[Betty Fekade | Contributing Writer]
If you have been graced by luck and reside above a certain hemisphere in this little blue green planet, it might have been a while since you have heard of a large outbreak of the plague, polio, Spanish influenza or smallpox. This might have lulled some of you into a false sense of safety, some of you might have even decided to shun the evil ways of modern science and get in touch with your ancestral routes by grabbing a few roots instead.
Don’t worry, I am not judging. I appreciate the benefits of a good willow tree or a few bites off of a cinchona tree to fight those pesky little Malaria causing plasmodium. In short, we really should have an appreciation for the natural world but really, when did we decided to replace vaccines with personal hygiene? I’m sure your girlfriend appreciates that extra time you took to brush your teeth just that little bit more but that is hardly going to make a difference when the influenza virus takes a hold of you.
You my friend contain more bacteria inside your body than your own cells. In short, you are teeming with so much life, scientists now call it your human microbiome made up of bacteria, fungi and even viruses. Before you rush off and give yourself an antimicrobial enema, take a moment to appreciate this unwillingly symbiotic relationship you are involved in. Your microbiome does not mean you harm, they exist under your skin or guts minding their own business and in most cases are doing you a great deal of good.
Disease causing organisms like poliomyelitis and influenza A are not part of your biome, they are your Barbosa to your Captain Jack, the Darth Vader to your Luke Skywalker, the Dalek to your Doctor…you get the idea. They exist to antagonise your body, well at least as antagonistic as two non- sentient organisms can be. To put it in perspective, the polio virus is the couple of guys who were causing trouble in your neighbourhood and your one little fight might cause a permanent paralysis and on a ventilator for the rest of your life.
I am not writing this to remind you of the doom and gloom that occurred in human history but to draw your attention towards these diseases and their effect on human race. The Spanish influenza killed 50 to a 100 million people, smallpox has killed 300 to 500 million people and polio is still killing more than two million people a year. This is not another history case file, these diseases still affect a very large number of people. We have been battling with them for thousands of years and in that time we have come to the realisation that prevention is often better than a cure.
Are vaccinations the answer? (Spoiler alert: they are)
Vaccines are not miracles, they are often a product of years of hard work on behalf of countless men and women who dedicated their lives to ensure that a life is not lost needlessly. Vaccines might not be magic but they have managed to dramatically reduce the number of illnesses and deaths caused by polio, MMR, smallpox, whooping cough, meningitis C, diphtheria and many more. History is witness to the success of vaccines however they have not been without the adversaries. Humans are often terrified of things we do not understand and vaccines have managed to be very misunderstood indeed. Perhaps the science got lost in translation or perhaps people are unwilling to take the time to really understand these things, either way, the world is on track to facing yet another pandemic of easily preventable diseases.
The Anti-vaccine movement is not something new, people have been fighting against vaccines before they were even named vaccines but the ease at which we communicate has increased the size of the movement rapidly. The movement has even produced books, web pages and posters in the aim of spreading their message with comments like ‘’flu shots include mercury, antifreeze, phenol, animal blood, animal viruses and formaldehyde’’ tied with other conspiracy theories involving big pharmaceutical companies and the media.
In the words of Benjamin Franklin, the best lies are indeed half truths. Some of these ingredients are in fact part of some vaccinations however they are not as harmful as they are often presented to be. Vaccines do not contain the form of mercury that is associated with heavy metal poisoning but rather contain “Ethylmercury”, which is used as a preservative for some vaccines. This chemical has a very short half-life, i.e. it will only stay in the body for a few days and is therefore unable to cause any harm. Some other chemicals used in vaccines, such as formaldehyde, are indeed poisonous in large doses, as claimed by the anti-vaccination movement – but the amount contained within a vaccine is lower than the amount found naturally within our bodies, and is even used in other drugs to treat conditions like Urinary Tract Infection. However, in an attempt to address public concern, the use of formaldehyde as a preservative has been, by and large, banned in many countries. This has now been replaced with a phenol which has actually been shown to be more effective.
Other alleged ingredients include animal blood and animal virus. This no doubt stems from the animal extract that is often used to encourage the growth of microorganisms, allowing scientists to mimic a biological environment with similar conditions to the human body. Without the use of these animal products, scientists cannot test the safety of these vaccines. Furthermore, viruses can’t grow outside of a host, so animal tissue is often used in order to develop a viable vaccine.
Why was there a setback in vaccinations?
A serious blow to the vaccination movement occurred in 1998, when a former British doctor by the name of Andrew Wakefield published a paper about the possible links between the MMR vaccine and cases of autism. This allegation resulted in vaccination rates in the UK to drop to below 80%. Following this, many organisations launched research into the MMR vaccine, including the General Medical Council, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the NHS, American Academy of Pediatrics, and many more. Thousands of scientists took to their labs to ensure the safety of the children who were receiving these vaccinations.
After more than a decade of research and millions of vaccinations worldwide, it was concluded that there was in fact no link between vaccination and autism, nor had there ever been. Shadows were cast on the integrity of the results produced by Wakefield and research into the methods in which he performed his tests showed that his research was in fact an elaborate fraud. His medical license was revoked by the General Medical Council for the fraudulent paper, and his research has been thoroughly proven to be completely false. However, this has not stopped people believing in the idea, despite all the evidence against it.
Andrew Wakefield was not the only man trying to set back the vaccination movement – this new wave of anti-vaccine movement contains people who are so eager to pass on this propaganda but have no medical training or even a basic understanding of how vaccines work. They see ingredient lists and jump to conclusions before taking the time to understand the science behind it all. It would take a thesis to explain the content of each vaccines but I can safely say that lack of these vital medications has managed to lead to thousands of deaths. Between June 2007 and September 2014, the US health services have reported almost 140,000 cases of illnesses and more than 6,000 deaths due to the anti-vaccine movement. This is not a harmless internet meme, there are real casualties most of whom are often young vulnerable children.
As it stands there are only a few more words to say about this, next time your GP recommends a vaccine for you, trust that they are not trying to poison you and stop the spread of diseases by getting vaccinated and, based on all of the available research and overwhelming evidence, I can say with complete confidence that vaccines do not cause autism.
What do you think about vaccines? Let us know!