped produce Texas-based marketing campaigns designed to promote public health. Sean lives in Austin and enjoys hiking, photography, and spending time with his wife and two sons.

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