Fig 1: White blood cells which are cells of the immune system (large purple stained cells) along with red blood cells (small pink cells). Source.
The human body is a phenomenal machine and the immune system is astonishingly sophisticated. Almost as remarkable, is the idea that we can tap into the immune system’s ability to remember. This is how vaccines work. We introduce to the body only a component of a certain pathogen (a disease causing agent) – such as a protein that coats a virus, tricking the immune system into thinking that it is under attack by that pathogen. In response, it builds an army of antibody producing cells called B cells. Some of these cells, called memory B cells, much like an elephant, will never forget. If the same pathogen comes a-knocking, the immune system will be ready with specific antibodies to fight off the infection quickly. Is that not the coolest thing you’ve heard this week?! We take advantage of the immune system’s memory to make sure it’s prepared to fight certain infections. So, what’s all the fuss about vaccines? Why would anyone opt out of preventing a nasty and potentially deadly disease?
Vaccines and Autism
The story of the current anti-vaxxer movement begins with the medical doctor and researcher Andrew Wakefield. In 1998 Wakefield published a paper claiming that the MMR (Measles Mumps Rubella) vaccine caused autism in children. For a scientific discovery to hold true, the data supporting it must be reproducible, and fortunately with such an impactful discovery, researchers rushed to further investigate Wakefield’s findings. As the data proved unreproducible, the scientific community called shenanigans on the study and Wakefield was found guilty of deliberate fraud. The paper was immediately retracted and to this day he cannot practice medicine . But why would someone want to scare parents away from vaccines, possibly resulting in the death of innocent children? The answer, as you probably guessed, was money. It turned out that Wakefield had developed a patent for a “safer” Measles vaccine just the previous year . Conflict of interest, anyone? As if that wasn’t enough, Wakefield was also involved in a lawsuit against MMR vaccine manufacturers and was paid by lawyers while publishing his falsified data .
Fig 2 Source
With the autism connection being bogus, what else could make a parent think their child is better off unvaccinated? Concerns regarding toxins found in vaccines seem quite common, including concerns about formaldehyde. Do you know where you can find formaldehyde? In pears. Do you know where else? Naturally occurring in our body as part of normal metabolism. In fact, the amount found in vaccines is lower than the amount found in a pear and the amount found in a healthy human . Another toxin that comes up is mercury, whose presence in childhood vaccines is simply factually incorrect as it was removed from all childhood vaccines back in 2001 .
Do vaccines even work?
To answer this, let’s consider epidemiological observations: A diphtheria outbreak in the former Soviet Union took the lives of 4,000 individuals in 5 years . Coincidentally, the outbreak occurred right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which resulted in the obstruction of childhood vaccination programs.
Here’s another example: India used to have the highest rate of paralytic polio cases in the world. Interestingly, the number of cases dropped as the vaccination program coverage became more widely spread . India has been polio free since geographical coverage reached a maximum . The Measles vaccine has taken us from 2.6 million deaths caused by Measles per year to 114,000 with a vaccination rate of 85% of children in the world . And finally, a pertussis outbreak in California has so far killed 10 infants and young children in unvaccinated communities . Based on these examples, does it sound to you like vaccination works to prevent disease?
Fig 3: A microscopic image of Bordetella pertussis, the bacterium that causes the disease pertussis. Source
How to Identify B.S.
While it might be the parents’ decision whether or not to vaccinate, it is crucial to know the facts before deciding. As the biochemist Linus Pauling said: “Facts are the air of scientists. Without them you can never fly” and it is important to remember that science is out to find facts and therefore its only agenda is (or at least should be) finding the truth. That is why for sensible healthy decisions, we should look to scientific data and not uninformed propaganda. Critical thinking is crucial when assessing the validity of information circulating in social media, as it can be misleading. For example, when trying to understand risk of a disease look out for the terms morbidity vs. mortality – just because the number of patients dying has dropped, does not mean that there are less people getting sick. Or when looking at timelines of disease prevalence, be aware of developments such as booster shots or a vaccine being added to routine vaccination as compared to just introduced.
Before the invention of vaccines, one third of a family’s children would not make it past the age of 5. While that number also has to do with other medical advances and hygiene, vaccines are still one of the most significant health related breakthroughs in human history and have saved millions of lives. We owe it to ourselves, our children, and our communities to question their demonization.
 RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children Wakefield, AJ et al. The Lancet , Volume 351 , Issue 9103 , 637 – 641 http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2911096-0/abstract
 Deer, B. “Revealed: Wakefield’s Secret First MMR Patent Claims “safer Measles Vaccine”” Brian Deer Investigates MMR. 2004. Poi: http://briandeer.com/wakefield/vaccine-patent.htm
 Rao, T. S. S., and Andrade, C. (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 53(2), 95–96. http://doi.org/10.4103/0019-5545.82529
 Mitkusa, R. J., Hess, M. A., and Schwartz, S. L. (2013). “U.S. Food and Drug Administration.” FDA Study Reinforces No Safety Concerns from Residual Formaldehyde in Some Infant Vaccines. U.S. FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
 “Frequently Asked Questions about Thimerosal.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2015)
 Vitek, C. R., and Wharton, M. (1998) “Diphtheria in the Former Soviet Union: Reemergence of a Pandemic Disease” - Volume 4 Emerging Infectious Disease Journal - CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 Bahl, S. et al. (2014). “Polio-Free Certification and Lessons Learned — South-East Asia Region. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 “Progress Toward Poliomyelitis Eradication - India January 2007-May 2009.” (2009). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 Measles Report. (2016). World Health Organization. N.p., (2016).
 Poland GA, Jacobson RM. (2011). The age-old struggle against the antivaccinationists.
N Engl J Med. 2011;364(2):97–9 http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1010594
More From Thats Life [Science]
- Live Fast, Die Young: Why Some Animals Die After Mating
- New Culture, New Microbiome, New Problems
- If Only There Were a U.S. Census Question About Biodiversity…
- How An Invasive Plant Helped Fuel The Largest Wildfire You’ve Never Heard Of
- Human Eye Structure Makes No Sense…Or Does It?
- The Price of Pigment on Your Immune System
- Midnight Snacks Could Be the Death of You
- Lobster Fight Club
- Making a Murderer - A Matter of Biology?
- Got Lactase? Breaking Down the Enzyme
- Why Do I Shiver When It’s Cold?
- Crap you didn’t really need to know
- You Can't Observe A Lot Just By Watching
- What Do You Do When It's Too Hot to Move?
- 5 Fun Facts about Hormones
- Death stinks - literally
- Why the sea salt fad could be very bad
- Henry's Pockets: A Poem
- Henry's Pockets: A Poem
- Biology Superpowers: X-Ray Vision
- How to Expand Your Senses by Reading a Blog Post
- What's up with bat echolocation?
- Seeing is Believing - How Can We Visualize Tiny Colorless Bacteria?
- Saving water is no longer a matter of how short our showers are · Water balance in a man-made world
- Double Digestion in Rabbits · Why Does Mopsy Eat Her Own Poop?
- Should I say sex or gender? Pt. 2
- Should I say sex or gender? Pt. 1
- How To Catch Hard-to-Catch Fish?
- Finding the Perfect Partner
- Is your gut trying to kill your resolve? · Mind over microbe
- Why Do Mothers Mother?
- GMO! The Places You'll Go!
- New-Fangled Paleontology · Really Old Fossils, Really Strong Predators, and Cool New Tech
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought, part III
- Saving face: transplanting our most distinctive features
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought, part II
- DNA as a solution for data storage · DNA - Nature’s Hard Drive
- A Crash Course in the Coolness of Mitochondria · Mitochondria: The Underrated Organelles
- A Pollinator’s Job Description and Why We Should All Care About Them · Pollination 101
- You May Say I’m Biased, But I’m Not the Only One
- The evolution of one of the greatest medical discoveries in history. · The Path of Least Resistance: Our Relationship with Antibiotics
- Mother Nature’s History Book · Estimating the Age of Life Long-Gone
- Proprioception as a vital sense · Know Your Limb-its
- Man’s Best Artificially-Selected Friend · Your Dog is a GMO Wolf
- Better Safe Than Sorry: The Pesticide Industry is Getting a Revamp
- Sometimes scientists have to get creative in order to effectively do science – especially on a budget. · The Bizarre Shopping List of a Determined Scientist
- Insects Get Sick Too: The Study of Insect Pathology
- Our teeny tiny friends and their huge potential · Employee of the Month - Hire a Microbe to Do Your Work
- A Brief History of Evolutionary Thought - Part I
- The Effects of Custom Build Paradise · Artificial Islands
- To B(PA) Or To Not B(PA): Regulating Endocrine Disruptors
- Bioluminescence truly looks like it is nothing short of sorcery, and although this naturally occurring phenomenon is well studied and explained, that does not take away from its beauty. · Fireflies of the Ocean: Lighting up the Dark with Science
- Part II - Cases of altruism in the animal kingdom · Charity cases in nature - when are animals more likely to be altruistic?
- Part I - Why true altruism is a rare behavior in the animal kingdom · Being selfish means staying alive
- Penguins and other strange things we study from space
- Pseudoreplication and the Art of Biological Statistics
- What is wrong with my tomatoes?...And other plant disease questions · Why did orange prices increase?
- How fecal microbiota transplants can improve lives and possibly save them · The Wonders of Fecal Transplants
- The scientific facts behind the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines · Calling the Shots - Discussing Vaccines
- 3D Printing for Fun and Science
- What is wrong with my tomatoes?...And other plant disease questions · What is Phytopathology?
- Medical Mysteries Still Surrounding Zika Virus
- More ›