Bacteria, viruses, and parasites(oh my!) have always held a certain fascination to me. When you understand just how many ways our bodies can fail, and how many organisms are out there who are capable of exploiting those ways, you gain a better appreciation for your own continued existence. You also gain the ability to stay calm the next time reports start flooding your news medium of choice about the next epidemic that’s going to kill us all.
Remember in the 80s when ebola was going to kill us all? Remember in the early 90s when SARS was going to kill us all? Remember in the late 90s when mad cow disease was going to kill us all? Remember ten years ago when swine flu was going to kill us all? Remember a couple years ago when bird flu was going to kill us all? As it turns out, it’s tricky for diseases to kill us all.
It’s tricky not just because of our advanced immune system, but because of modern sanitation and medicine. There are methods that need reevaluation and are deserving of healthy debate. Overuse of antibiotics is an excellent example and the CDCs recent report about the rise of rates of resistant strains of ‘super gonorrhea'(worst superhero ever) lend credence to the need for a dialogue.
On the other hand, there are branches of medicine that are considered settled science and should be beyond reproach. I’m speaking of vaccines. I would like to point everyone to a chart(Warning PDF) the CDC released regarding the effects of vaccination on the annual mortality rates in the US of certain diseases. One thing to note about the chart is it compares annual morbidity pre vaccine era with modern reported cases. It doesn’t compare deaths with deaths. I want to focus briefly on the measles line. Over 530,000 annual deaths had been reduced to only 61 reported cases and bear in mind that data is from the United States.
New reports out of New York have identified growing measles numbers in Manhatten, the Bronx, and Brooklyn This follows last month’s announcement out of Massachusetts that there are new cases of measles there as well. Sadly this year’s data is following a trend; 2013 was the measliest year in 17 years. Furthermore, of the cases reported to the CDC last year, 92% of infected individuals had not been vaccinated.
Vaccines save lives at best and protect you from potentially disfiguring or disabling diseases at worst. The question is then why would anyone actively put lives at risk by choosing not to vaccinate a child who could medically receive a vaccination? Unfortunately we have an increasing number of celebrities who are answering that question for us, from co-host on ABC’s The View Jenny McCarthy to Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler. The walking public health dangers known as the anti-vaccination crowd largely rely on four common arguments.
1. My decision just affects my child, so society shouldn’t get to tell me what to do.
The MMR(measles, mumps, reubella) vaccine isn’t recommended until a child is one, and there are medical reasons a child can’t be vaccinated. Some individuals are legitimately allergic to components of vaccines. These people and young children are still protected by an important concept to understand when it comes to vaccinations. Herd immunity is best visualized in this graphic, but it’s worth a little more detailed description.
Think of herd immunity like creating deserts for diseases. When you eliminate food for pathogens by vaccinating most/all of a given population for thousands of miles accept a few minor oases(the people who medically can’t be vaccinated), the disease will have great difficulty getting to any of the oases and it will subsequently die out. If you leave too many oases in the desert by choosing not to vaccinate some members of a population then the disease is capable of jumping from one oasis to another and living on.
The decision to not vaccinate a child doesn’t just affect that child, it affects everyone by allowing diseases to live on which otherwise could be eliminated.
2.Vaccines contain mercury which is poisonous.
It is true that until 2001 some vaccines did contain a preservative which contained ethylmercury. Since 2001 that preservative has been removed from all vaccines except some flu vaccines. Even if it hadn’t though, it wouldn’t matter because the amount of ethylmercury per dose was 50 micrograms per .5ml dose which is below the toxic dose for mercury. AND EVEN IF ethylmercury was present at levels that were considered toxic for mercury, ethylmercury is not methylmercury. Methymercury is an organic neurotoxin, ehtylmercury is an inorganic preservative that exits the body harmlessly within one week of exposure even in infants. Two words that look similar can behave radically different on a chemical basis. I’ve been breathing carbon-dioxide my whole live. If I started breathing carbon-monoxide it would end my life.
3. Pharmaceutical companies make money on vaccines so they’re lying about the effects to up their profit margin.
The tetanus, diptheria, pertusis vaccine is one shot and costs $37.55 if purchased from a private sector hospital. The average cost to a family when a child is infected with pertusis is $3,810 between antibiotics, doctors appointments, possible emergency room visits, and extended hospitalization.  Not taking into account the protection given from tetanus and diptheria in the same shot, you’ve already paying 1% what you would be paying if your child actually got pertusis. Are pharmaceutical companies turning a profit? Yes. Is it anywhere close to the profit they could get if you got the disease instead? No. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure applies to the economic side of things as well.
This is only slightly related, but I’m including it here as long as pertusis is on our minds. Have you ever heard what whooping cough sounds like? I hope you haven’t, but it’s worth remembering the horrors of what life used to be like before the vaccine. I was in the middle of an infectious disease unit in high school and the teacher played a clip. It is a memory I wish I could get rid of. Hearing the whoop noise as a child manages to pull in a lungful of air in between full body coughing spasms is impossible to listen to without feeling empathy. I hesitantly recommend you give a listen.
4(the big one). Vaccines cause autism.
Let’s go through a timeline.
1998: A British doctor Named Andrew Wakefield published a study in the prestigious journal The Lancet claiming that the twelve children he looked at who all had autism spectrum disorders had their symptoms begin soon after administration of the MMR vaccine. This is the only study that has ever shown a link. No one has ever been able to recreate the data.
2004: Ten of the twelve coauthors of the paper formally retracted their names from the paper.
2009: It was revealed that Wakefield willfully misrepresented the data in the paper. As it turns out his research was sponsored by a pharmaceutical group that had a competing MMR vaccine coming onto the market and they wanted the current vaccine discredited.
2010: The Lancet formally retraced the paper after a five member tribunal of the British General Medical Council found Wakefield guilty of 36 counts including twelve abuses of developmentally challenged children and multiple counts of dishonesty. The panel concluded he, “failed in his duties as a responsible consultant,” and was barred from practicing medicine in the UK.
Despite the thorough debunking, the damage from the study has been done. The year after it was released, vaccination rates in the UK dropped by 20%. I’m going to drop my air of impartiality for a moment. Fuck Andrew Wakefield. He is responsible for misinforming millions and contributing to the death of children so that he could profit. Allow me to repeat with every bit of vitriol I can muster and all offense intended, fuck Andrew Wakefield.
I would also like to add that even if vaccines did contribute to autism(WHICH THEY DON’T), I would take the risk of autism over the combined risk of measles, mumps, rubella, diptheria, tetanus, pertusis, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, polio, and all the other diseases preventable through vaccination. This Penn and Teller bit nicely visualizes what I mean.
Parents are looking for answers with autism, and once its mechanism is more thoroughly understood I imagine that will end the links to vaccines. There used to be a vaccine panic with SIDS, but now that it is better understood, no one accuses vaccinations of being the culprit anymore. My family is one of the millions that has been affected by autism. I understand the desire to have a villain and therefor something real you can fight against. Vaccines though are not the culprit.
I’m not exaggerating when I say vaccines may have saved more lives than any other medical procedure or invention ever and the rise of vaccines becoming a philosophical target is as short sighted as it is dangerous. Vaccines work, they save you, your children, your pet, and your neighbor. There are good reasons to question aspects of medicine and someday we may come up with something better than vaccines. As the science stands right now though, vaccines are about as flawless as possible. I’m glad my parents vaccinated me, I will be vaccinating my children, and you should do the same. I hope(just like a vaccine) this post has now given you the ability to fight off this particularly virulent strain of ignorance wherever it pops up next.
As always, questions, comments, and concerns are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.