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:
- 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
- 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 Additionally, Wakefield’s flawed study* was retracted officially by The Lancet in 2010.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
- 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
- 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
- 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.]