Vaccines and Vaccine Hesitancy
We are a global society. We don’t live in a bubble, and when someone from a foreign country travels to the US, they can potentially bring highly contagious diseases with them. It’s exponential. When you come into contact with someone, even casually, you also come into contact with the places they have been and the potential germs and viruses they may carry. Those viruses could include tuberculosis, meningitis, Hep A, Hep B…the list is endless. Knowing this, as adults, we know to take precautions so we don’t contract any of those diseases. Following that line of thought, you would assume the same would be true for our children. And most parents do take precautions against a long list of diseases that once plagued our society by getting their children vaccinated. Though not all do.
Parents opposed to vaccinating their children often use the argument that the childhood diseases vaccines prevent are “a part of childhood, and are just uncomfortable for a short time and then they are immune, so why should they be forced to vaccinate?” We won’t go into herd immunity here, it’s been discussed at length and seems to have no effect on their arguments. So let’s take a hard look at the science and the history, leaving opinion and theory out of the discussion.
First, we will point out infant and childhood vaccines prevent all of the following:
- Pertussis (Whooping cough)
- Hepatitis A & B
- HiB (Haemophilus influenzae type b)
- Pneumococcal infections, which are caused by bacteria such as pneumonia, blood infections, and bacterial meningitis
- Varicella (Chickenpox)
- Rubella (German Measles)
Instead of focusing on what some consider to be the “harmless childhood diseases” like chickenpox, measles, and mumps, even though they CAN have serious complications and are not completely harmless, we will look at a disease which has been listed as eradicated through vaccines, as well as those diseases close to eradication, and the consequences of contracting the diseases children are routinely vaccinated against. We will also discuss ingredients which are touted as dangerous and/or unethical, why they are present (if they still are), and the science behind them.
Smallpox – eradicated:
Smallpox was a serious, highly contagious disease spread by direct contact with bodily fluids. It starts with “flu-like” symptoms (a term we will see repeatedly in this article), namely high fever, fatigue, and head and backaches. It progresses to a flat rash which turns into pus-filled blisters which eventually scab over and fall off.
Consider these smallpox statistics:
- 30% of those who contracted Smallpox died
- Those who survived smallpox had permanent scars
- Some who survived smallpox were left blind
- As recently as the 1950’s, 15 million cases of smallpox were reported each year worldwide
Smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide in 1980, but it took nearly two centuries to get there. Between 1796 and 1801 Dr. Edward Jenner developed a vaccine which was highly effective at preventing the disease completely. If early adopters of the vaccine had not been willing to get the vaccine, or if it had never been developed at all, we might all still be in danger of contracting and dying from it. Because the vaccine was so successful, and there were enough people who received the vaccine, the disease was eradicated and the vaccine no longer needs to be given. That’s one less vaccine children need to receive.
Poliomyelitis, shortened to Polio in common vernacular, is one of those diseases which can either lead to a full recovery or devastating complications. Even more concerning are children who appear to recover and then develop post-polio syndrome marked by muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis anywhere from 15 to 40 years later.
While many may not even realize they have contracted polio because they feel no symptoms at all, about 25% will start out with flu-like symptoms including sore throat, fever, fatigue, nausea, headache, and stomach pain. These symptoms usually last 2 to 5 days then go away on their own. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Falls into the “Hey, it’s a little uncomfortable for a while and then it goes away” category many anti-vaccination folks like to tout. But, not so fast.
One quick google search for images of Polio will show you huge crowded hospital wards, iron lung rooms, and children with braces on their legs using walkers. These are the unfortunate ones who, despite technically being in the minority of people who contracted polio, still numbered in the tens of thousands. Paralysis caused by polio usually led to permanent disability, and could possibly lead to death if it affected the muscles which assist with breathing.
While polio has been considered eradicated in the US since 1979, there are still parts of the world where it is present. The World Health Organization recognizes cases are still present in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. According to the WHO – “as long as a single child remains infected with poliovirus, children in all countries are at risk of contracting the disease.”
Diphtheria is caused by a bacterial infection of the respiratory system. It is spread through bodily fluids, most commonly from coughing or sneezing. It initially causes those pesky flu-like symptoms:
- Sore throat
- Swollen glands in the neck
Again, not so bad, but it’s what happens after that which is pretty bad. The bacteria releases an exotoxin which destroys respiratory tissues in the throat, larynx, and nose causing a thick grey membrane (pseudomembrane) to build up and restrict breathing. Left untreated, the toxin can enter the bloodstream, causing kidney, nerve, and heart damage. Even with treatment, about 1 in 10 diphtheria patients die. Without treatment, up to half of patients can die from it.
“Diphtheria once was a major cause of illness and death among children. The United States recorded 206,000 cases of diphtheria in 1921, resulting in 15,520 deaths.” Vaccines developed in the 1920s caused the rates of diphtheria to drop quickly in the US and other countries, although it is not eradicated worldwide. In 2016 there were 7,100 cases reported to the World Health Organization, but it’s possible there were more unreported cases. Again, just because it’s not prevalent in the United States, doesn’t mean it’s not a threat.
Also known as German Measles, rubella starts with all those now familiar “flu-like symptoms” with the addition of a red rash:
- low-grade fever
- runny nose
- mild conjunctivitis (pink eye)
- general discomfort
- swollen and enlarged lymph nodes
Most people who contract Rubella recover with little to no complications. The tragic consequences occur when a pregnant woman contracts it.
The CDC reports that “Before the rubella vaccination program started in 1969, rubella was a common and widespread infection in the United States. During the last major rubella epidemic in the United States from 1964 to 1965, an estimated 12.5 million people got rubella, 11,000 pregnant women lost their babies, 2,100 newborns died, and 20,000 babies were born with congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Once the vaccine became widely used, the number of people infected with rubella in the United States dropped dramatically.” There are still 42 countries in the world which do not vaccinate against Rubella.
Most people have never had tetanus, or even known someone who contracted tetanus, because the vaccine is routinely given to both children and adults. Unlike other human-to-human transmittable diseases like measles and smallpox, the bacteria which causes tetanus finds its way into the human body via an open sore or wound, but is more likely to take hold through a deep puncture. The spores are found in animal feces, dust, and soil, and it may surprise you to find out it can enter your system through any cut, not just cuts from rusty objects. The “rusty nail” connection came about since the nerve-attacking toxin-producing tetanus bacteria (Clostridium tetani) are found outdoors, and things that can cut you, and which have been left outside, may rust. What many people do not know is this bacterial infection has no cure, can be fatal, and death is particularly brutal.
The Mayo Clinic warns you can contract tetanus through the following:
- Puncture wounds — including from splinters, body piercings, tattoos, and injection drugs
- Gunshot wounds
- Compound fractures
- Surgical wounds
- Animal or insect bites
- Infected foot ulcers
- Dental infections
- Infected umbilical stumps in newborns born of inadequately vaccinated mothers
Tetanus is often referred to as “lockjaw” because the neurotoxin causes the mouth muscles to clench and the lips to peel back in a grin. A person is unable to open their mouth to take food or water. It can cause spasms throughout the body so severe the spine and other bones can break, and muscles in the lungs can interfere with or stop breathing, leading to death. Recently, a six-year-old unvaccinated boy in Oregon got tetanus from a cut on his forehead and nearly died. His experience was excruciating, and unlike other diseases prevented by vaccines, even though he has had it once, he is not immune from contracting it again. A person can have tetanus multiple times in their lifetime, provided they survive it.
Hepatitis is a virus which affects the liver of those who contract it. There are five strains of hepatitis – A, B, C, D & E. Children are routinely vaccinated against the A & B strains, but there is currently no vaccine for Hep C. Hepatitis D can only be contracted if a person has active hepatitis B, so if a person is vaccinated against B, then D is unlikely to occur. Since hepatitis E is mostly found in countries without adequate sanitation or clean water, it is not considered a risk in the US. There is no vaccine for the E strain.
Transmitted through the oral-fecal route, hepatitis A rarely affects infants if they contract it, and they will not exhibit symptoms. However, children over the age of 6 and adults can become quite ill and require hospitalization. Children are immunized at age 12 months to avoid spreading it to others or contracting it when older. While it is not chronic, and usually resolves on its own, it can take between two to six months to recover. The symptoms are familiar and “flu-like” – including fever, fatigue, low appetite, stomach pain, diarrhea, and nausea. The additional symptoms are jaundice (a yellowing of the eyes and skin) which results when the liver cannot clear bile adequately due to it being compromised by the virus. Joint pain, dark urine, and clay-colored stools will also be present.
While Hep A is not chronic, hepatitis B can be chronic and can result in serious damage to the liver. It is transmitted through bodily fluids and, while many associate this strain of hepatitis with drug abusers and sex workers, it can also be passed from a mother to child through childbirth. For some, it is a short-term illness, but for others (usually infants and children) who become infected, it can become a life-long illness for which there is no cure. This can lead to cirrhosis of the liver, liver cancer, kidney disease or inflammation of blood vessels, all of which may lead to further complications or premature death.
Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
Pertussis is highly contagious and is still prevalent in the United States and worldwide, which means outbreaks are common. It’s a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract where the bacteria release a toxin and cause the airways to swell. This results in a “whoop”ing sound when the person tries to catch their breath in between bouts of severe coughing. These coughing bouts can last for 10 weeks (or more!). In adults, the severity of the coughing can lead to vomiting, unconsciousness, and even the breaking of ribs.
While people of all ages can be infected with Pertussis, it is most life-threatening to infants. It’s estimated about 50% of babies under the age of one who contract it will need to be treated at a hospital due to the severity of the risks involved and the potential for it to cause complications such as pneumonia, swelling of the brain (encephalopathy), convulsions, and death.
While many of the so-called “normal childhood diseases” like chickenpox and measles come with lifelong immunity following surviving a bout of it, pertussis is a bacterium, and having it once does not result in immunity. This means you can have multiple bouts of pertussis. The only means of prevention is the pertussis vaccine, and even then it can wear off as the patient ages.
If you think whooping cough is not prevalent, the CDC states “In 2012, the most recent peak year, CDC reported 48,277 cases of pertussis in the United States, but many more go undiagnosed and unreported. This is the largest number of cases reported in the United States since 1955 when public health experts reported 62,786 cases,” and “Worldwide, there are an estimated 24.1 million cases of pertussis and about 160,700 deaths per year.”
This virus is the most common cause of gastroenteritis in children and infants. The biggest risk of contracting the rotavirus is severe dehydration which can often lead to hospitalization. According to the CDC, “In the prevaccine era, an estimated 3 million rotavirus infections occurred every year in the United States and 95% of children experienced at least one rotavirus infection by age 5 years. Rotavirus infection was responsible for more than 400,000 physician visits, more than 200,000 emergency department (ED) visits, 55,000 to 70,000 hospitalizations, and 20 to 60 deaths each year in children younger than 5 years.“ This is another condition whereby having it once does not make you immune to it, but getting the vaccine as an infant can greatly reduce incidences in the general population, and lower the risk of outbreaks.
Arguably one of the most severe risks of not vaccinating comes in the form of meningitis. There are two types of meningitis – viral and bacterial. While most cases are viral, and it clears on its own in the majority of adults who contract it, most cases affect children under the age of five. In people over the age of two, it starts with our old friend “flu-like” symptoms such as:
- Sudden high fever
- Stiff neck
- Severe headache that seems different than normal
- Headache with nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or difficulty concentrating
- Sleepiness or difficulty waking
- Sensitivity to light
- No appetite or thirst
- Skin rash (sometimes, such as in meningococcal meningitis)
With infants, it’s slightly different and it’s imperative that parents know what to watch for:
- High fever
- Constant crying
- Excessive sleepiness or irritability
- Inactivity or sluggishness
- Poor feeding
- A bulge in the soft spot on top of a baby’s head (fontanel)
- Stiffness in a baby’s body and neck
Babies are at an increased risk of contracting meningitis. If an infant contracts bacterial meningitis, treatment with antibiotics should begin as soon as possible. Death can occur in as little as just a few hours, and those who recover face the possibility of lifelong complications such as deafness, brain damage, and learning disabilities.
As you can see, it’s not just “harmless childhood diseases” vaccines are used to prevent. There are deadly, debilitating illnesses as well which carry real risks if a child is not vaccinated. Taking that risk is certainly a parent’s choice, but those who have chosen not to vaccinate need to understand the deep, devastating truths about their choices.
The Ingredients and the Controversy
Frequently, vaccination-hesitant parents cite questionable or harmful ingredients in vaccines when discussing why they choose not to vaccinate. Let’s break them all down and see what all the fuss is about.
Aluminum is a naturally occurring metal, and one we are routinely exposed to in the air, our food, and water.
- Vaccines may contain small amounts of aluminum compounds, no greater than 0.85 mg/dose.
- An average adult in the United States eats about 7–9 mg of aluminum per day in their food.
- Most aluminum in food, water, and medicines leaves your body quickly in the feces.
- Much of the small amount of aluminum that does enter the bloodstream will quickly leave your body in the urine.
Aborted Fetal Tissue
One of the “ethical” arguments presented is that vaccines contain material from aborted fetuses.
The facts are a little different. The truth is certain vaccines require human cells to grow (most commonly chickenpox (varicella), rubella, hepatitis A, and rabies). The viruses for these vaccines were grown in cells taken from elective terminations of pregnancies, which took place in the early 1960s. Because the cell lines for these vaccines have been maintained in the lab, no further sources of fetal cells are needed or used. So while vaccine viruses are grown in these cells, the vaccine itself does not contain these cells.
So why did fetal cells need to be used at all? There are two simple reasons:
- Viruses grow better in cells from humans than animals (because we are trying to prevent diseases which infect humans).
- Almost all cells die after they have divided a certain number of times. For most cell lines, the limit of cell divisions is about 50; in contrast, fetal cells can go through many more divisions before dying, as is evidenced by the fact we have been using the same cell lines for over 50 years.
This is the ingredient in the MMR vaccines many point to saying it causes autism, despite the fact the study making this connection was debunked and thoroughly discredited. Numerous independent studies have proven there is no link between autism and thimerosal, the MMR vaccine, or ANY vaccine. Regardless, thimerosal is no longer used in childhood vaccines in the US. It was used for a short time in multi-use vaccine vials as a preservative.
Yes, thimerosal contains trace amounts of mercury, but it should be noted there are two kinds of mercury – ethylmercury and methylmercury. Methylmercury is the one which is most toxic to humans if ingested in large amounts. It is found mostly in certain kinds of ocean fish. On the other hand, ethylmercury was the one used as a preservative in vaccines. It is eliminated from the body quickly and easily.
Again, even though there has been no link to any harm caused by this ingredient, vaccine makers voluntarily removed thimerosal from their child vaccine products in 2001 in the US as they moved to single-dose prefilled syringes. It is, however, sometimes used in multi-dose adult flu vaccines to prevent cross-contamination. There have been no reported cases of adult-onset autism linked to the flu vaccine.
When most people hear “formaldehyde,” they think of the preservative pumped into dead bodies to preserve them for viewing before burial. Formaldehyde is a common chemical found in the air, water and soil. It also occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Our bodies produce it as well, and a newborn baby will generally have 50-60 times more naturally occurring formaldehyde in their bodies than they would ever get from routine childhood vaccines.
This common chemical has a very vital purpose in vaccines. It is used in the manufacturing process to inactivate the virus introduced in the vaccine so it does not cause illness. It is also used to detoxify bacterial toxins used in some vaccines. Though diluted during manufacturing, it’s possible some residue remains in the vaccine itself, but in exceptionally tiny amounts.
Many of the illnesses which are vaccine-preventable are often treated with antibiotics. Why their presence in a vaccine causes concern is because it is claimed some people are allergic to certain antibiotics. However, the antibiotics which most often cause allergic reactions, such as penicillins, cephalosporins, and sulfa drugs, are NOT the antibiotics found in vaccines. The ones that are in vaccines (neomycin, polymyxin B, streptomycin and gentamicin, for example) are used in the manufacturing process to avoid bacterial contamination, and therefore, like formaldehyde, trace amounts may remain in the vaccine.
In older versions of some vaccines, egg proteins were more prevalent and could cause reactions in those with egg allergies. Currently, the only vaccine using any egg protein is for influenza, and those contain so little as to cause no reaction even in those with known egg allergies. If there is a concern of adverse reaction due to a history of severe egg allergy, the patient is advised to receive the vaccination at an inpatient or outpatient medical facility and then remain under supervision for 30 minutes in case there is a need for medical intervention.
According to the CDC, the odds of any kind of reaction, even in those with known egg allergies is exceptionally remote, and should not be a consideration when deciding to get the vaccine or not.
Recently, a childhood vaccine is being tested for the prevention of Malaria. You had better believe people in Africa are lining up to have their children vaccinated against this incredibly deadly illness. In Africa alone, Malaria killed over 250,000 children in 2017, and nearly half the world’s population is at risk. For them, it’s a no-brainer. They aren’t asking if there are trace amounts of mercury in it, or if it’s preserved with thimerosal. The kicker is the vaccine is only 40% effective, but they are willing to take those odds rather than putting their children at risk.
There seems to be an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality when it comes to the diseases prevented by childhood vaccines. Due to their success, you hear very little about children dying on a daily basis from horrible illnesses like pertussis, diphtheria, rotavirus, and tetanus, not to mention the horror that was a smallpox outbreak or an iron lung ward filled with polio-stricken children. This out of sight mentality can be dangerous as we move toward trying to eradicate such illnesses.
There are no scientific reasons to not vaccinate children against diseases which may cripple them, cause serious long-term brain damage, or result in their untimely death. It seems ironic that if a child becomes ill with one of these diseases or conditions, the parents will most likely need to rely on the medical system and the pharmaceutical companies they so distrusted (at least in regard to vaccines), to treat and perhaps ultimately save their child. The ingredients in vaccines are not causing autism, and they are not poisoning people. It’s not just measles, mumps and chickenpox these vaccines prevent, and hinging an argument on these diseases is unrealistic. The evidence speaks for itself – vaccines WORK to eradicate illnesses. We have a responsibility to our society, our communities, and our families to do everything we can to keep them healthy and safe.