The Education of a Vaccine Skeptic

Vaccines

As a child, I viewed shots as necessary evils. Other than the initial sting, I didn’t much mind being inoculated and trusted that whoever required it must have done so for a reason. Because I had never gotten seriously ill and, unlike so many that I knew, had managed to dodge the dangerous bullet of HPV in college (I attended before a vaccine was available), my beliefs in young adulthood evolved to view vaccines as more inconvenient than beneficial. I also had not yet seen the world and the devastation that preventable infectious diseases can cause. In a word, I was naïve.

So naïve, in fact, that I began my master’s degree in public health with the idea that I would somehow uncover the ugly truth behind vaccines. Isn’t there always something exciting about trying to prove “the system” wrong? Well, as it turns out, sometimes the more you know, the more you find that you are wrong.

From 2010-2012, I studied vaccines, primarily those that protect against influenza and HPV. Here are the five most valuable nuggets of wisdom I gained from my studies:

  1. Vaccines are first and foremost public, not personal, health measures.

Vaccines, by their very nature, require selflessness. When each of us get vaccinated, we contribute to herd immunity*, the general immunity level in a population to keep pathogens from persisting. This means that we must be willing to believe that others (and their health) are just as important as we are. As an added bonus, we ourselves gain protection from the virus or bacteria as a result of the vaccine, but this is really secondary. The old saying rings in my mind, “None of us is as good as all of us.”

*For a deeper look at herd immunity: http://cid.oxfordjournals.org/content/52/7/911.full

  1. There is NO connection between the MMR vaccine and the development of autism.

Background: In 2008 The Lancet published a controversial study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield that suggested a link between MMR vaccine uptake and the onset of autism.

For personal and professional reasons (i.e. fame and fortune), Dr. Wakefield set out to destroy the reputation of the MMR vaccine and ensured that his study’s results would accomplish these purposes. We now know much more about autism spectrum disorder and potential risk factors, some of which include parents’ ages, child spacing, and nutrient stores (thus, no vaccine connection whatsoever). Additionally, Wakefield’s flawed study* was retracted officially by The Lancet in 2010.

*For more about Wakefield’s fraudulent study: http://www.bmj.com/content/342/bmj.c7452

  1. You CANNOT get influenza from the flu vaccine, regardless of the type of vaccine administered.

Background: Currently, there are two types of seasonal flu vaccines*: the standard flu shot and the nasal spray.

While there are variations of the classic flu shot, the formulations available contain either (1) inactivated/killed flu viruses or (2) no flu viruses at all. Although the nasal spray does contain live flu viruses, they are severely weakened and cannot infect you with the virus. Because the nasal spray enters the nose (where the flu virus typically begins), it activates an immediate immune response, so very mild symptoms may appear.

For a closer look into seasonal flu vaccines: http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/keyfacts.htm

  1. Adjuvants are beneficial in vaccines and increase their effectiveness.

Background: Adjuvants that are not naturally occurring are included in many vaccines, though not all, to improve our body’s ability to fight off the virus or bacteria that the vaccine is designed to protect against.

Thimerosal*, arguably the most controversial adjuvant given the panic that Wakefield’s study caused in parents across the globe, was taken out of childhood vaccines in 2001. There are also seasonal flu vaccine options that do not contain it.

*If you are concerned about the ethylmercury in thimerosal, I highly recommend learning more about how it differs from methylmercury: http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/concerns/thimerosal/index.html

  1. Infected individuals may spread viruses even in the absence of symptoms.

Children, elderly, and those with compromised immune systems stand to lose the most when those with robust systems decide not to get vaccinated or fail to complete a vaccine’s full series. Viruses like HPV are especially frightening, as the high-risk HPV strains rarely present symptoms in males and no routine test exists for detecting them. Additionally, take a look at any international measles outbreak* and you will most certainly find imported infections stemming from unvaccinated travelers; it is both fascinating and devastating to learn the details.

*To learn about current and past measles outbreaks in the U.S.: http://www.cdc.gov/measles/cases-outbreaks.html

One of the most rewarding parts of my motherhood journey has been in encouraging women in public health issues. On several occasions, I have been asked to share what I know about vaccines, given my research background. Although many mothers that I have encountered are receptive to new insights, several, most surprisingly, allow misinformation or some deeply emotional past experience to hold power over their logical self. In these circumstances, the theme is most often one of control.

Earlier this year my son celebrated eighteen months of life and received his MMR vaccine shortly thereafter. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think of Wakefield’s study and the theories that mothers are daily creating about vaccines. For me, however, the science behind vaccines triumphs over any convenient narrative that my imagination wants to believe. There is also an amazing peace in knowing that my children are literally making the world a better and healthier place. And, as a mother, could I ask for anything more?

[Please note that the above discussion is by no means comprehensive but is designed to offer a glimpse into the rich insights that I gained through my own education and research experiences.]

5 thoughts on “The Education of a Vaccine Skeptic

  1. So well said, Lauren. I think there’s another aspect to the anti-vax movement that gets a bit lost – the control paradox and irony. (Oops, I guess that’s two things) In modern life, we have at the same time unprecedented control, or at least the illusion of it, than ever before as well as a complete lack of it. We have choices upon choices (where to send your kid to school, organic vs. conventional, when to have children, check your smartphone and know when, exactly, it’s going to rain this afternoon and shape your schedule around it.) We also have much fewer external controls on our lives –nobody gets drafted, we’re not nearly as regimented around the religious morality of others, etc. Yet all this control and informational empowerment also leads us to see how much of our lives are still totally beyond our control – our democracy isn’t really reflective of what most of society wants, just what the people who pay the politicians want, disease outbreaks still occur along with hurricanes and mass shootings. The environment is contaminated with the by-products of modernity and all of us, no matter how much we exfoliate, marathon, juice cleanse, all of us, and our kids, are going to die one day. Nothing you do about that last point. And that’s the control paradox – the more of it you think you have, the more you realize you don’t really have it at all.
    So there’s a real appeal, I think, to believing you can jump on the Google, get your ‘facts’ that tell you the system is wrong, and ‘think for yourself’ and not get your kid vaccinated. It feels like you’re taking control of your child’s health. Afterall, it’s not a passive act to either vaccinate or not vaccinate – you get to choose, and sometimes it feels good to say “no, I don’t want that.”
    The irony, which you and I understand as public health professionals, is that as herd immunity breaks down (and it’s clearly breaking down), there’s no better way to be in control of your child’s health (to say nothing of your own) than to vaccinate. It’s a proactive step you can take to protect their health. Yes, there is a slight chance of a complication, but as stated above, there are still things beyond our control, and the odds of contracting a vaccine-preventable disease with devastating consequence is more likely as herd immunity breaks down. But to the anti-vaxer, this doesn’t matter. They’re taking ‘control’ by leaving it all up to chance. Like I said, irony.
    Anyway, love your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have a hard time believing anything released by the CDC or the FDA. Too much corruption and too much money involved. I’m not saying I am a conspiracy theorist. But, I will play devil’s advocate.

    There is a lot of controversial information to everything you talked about. A lot of information that people have attempted to shove under the rug. Doctors who put out anything against what the FDA says are denounced as incompetent. Their research is destroyed. Their reputation gets trashed. Very interesting to me.

    Heck, even recently a number of doctors who have completely turned their backs on vaccines and big pharmacy in general, have died under questionable circumstances. And all of them have been recent within a week or two of each other. Some of the investigations have found evidence of murder.

    I think when your industry is one that only people with numerous PhD s can truly understand, you start getting powerful. You feed whatever information you want to the public and they eat it up because they don’t know what any of it means. The pharm companies and FDA make all the money, get funding for research, and tax breaks. Your vaccines are in their hands. If I was a betting man, I’d say if they make all their money on medications for treatment of diseases, they probably aren’t going to push as hard for medication that cures. There’s not as much money in that. They are literally in control of your health.

    Sure, you can say I take “control” by leaving it up to chance which you think is ironic, but I’ll bet anything I am healthier than you are. I’ll bet I get sick less than you. I’ll bet that my vaccine-less self will make no impact on your “herd immunity”. I’ll bet that the OVERUSE of broad spectrum antibiotics and yearly vaccines will be the ultimate impact to the “herd”. You talk about politicians getting paid and yet, you don’t think pharm companies and the FDA are in the same corruption? Until I trust the people making the vaccine, I can do without.

    Sure, people can try and discredit everything I have said. But it goes both ways. I think that’s the worst part. No one knows for sure what is really right. You simply can’t 100% trust any information you are given these days. To me that’s depressing.

    Anyways, very interesting topic in healthcare and choice in master’s degrees.

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    1. Science by its very nature is not a pursuit of perfection, which motivates scientists, doctors, and researchers to make new discoveries and seek new solutions. The idea is to keep learning and building upon what we already know. I am married to a scientist, and I can tell you that it is one of the most thankless professions when collective time, effort, and sacrifice are considered. Also, I can say with confidence that the scientific community would LOVE for the public to be more scientifically literate, as it would help keep some of the “alternative” theories (like some of those you mentioned) from persisting. In fact, I consciously chose to include CDC resources over peer-reviewed articles in my post for that very reason.

      I respect your perspective and hope that you won’t give up on vaccines just yet.

      A few years ago, I held the hand of a woman dying of cervical cancer due to complications from HPV. I will never forget the question that she asked me: “Why would anyone not get the shot?”

      Like

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