Vaccines in a nutshell. What you need to know to laugh at anti-vaxxers plots
The spreading of information has never been so easy and massive like it is nowadays. Unfortunately, one of the consequences is that also fake and misleading news are easy to spread. It is dangerous when wrong information has impact on people health, and a paramount demonstration of this is the effect of anti-vaxxers campaigns. Few ignorant fanatics purposely spread scary and shocking information about vaccines, therefore more and more people who are not enough informed about the topic stopped vaccinating their children. This resulted with a rebirth of diseases (like measles) that were almost extinct until few years ago.
In this post I will summarize evidences to dismantle the main anti-vaxxers’ plots against vaccines. Because this topic is extremely relevant, I ask you to share the post with your contacts, and comment below if you have any concern about what I wrote.
What are vaccines?
We could define a vaccine a training for the human body, to stimulate the production of antibodies against a certain virus or, in some cases, a bacteria. Vaccines contain fragments of broken pathogen (therefore completely harmless), or dead in its entire form (again, harmless), so that the immune system can meet for the first time the “neutralized” enemy, and prepare the proper defenses (antibodies) prior to a potential, real attack. If a virus invades an organism that is vaccinated against it, it would face an army of antibodies that would defeat it, and the disease would be avoided. Smallpox was the first disease eradicated thanks to vaccination, and it was followed by many others that disappeared or became significantly less dangerous thanks to vaccines (poliomyelitis, rubella, tetanus, pertussis, measles, diphtheria, mumps and meningitis). Moreover, thanks to vaccines it is also possible to prevent the onset of some types of cancer that are connected to a viral infection: for example, the vaccine against papilloma virus prevents between 70% and 80% of uterine carcinoma.
Who invented the vaccines? And when?
The first vaccine was invented in 1796, by the English country doctor Edward Jenner. At the end of the 18th century, hundreds of thousands of people died every year because of smallpox. Dr. Jenner observed that cow milkers exposed to bovine cowpox did not get sick of the human variant (smallpox), which is much more serious and lethal. In 1796, Dr. Jenner injected an 8-year-old kid some material from a pustule of cowpox. A few months later, the boy was injected with smallpox and, as expected by the doctor, the boy did not get sick. In this way, Jenner discovered that it is possible to prevent an infectious disease through vaccination, and this laid the foundations of immunology. This discovery was so sensational that in England, in 1840, vaccination against smallpox became mandatory. The final goal was reached in 1980, when the World Health Organization declared defeated the disease.
Below you can see a table showing the year when a virus was associated with a disease (red vertical bar) and the year when a vaccination for the disease was made available in the US (green vertical bar).
If vaccines immunize, why do millions of people get flu every year?
Because evolution never stops. In the same way men can become immune to “invaders”, also viruses try to find ways to become immune to our defenses, trying to circumvent them. Every year, researchers try to predict which flu-causing viral strain will be the one that will try to infect us, and attempt to prepare an effective vaccine against it (there are hundreds of strains of flu viruses, and unfortunately a vaccine can be prepared for only one or few specific strains). Sometimes the vaccine is not fully efficient, and sometimes the prediction is wrong. This is not the case for other diseases, for which a stable vaccine is available since decades.
I heard that vaccines cause autism. Is that true or is it a giant lie?
It is a lie, and this plot has a precise origin. It was born in 1998, when the British physician and surgeon (now disbarred) Andrew Jeremy Wakefield published on the journal “The Lancet” an article in which he supported a link between the trivalent measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and the appearance of autism and intestinal diseases. In 2004, reporter Brian Deer proved on Sunday Times that the study was a colossal fraud. Here are the details and events to follow:
- Wakefield was paid to publish false data to support the legal proceedings of a lawyer against pharmaceutical companies that produce vaccines. (http://briandeer.com/mmr/st-dec-2006.htm)
- Wakefield had a personal interest in discrediting the trivalent vaccine: in fact, he patented a different vaccine system that he wanted to be used instead of the trivalent one. (https://patentimages.storage.googleapis.com/95/2c/dd/d213863a28326a/US6534259.pdf)
- In the next 4 years since the publication of the study, no one was able to confirm Wakefield’s data. (Https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC119436/)
- After the scandal, most of the study’s co-authors withdrew their support to Wakefield. (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4743-controversial-mmr-and-autism-study-retracted/)
- The British General Medical Council (GMC) began an investigation into Wakefield, and discovered that the doctor had subjected autistic children to unnecessary invasive interventions (lumbar punctures, colonoscopies) and had acted without the approval of an ethics committee. (Https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC381348/)
- On January 28, 2010, the charges were tried, including four episodes of dishonesty and 12 episodes of abuse on mentally disadvantaged children. (http://briandeer.com/solved/gmc-charge-sheet.pdf)
- Following the outcome of the investigation, the magazine “The Lancet” immediately published a complete retraction of Wakefield’s article, pointing out that the contents had been falsified by the author. (Http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(10)60175-4/fulltext)
Brian Deer published in the years to come other articles in which he explained Wakefield’s elaborate fraud, describing how he wanted to take advantage of the fear of vaccines that he instilled into people. Indeed, despite the fraud was uncovered quickly, the number of vaccinations in the United Kingdom decreased significantly, resulting in an increase in measles cases, with serious, and sometimes lethal, consequences.
The cause of autism is still unknown, although it is now certain that it resides in a spectrum of developmental disorders resulting from mutations in DNA (duplications, deletions and translocations of chromosomal segments), and not in vaccines. I will focus on autism in another post, because it is a topic that requires more than a couple of lines.
I read a list of substances claimed to be present in vaccines, and they sound really scary!
People are afraid of what they don’t know, so it is normal to be suspicious when you read names of unknown substances that are supposed to be injected into your body. This is one of the most favorite anti-vaxxers strategy: to scare people by spreading lists of unknown substances, and let fear do the rest. Let’s see some examples.
Initially, Thimerosal had been accused of being cause of autism. This substance is an antiseptic agent, in particular it’s a fungicide. It has been used since the 1930s not only in vaccines, but also in anti-poison sera, in disinfectant solutions for ophthalmological and nasal use and in tattoo inks. It is used in vaccines to allow the preservation of multi-dose vials. Thimerosal chemical structure contains a mercury atom. More precisely, it is not methylmercury, a toxic agent, but ethylmercury which, despite the similarity in the name, is not toxic and is easily eliminated by the body. Although the correlation between Thimerosal and autism has never been demonstrated, since the 2000s this substance has been removed from vaccines, pleasing the unfounded fear of people. Did this change anything for us? Absolutely not. Who pays the consequences of Thimerosal absence from vaccines are people who live in the most disadvantaged areas, like Africa. This is because single-dose vials of vaccine are more expensive to produce and transport.
A small thought about toxic substances: it is always important to look at the context. Sodium and chlorine are among the most toxic and lethal substances present on Earth. But we do all put salt on French fries, right? Finally, about mercury, do you know where methylmercury (the toxic one) can be found? In tuna. Think about it next time you buy those tuna cans at the supermarket.
Now let’s talk about hydrochloric acid. Yes, because it’s on the list of vaccine ingredients. It’s a very dangerous substance, isn’t it? Not in this case. Because in vaccines it is used to correct the pH to neutral (remember the contextualization of the substances?).
It is very difficult to find a substance that is always harmful or beneficial. In fact, the effect depends not only on the context, but also on the amount of the substance. Water can also be lethal (in 2004 a woman in the United Kingdom died after drinking 6 liters in 3 hours). All substances with a strange or scary name present in vaccines are in far lower limits than those established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so they are all safe. Take formaldehyde, for example. It is known to be a carcinogen, but the infinitesimal amount present in vaccines cannot be alarming. Formaldehyde is used to remove the toxicity of tetanus and diphtheria toxins, and to inactivate polio virus, influenza, hepatitis A, etc. Not all vaccines contain formaldehyde. During the final phase of vaccine preparation, formaldehyde is eliminated, which is why only minimal traces remain, without consequences on health.
Finally, there are the anti-vaxxers-copyrighted substances. What are these? Substances that are present in vaccines only according to anti-vaxxers. In fact, vaccines do not contain antifreeze liquid, monkey kidney or tissues of aborted fetuses. That is just crap invented to scare people. Ingredient of vaccines are not secret, so you can easily find them. Anyway, I recommend to you to choose only official sites (WHO, FDA) to gather information.
Why is high vaccine coverage important?
Because a vaccine does not protect only the person who receives it, but leads to herd immunity. In this way, people who are resistant to the vaccine (few, but they exist), or people who cannot be vaccinated due to allergies or immunological diseases, or are too young, are protected in an indirect way. If the virus cannot penetrate a population, even people who cannot be vaccinated will automatically become immune. But to achieve this, it is necessary that everyone else is directly vaccinated.
Why are vaccines mandatory?
A law exists only when there is a crime. If no one committed murders, there would be no law punishing the crime. For example, in Italy (my home country), vaccination became mandatory after herd coverage dropped in recent years, due to misinformation. As I already said, misleading information in health-related issues has dramatic waterfall effects. Imagine that someone, to play a bad joke, shouts “bomb!” in a train station. People next to him/her would flee terrified and in a short time there would be hundreds of people running without even knowing why. Few people started spreading lies about vaccines, and the population began to worry and stopped vaccinating their children. The truth is that vaccines save lives, and it is essential that vaccination coverage remains high, as explained a few lines above. In order to prevent the collapse of vaccination coverage, vaccines have been made mandatory in Italy. There was no alternative to that. Anyway, together with the promulgation of the law, it is wise to dedicate an intense information campaign on vaccines, to make people understand that the law doesn’t want to impose anything against the interest of the community. Of course there is a major problem if also the President of a country believes to anti-vaxxers plots…
Why are vaccines necessary if humanity survived without them for thousands of years? Maybe it is true that they are a conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies…
Let’s see one thing at the time. It’s true, humanity survived through the centuries without vaccines. But at what cost? Have you ever paid attention to the curve of population growth? Did you notice that the demographic explosion began only in the twentieth century, exactly at the same time of vaccination plans diffusion? I would like to ask those who oppose vaccines, if they are willing to live in an era without vaccines, with the risk of dying from a scratch. These people make me laugh. They sound like those old men and women who regret the “good old years” of the ’70s and’ 80s. Would they be willing to go back in time, giving up cell phones, internet, satellite navigators and all the comforts available nowadays? I doubt they would survive without the possibility to twit daily their complaints.
Are vaccines a conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies?
Clearly companies earn on vaccines, like any company earns on the products they make. But why would there be a plot behind it? Do you think that pharma companies gather together in great secrecy to harm humanity? For what reason? And how? Can you imagine Nike, Adidas and Reebok get together and decide to produce shorts with seams made with a thread that irritates skin? It would not make sense, in the same way it doesn’t make sense that competing pharma companies plot together against humanity. On the contrary, it would be a better business for pharma companies that people get sick all the time. In fact, in this case they would have to to buy more products to cure themselves – at their own expense – instead of getting a life-lasting vaccine that in most cases is entirely or partially subsidized by the national health system. What’s your opinion about?
Below I enclose two pictures taken from https://ourworldindata.org/vaccination that demonstrate the effectiveness of vaccines: the first shows the reduction in percentage of cases (cases) and deaths (deaths) after the introduction of vaccines.
The graph below indicates instead the decrease of deaths caused by diseases for which a vaccine is available.
Are you still doubting about efficacy of vaccines?