Combating Misinformation About Vaccines

Working in health care requires me to constantly help the doctors educate and inform those who seek treatment.  Patients are always missing the forest for the trees, focusing on some minor possibility while ignoring obvious larger causes for diseases.  We have been battling this year’s epidemic of pertussis.  Pertussis, that’s whooping cough for pity’s sake!  It’s a highly contagious bacterial disease dangerous to the very young that we have been capable of eradicating safely for decades through vaccination.  Why did it happen?  Because people believe all kinds of crap, nonsense and myth instead of actual science, that’s why.  Fear rules, people get needlessly sick, and a few parents get to bury their infants as a result.  These are preventable deaths, caused by willful ignorance of fact.

I can accept that some people hold religious views against taking medicines.  Some prefer to have their children home-schooled for a variety of reasons.  I accept that too.  Everyone has the right to accept or decline any medical treatment at all times. What bothers me is when people make assertions about the dangers of vaccines based on anecdotal evidence, when scientific studies and long medical practice has proved the assertions to be untrue.  Vaccines are the cheapest, safest form of prevention of childhood diseases ever devised in all history.  Statistically, they save more lives every year, at lower cost and with fewer risks than any other kind of medical treatment.  Those are facts.  You aren’t entitled to have opinions about fact.

It wasn’t always this way, having to educate patients about vaccines AFTER they get so sick they run to the doctor.  Prior to the 1940s, pertussis used to kill thousands each year. People thanked God when the vaccine came on the scene.  It cut the rate of disease by more than 90%!  Folks back then knew by experience that once a baby developed the cough indicating the contagious stage, there wasn’t much in the way of treatment anyone could provide.  THERE STILL ISN’T.  Medicines will not alleviate the symptoms, and all antibiotics do is help to prevent an infected infant from spreading the disease to others.  A young pertussis victim can cough for a month or more, all day and all night, and without the ability to rest some will cough themselves to death.  Luckier ones will only develop pneumonia, or have seizures.

What’s the biggest fear we hear over and over about having infants vaccinated?  People are afraid of mercury poisoning, because multi-use vials of vaccines contain thimerosal, a preservative that’s a mercury-based compound.  Thimerosal was developed as a bactericide, and it’s very effective.  Back in the days when vaccines were more subject to bacterial contamination during manufacture, shipping or storage, it was found to be the best way to keep the supply of medicine safe.  It’s also much cheaper to make multi-use vials of vaccines.  But we don’t vaccinate infants and children from multi-use vials.  We haven’t for decades.  Little ones always get the preservative-free version.  So do people with any kind of immune system compromise, as well as any patient who requests a preservative-free shot.

Let’s go back to the fears about mercury poisoning.  Mercury’s not good for the human body.  We agree on that.  Why is there mercury loose in the world where we can end up ingesting it?  Half of it comes from natural sources such as volcanoes.  The other half comes from human industrial activity.  Two-thirds of the mercury humans put into the environment results from the stationary combustion of coal.  There’s also some from refining gold and making cement, steel and other products.  Those most at risk for mercury poisoning are workers in those industries, who may be exposed to it in the form of toxic vapors.

So, how do the rest of us that are not coal and steelworkers get too much mercury? The mercury from human and natural sources goes up into the atmosphere, comes down with rain into oceans, rivers and lakes, and is absorbed by the smallest organisms.  Fish eat those, and some kinds of fish absorb and retain more mercury than others.  Then we catch and eat the fish.  You are thousands of times more likely to get mercury poisoning from eating those fish than you are from the itty-bitty amount in a vaccine, which you can always avoid by request.  Want to lower the levels of toxic mercury in your world?  Stop voting for any legislator that supports increasing coal technology, and quit eating any kind of tuna!

Some parents have other concerns about the pertussis vaccine based on old information proven false and inaccurate.  In the 1970s and 80s there were news reports about a condition called pertussis vaccine encephalopathy, an infant brain injury supposedly caused by the shots.  Negative publicity and fear mongering created the anti-vaccine movement, immunization rates fell here and in other countries, and the predictable result was a dramatic increase in incidences of the disease.  The rate of this so-called side effect was still incredibly small, 50 or so cases out of 15 million immunizations, but public misconceptions and increased difficulty in getting liability insurance drove vaccine manufacturers away from making the original form of the pertussis vaccine.  No studies ever proved a link between the DPT vaccine and brain damage, and the condition itself turned out to be an infantile form of epilepsy.

There are even some people who irrationally cling to the disproven belief that vaccines like this one can cause autism.  First off, the claim about vaccine-induced autism was attributed only to the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) shots, not the pertussis vaccine.  Secondly, the entire myth about the harm caused by the MMR vaccine rested on a single 1998 scientific paper published in The Lancet by a guy named Andrew Wakefield.  Wakefield published fraudulent data.  He lost his license over it, the Lancet has retracted it, and there’s litigation going on in several countries over deaths from the diseases, which increased once parents began avoiding vaccination.  There’s nothing scientific connecting vaccines to autism.

There is quite a bit of nonsense out there written by people who don’t understand that two coincident facts don’t prove a cause and effect relationship.  Saying that vaccination caused your baby’s condition because a diagnosis came after getting the shot proves nothing.  One thing happened before the other is all.  The infant schedule for the MMR vaccination is at 12-15 months.  Autism symptoms are sometimes identifiable before then, but quite often not until age two or three.  Many autistic children who’ve been vaccinated will have gotten them prior to the age they could be diagnosed.

Scientists in Japan came up with a newer, more effective formula for the combined Tetanus/Diptheria/acellular Pertussis vaccine, now designated “TDaP” in 1981.  That’s the shot we’ve used in the U.S. since 1991.  It doesn’t confer lifetime immunity, but it will protect 71-85% of infants for about six years, enough time to get them past the age where the disease is likely to cause serious or permanent damage.  It’s important to get follow-up boosters at ages 4-6, 11-12, and again as adults, to prevent re-transmission to the growing number of non-immunized infants.  People have continued to be misinformed about vaccines since the 80s, so pertussis cases have been increasing every year.  It’s now the only vaccine-preventable disease in the U.S. with rising death rates.

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27 Comments

Filed under Ethics and Morality, Technology

27 responses to “Combating Misinformation About Vaccines

  1. This is a really important topic. Having seen pertussis in infants first hand, I can’t believe that irresponsible individuals are putting babies at risk for this horrible disease.
    There was a great article on combating anti-vaccine myths here which you might like.
    http://www.skepticnorth.com/2012/04/antivax-101-tactics-and-tropes-of-the-antivaccine-movement/

  2. Pingback: Med-Updates.com

  3. galenpearl

    As the parent of an autistic child, I naturally was interested in the vaccine/autism connection when it first came out. But really, it doesn’t make sense when you think that kids in Europe are getting vaccinated, too, and yet Europe is not seeing the upswing of autism that we are in the US. At least, I think that’s true.

    At any rate, I never took that allegation too seriously.

    As for vaccines, I remember standing in line at a school to go in and get a sugar cube with the polio vaccine in it.

    My son came down with chicken pox one week before his appointment to get the vaccine!

    With every vaccine that has come along, parents who feared for their child’s health were very grateful, I think. It’s too bad that children are being exposed to things so easily prevented.

    • So far as we know right now, autism (and the spectrum) have complex causes including a set of genetic mutations possibly reacting to some environmental factors. There’s much that isn’t understood yet, however it is clearly weighted way more on the genetic side than environmental causes after birth. It may even be an interaction between the way we’ve altered food, air and water and how that affects our reproductive cell making. And you are right in your point about other nations and the vaccines. In developing countries they ONLY get the multi-use vials, yet their autism rates are less than ours.

  4. Boy, you are brave to take on this topic. I appreciate your medical, factual information on this confusing topic where there is a lot of misinformation. I did not know that you could request a preservative free, thus mercury free, vaccine. I doubt many people do.

    My problem with the vaccines is that the schedule, I think, introduces too much for a very young little body with a very immature system to handle.. Perhaps, the schedule should be revised so as not to overwhelm little bodies.

    All I know is that I am very glad my kids are older and I do not have to wrestle with this issue today.

    • Well, here in my little town, people request the preservative-free version more often than not. I don’t know how well that’s understood elsewhere, so you may be right, Deb. I would also agree with you about giving medicines to the very young if we were talking about antibiotics or some other kinds that have been over-prescribed in the past. However, vaccines do not work by overwhelming. They trigger the immune system to produce specific antibodies to confer immunity (of varying durations) to specific disease pathogens. It’s a very subtle tweak compared to how most medications work.

      The most common negative side effect is a day or two of warmth and redness at the injection site, which makes a baby uncomfortable. Most babies don’t even get that. The schedule for giving the shots in infancy and childhood is set by when getting the diseases would put the babies at higher risk.

      (Did you really think I was brave to pick this? I just got a bit tired of talking to local parents with sick kids who had been given bad info.) Thanks for weighing in, Debbie.

  5. Reblogged this on Cake for Your Thoughts and commented:
    This is something I’ve been wanting to write about for a while, but you have done an excellent job. I’m in my first year of medical school and have seen too much factual data to not get fired up about this topic. Thanks for writing!!!!

  6. This is so interesting! I remember being a child and not wanting to get vaccinated yet being forced by my parents. I also remeber some kids not having permission from their parents to have one. To think some children die because of this. It’s so upsetting!

    Great post!

    Katie

  7. ‘What bothers me is when people make assertions about the dangers of vaccines based on anecdotal evidence, when scientific studies and long medical practice has proved the assertions to be untrue’

    Damn right! I’m practically cheering you from my chair. Although I do tend to pass out after most vaccinations… it’s better than the alternative!

  8. I think my grandmother had whooping cough, messed up her heart for life. That was before the vaccine. Fascinating stuff!

    • Thanks, Lisa. (Don’t know why your comment was in the spam-catcher.) These childhood diseases were terrible scourges in our grandparents day. Pertussis is one of the most virulently communicable ever known. One cough from an infected person, and you catch it through airborne transmission.

  9. Cat

    Ugh, sometimes I really feel like the world is going backwards. Scratch the “sometimes;” it’s turning into “often.”

  10. Great post. I am so sick of the vaccine/Autism debate. Some people are absolutely militant about it and have never even heard the name Wakefield. It’s irritating. I understand the need to place blame, to have an answer, for why your child has Autism–the need to feel you’re preventing others from suffering the devastating effects of this disorder. But encouraging people to not vaccinate their children based on a bad study and an unfortunate coincidence? That won’t prevent Autism. It will, however, greatly increase your chances of having an Autistic child die of a disease that shouldn’t even exist.
    April is Autism Awareness Month and I’ve read dozens of blog posts lately touting this nonsense. It really pisses me off. If these bloggers want people to be “aware,” they need to do their homework, become “aware” of the facts themselves, and stop scaring the bejeezus out of people.

    Sorry for the long comment, but this is an issue near and dear to my heart. I know you understand. ;-)

    • I appreciate your passion. I like it when readers offer longer reactions that are coherent! There’s so much ignorance around. I have compassion about the fear, but puh-leeze, reason does have limits.

  11. lizfruitberry

    Mikey, What do you think about the new vaccine they are giving to young girls to stop cervical cancer? Is Whooping Cough deadly to 12 year old? I wonder if that was included with the shots or if I have to request it? What do you think about the pneumonia and Shingles vaccines? Should I get those?

    Great Post. Very informative! Thanks 😄

    • All good questions, Liz. I was only writing about one kind of vaccine mainly, the Tetanus, Diptheria, acellular Pertussis shot (TDaP). It protects against those three diseases only, and also only confers immunity (from the “T” and “P” parts) for an average of 6 years. Pertussis is not ordinarily lethal to anyone over age six, but it’s an extremely communicable and contagious germ, and if you get it you can pass it on to any infant you come near for up to two months! All it takes is a very, very small airborne particle from a sneeze, cough or even hearty laughter.

      That other vaccine recommended by the CDC for young girls, is now also recommended for boys 11-12 as well. It’s to protect against infection by several types of HPV (Human Papilloma Virus), which cause cervical and anal cancers, but also genital warts. This is the most common sexually-transmitted infection in the U.S. 80% of all sexually active, non-immunized women contract some form of HPV by age 50, though not all will develop disease. The main reason for boys to be getting it is to reduce re-transmission of the viruses to women. The vaccine is a series of 3 shots, and you get it once. It doesn’t protect against any other diseases, or even all forms of HPV, but it’s far better than nothing, and like other recommended vaccines comes with minimal risk of any kind of negative side effect. Here’s more info:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HPV_vaccine

      As far as which vaccines you should get at any age, that’s a question you should ask of your own doctor. Different patients are in different risk groups depending on each one’s personal history and what conditions they live with (like asthma, COPD etc.), not only age and gender. Cost is a consideration as well. Unless your MD can justify it or you have a “Cadillac” insurance plan, the Shingles vaccine is over 200 bucks!

      Everyone who is not allergic to a component of the vaccines should get annual seasonal flu shots. That is, unless you don’t care if you GET the flu and become capable of transmitting it to others. Those are cheap, easy and way more effective than doing nothing, again, with close to zero risk. Most people with the flu don’t die from it, but it aint exactly my idea of fun, and some infants, seniors and those with compromised immune systems DO die from it each year.

  12. Thanks for this well written post. I have a family member who is autistic and I wholeheartedly support vaccines. People will die needlessly, while hoping to prevent a condition (autism) that is unrelated to vaccines.

    • You’re welcome, and I agree with you that prevention is important. The best ways are developing better tests to ID the spectrum of conditions, and doing what we can to stop poisoning the Earth, because I believe that’s a factor affecting all mutational genetics.

  13. Autism’s on the rise because of misdiagnosis. I heard a doctor talk about how parents will bring kids in and get prescription drugs based on anecdotes. Physicians perform no brain activity tests, they just hear a story about the child’s behavior and prescribe a behavior modifier.

    ADHD is not a disorder. It’s a short attention span. Just because someone’s brain works slightly differently doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Einstein’s brain worked differently, that’s why it’s been preserved for study.

    • I’ve never once worked with or for a doctor who would diagnose any drug affecting brain chemistry without prior qualifying tests or referral out to a psychological specialist. That includes sleeping pills, anti-anxiety medications and anti-depressants. To do so would inevitably make the provider vulnerable to lawsuits for malpractice if any unanticipated side effects or negative medicine interractions take place. If you know a doctor who did that, it would be a behavior reportable to their county review board. Because it’s such an obviously risky thing, I question the veracity of the anecdote.

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