Why should you vaccinate yourself and your children?

Vaccines are a hot topic. Vaccines brings up lots of discussion, lots of false information, and a vitriolic passion rarely seen in matters of science and pseudoscience. My first post on this topic was about vaccines, what they are, and what they do. This post will address some of the false information and controversy (with an added bonus of bringing in my lovely sister’s fabulous point of view as a mom of two!) My final post will address a question I was asked about whether or not vaccinations are needed after a stem cell transplant.


By Photo Credit: James Gathany Content Providers(s): CDC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Senate Bill 277, which eliminates the personal belief exemption for childhood vaccines, is causing an uproar in California. Signed into law on June 30, 2015, this law requires parents to vaccinate their children before they can be sent to school or daycare. This is such a huge deal because so many parents have decided that they should have the choice as to whether or not to vaccinate their children.  I think much of what prevents a parent from vaccinating their children are misconceptions about what dangers are associated with vaccinations and the fear associated with these misconceptions.  Let’s address a few of those here.

  1. Vaccines DO NOT cause autism. This damaging study done by Andrew Wakefield allegedly found a connection between the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (which, by the way, once this vaccine started to regularly be used in the 1960s, cases of measles dropped from 100,000s per year to less than 200 per year in the 1990s).  Subsequently it was found not only were the results not reproducible, but Wakefield falsified the results (please read this paper for more of the details). Unfortunately, the damage had already been done and this myth still prevents parents from vaccinating their children.
  2. Vaccines do save lives – but only if people are vaccinated.  The diseases that vaccines prevent are incredibly dangerous. Smallpox used to kill one in seven children in Europe, and now it has been completely eradicated by vaccination. I already mentioned how many children no longer get measles because of vaccination, but it should be mentioned what a an awful and contagious disease this is and in the 30% of people who have complications, they may become blind, develop brain inflammation or pneumonia among others. And now measles is reemerging from lack of vaccination (read about the Disney World outbreak here). Many of today’s parents grew up in a era without these deadly diseases (because everyone was vaccinated against them) and because of this may not realize the dangers posed by the diseases they choose not to vaccinate against.
  3. There are two main ways to be protected from these diseases, get vaccinated or rely on herd immunity, which only works if a large percentage (the exact percentage depends on number of factors) of people are vaccinated.  This herd immunity is also what protects people who cannot be immunized or have decrease immune system function, including newborns and pregnant women. Herd immunity will not work for you and your family if people stop getting vaccinated. (Learn more about herd immunity here).
  4. Safety – this is obviously a concern to all people. Certainly, vaccines can cause side effects, as can many other drugs, and some people may have allergies to the vaccines, such as people allergic to eggs because flu vaccine is made in eggs.  However no study (that has been performed properly) has linked components in vaccines to autism or other diseases. One great example is the debate surrounding mercury as a filler in vaccines.  In the early 1900s, the preservative thimerosal, which contains ethyl mercury, was added to vaccines to prevent infections caused by bacteria sometimes contaminating the vaccines.  Thimerosal has been removed from vaccines, however even if now, this ethyl mercury can easily be expelled from the body (versus methyl mercury which is the mercury that builds up in fish and can cause problems). Further studies have not found any connection between thimerosal and autism (read more in a news article here or scientific publications here). Unfortunately, details of the science are not incredibly interesting, so this misconception still propagates.

There are many other controversies (and you can read more about myths concerning these controversies here), but as a scientist, what worries me most is that movie stars (Jim Carrey) and incorrect “science” are listened to more than the facts.  And I understand why – it’s because these vaccines are given to and affect people’s children. I don’t have children, but my sister does.  She passionately responded to a friend who refused to vaccinate her child, and I think her response is perfect (edited only sightly for clarity):

“When have we been the ones to make medical choices for our family? If you got cancer and they gave you a treatment plan would you counteroffer dosages? If you had a broken bone would you choose to stay awake to make sure the screws and bandages we done correctly? If you have no idea what is wrong with you do [doctors] hand you a menu and ask what you would like to be tested for??

However, as moms we have the choice to take our kids [to the doctor] if they have sniffles or feel crummy to see if it’s anything more or [to] treat them naturally at home. We have the choice to feed them organic GMO free [food] to give their bodies the healthiest stuff to grow strong and without added chemicals (because everything is made of a chemical compound in one way or another) and I wonder if all of these choices and everything we do for our kids we forget that sometimes other people do need to be trusted.

So [SB277] states if you are sending your child to public or private school you must [vaccinate your child]. If you are homeschool you can make your choice…. to play devils advocate a little: I also have the choice to send my kids to school knowing they won’t be exposed to diseases that they should be protected against. Where is my medical choice in that? You are relying on the fact that there are vaccines etc for everyone else and the diseases are under control. If you go under the assumption that no one should immunize or large groups have the choice [whether or not to immunize] it would be even more disheartening to have a wide spread dangerous outbreak of something that should have been virtually eradicated through shots and has the potential then to spread and mutate to something new they are then scrambling to find a vaccine for.

Do I think it’s s flawless system, no… Do I make educated medical decisions based on years of Medical school and training? No, because that is not what I studied. Can I look up basic things, consult with other friends and perhaps some people I know in the medical field? Sure, but I feel like if a stand needs to be made it needs to be from doctors backed by major medical and other health providers. And right now vaccines are how they are protecting us the best they can from certain diseases.”

If you want to read more, there are so many interesting articles.  Here are a few:
It’s time to take the controversy out of vaccines
News coverage of vaccine controversies drives down support for vaccines

Sadly, in a scientific study from the journal Pediatrics whose objective was to test the effectiveness of messages designed to reduce vaccine misconceptions and increase vaccination rates for measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), the authors found that it really doesn’t matter what I say in this article because I won’t be able to change your mind (full article here).  But maybe it will do something –  introduce another way of thinking to help you start a new conversation (from either side of the debate).

What are vaccines and how do they work?

Vaccines are a hot topic. Vaccines bring up lots of discussion, lots of false information, and a vitriolic passion rarely seen in matters of science and pseudoscience. I’m going to start my discussion about vaccines by explaining what they are and what they do. My second post will address some of the false information and controversy (with an added bonus of bringing in my lovely sister’s fabulous point of view as a mom of two!) My final post will answer a question I was asked about whether or not vaccinations are needed after a stem cell transplant.

Let’s talk about what immunizations do and how they do it.  Vaccines (aka immunizations) use biological agents to induce an immune response that protects you from that disease. The immunization itself could contain a weakened version of the disease-causing agent (like an inactivated poliovirus to vaccinate against polio), a non-human version of the disease (such as the cowpox virus to vaccinate against smallpox) or a small part of the disease-causing agent (for example, the toxin or a protein on the surface of the disease-causing agent).  The vaccine is injected into the body, but it isn’t strong enough or functional so it doesn’t cause the disease, but the body attacks the vaccine’s biological agent using immune cells and develops a “memory” of this infection.  This memory is made up of both antibodies and immune cells.  Antibodies are shaped like the letter Y and the top part of the Y functions like a puzzle piece that fits together with a complementary piece on the infectious agent (called an antigen).  When the anitbody encounters a matching puzzle piece it will bind to the infectious agent and kill it quickly before it can cause disease. Therefore, the effectiveness of a vaccines depends on how good the vaccine is at making a puzzle piece fits the antigen puzzle piece on the infectious agent.
antibodySo let’s have an example.  The flu vaccine contains small proteins from several flu strains that, when injected, stimulate the immune system to create antibodies against those flu strains.  When a person encounters the flu,for example because their neighbor has the flu and sneezed on them, the antibodies and immune memory that were created by the vaccination will attack and neutralize the flu virus before it can infect the cells and make you sick.  If the flu vaccine didn’t contain proteins that create puzzle piece antigens that bind to the most common flu strain in a particular year, the flu shot is less effective and more people will get the flu.

Vaccines have done amazing things.  They have eradicated smallpox, a deadly disease that had been around for over 12,000 years and killed 30-35% of people who were infected.  Eradicating this disease saves the lives of over 5 million people each year who would have been infected and died otherwise.  Polio, another crippling disease, has nearly been eradicated with only a few hundred cases in 2012 compared to over 350,000 in 1988. Common childhood diseases like measles and whooping cough have also been decreased considerable, saving millions of lives each year through vaccines.  They are truly a modern medical miracle!