More and more often, on various unrelated forums I read, it seems that anti-vaccination activism is becoming the trendy topic du jour. Decrying vaccinations as "dangerous" and "unproven" is hot these days; and worse yet, people are now advocating not immunizing children.
I keep seeing the same claims posted again and again on all these different forums...sometimes, word-for-word the same, which suggests that people are copying the information from one place and pasting it into another, without actually doing any research to verify the authenticity of this information.
This points, I think, to the same kind of credulity that lets people believe in the Loch Ness monster and the notion that human beings were created by space aliens from the tenth planet who used us as slaves to mine gold, but at the same time not believe that the world is round. Credulity pisses me off, as long-term readers of this journal will no doubt have noticed.
So I did some legwork. I visited a bunch of anti-vaccination Web sites, and made a list of the claims I've seen posted on many of these sites, and then tracked down the truth. I've invested, at this point, about seven or eight hours into looking up each of these claims, reading very dry articles, doing Google searches, looking at links, and compiling an assessment of whether the claims are true or false.
As it turns out, not all the claims are false. Some of them are true, though often not true in the way the activists campaigning against vaccination might think. And I found some surprises, too.
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain formaldehyde
Sounds scary, doesn't it? Formaldehyde is used to embalm people. You sure don't want it in your body, right?
Formaldehyde is everywhere. It is produced naturally in our bodies during the normal, ordinary course of cellular metabolism. It's used as a preservative in cheese and dried foods. It's used as a preservative in many cold medicines, in dishwashing detergent, and in makeup. It comes out of the tailpipe of your car. It's produced by gas stoves and grills; anything grilled contains formaldehyde. Think about that at your next Fourth of July barbecue!
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain mercury
Some children's vaccinations used to contain thimerosal, a preservative to prevent contamination by bacteria. Thimerosal contains mercury.
Many people have claimed that the mercury in thimerosal causes autism in children (more on this later). However, beginning in the early 1990s, manufacturers began phasing out the use of thimerosal in pediatric vaccinations. Today, no pediatric vaccines contain thimerosal. (It was discontinued in 1996.)
Some vaccines still do contain thimerosal; specifically, two type of influenza vaccine (Fluzone and Fluvirin) contain thimerosal as a preservative. (A non-thimerosal version of Fluzone, Fluzone 3, is available.) The amount present is quite small--25 micrograms per dose, which represents about 12.5 micrograms of mercury. How much is that? Well, a serving of mackerel contains about 73 micrograms of mercury; a serving of scallops, about 5 micrograms; a serving of swordfish, a whopping 97 micrograms. In other words, worrying about the mercury content of a vaccine is a bit silly for anyone who eats seafood...
As a side note, thimerosal is also found in some sore-throat spray and in contact lens solution.
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain aluminum phosphate
Rabies vaccines, pneumonia vaccines, and DTaP vaccines contain aluminum phosphate.
What is it?
Aluminum phosphate is a naturally-occuring chemical compound that in its crystalline state is quite lovely. You may have some aluminum phosphate that you use for decoration somewhere in your house; its common name is "turquoise."
Medically, aluminum phosphate is used as a drug to treat certain kinds of kidney failure. It is also used in the denture adhesive that people use on their dentures, and as an antacid. Yes, it's true that aluminum phosphate can be toxic--and then again, dihydrogen monoxide is deadly if it's inhaled. What's dihydrogen monoxide? Oh, that...well, it's sold under the trade name of "water."
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain aluminum salts
It's true. Vaccines contain aluminum salts. So does your kitchen.
Aluminum phosphate is one kind of aluminum salt used in vaccines. Another is aluminum sulfate. Aluminum sulfate is toxic in large doses, but quite common and ordinary; its household name is "alum." It's one of the ingredients in common, everyday baking powder. It's also used to make pickles, maraschino cherries, and gelatin. And oh noes! It's in vaccines too!
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain methanol
There are some vaccines, namely vaccines against a bacterial infection called Q-Fever and vaccines against tuberculosis, which are made by extracting DNA from the bacterium by using methanol. The viral vaccinations used to immunize children are not made this way.
Methanol is a naturally-occuring alcohol. It's found in small quantities in diet colas, and it forms in the body when the artificial sweetener aspartame is broken down. It occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables, in fruit juice (especially orange juice, which contains quite a lot of methanol--34 milligrams per liter), and in fruit jellies and jams. In fact, methanol is found in almost any fruit or vegetable product. It's hard to get away from...
...but it is not found in pediatric vaccines.
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain isopropyl
"Isopropyl" is not a substance. The word "isopropyl" is an adjective; many compounds exist in isopropyl forms, such as isopropyl alcohol (ordinary rubbing alcohol), isopropyl unoprostone (a drug used to treat glaucoma), and so on.
Anti-vaccination activists are probably talking about isopropyl alcohol. When you get an injection of any kind, you are exposed to isopropyl alcohol. The nurse wipes your arm with a moist towelette soaked in it.
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain phenols
Phenol, or carbonic acid, is a naturally occurring substance that is produced whenever wood burns or during the decay of any organic material. Phenol and phenolic compounds are found in smoked fish and meat; in fact, phenols are what give smoked food its flavor! Very large quantities of phenols are produced by cigarette smoke; one cigarette produces more phenols than are in 57 vaccinations, and most of those phenols are inhaled by people around the smoker, not the smoker himself. (The filter in a filtered cigarette removes phenol from the mainstream smoke.) Any parent who smokes need not worry about the phenol in a vaccination--just by being around the child, that parent is exposing the child to levels of phenols that are hundreds of thousands of times higher than what's in a vaccine.
Oh, and if you're worried about phenols, don't live in the city, handle fiberglass insulation, or eat smoked food. Smog, car exhaust, insulation, and smoked food all contain very high levels of phenols.
And those bottles of "smoked flavoring" you can get at the grocery store, the sauce you pour on your steak to give it that authentic smoked flavor? The smoked flavor is phenol.
CLAIM: Children's vaccines contain 2-pheoxyethanol
STATUS: false, but very interesting
Do a Google search for "2-pheoxyethanol." You'll get 155 hits. You know what's interesting about that? There is no such thing as 2-pheoxyethanol. All of those hits are Web pages crusading against vaccines--and all of them pulled their information from the same source, which is a stunning example of how one source can appear to become "legitimate" when it gets picked up and passed all over the place. It's also interesting because of all these hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of anti-vaccination Web pages and so on, nobody has done any basic fact-checking; they're all just repeathing the same things without doing any research at all.
There's no such thing as 2-pheoxyethanol. It's a misspelling of "2-phenoxyethanol."
2-phenoxyethanol still sounds pretty bad, though, doesn't it? Look at that that name! Sounds like the kind of black, sludgy shit pouring out of the fiery Orc-pits in Mordor, doesn't it?
In reality, it's a natural antibiotic. It is used in some vaccines to prevent bacterial contamination. It's also used to make laundry detergent and hand soap, and it's used in makeup...in fact, it's used in a lot of antimicrobial applications, like hand wash and stuff, any place you don't want green fuzz growing or you want to get rid of green fuzz that may be growing.
Is it toxic? Unless you're a bacterium, no.
CLAIM: No clinical studies or long-term controlled surveys have been done on vaccination
This is a great example of the old maxim that any lie repeated often enough will be believed as true.
The people who believe this claim haven't even done five minutes of research on Google. Not only is this claim false; it's the exact opposite of the truth.
Not only are vaccines subject to rigorous clinical studies and long-term followup studies, but they're the subject of much, much larger and more detailed clinical studies than any other drug. In fact, the clinical study of the polio vaccine is the largest clinical study in medical history. And the results are overwhelming: the polio vaccination provided 90% protection in the test group.
In fact, the polio vaccine is so dramatically effective that it looked for a while like polio, like smallpox, was destined to be completely eradicated from the face of the earth. Unfortunately, in the past few years, a political movement in Nigeria and Yemen, condemning vaccination as the white man's way of killing impoverished third-world babies, has taken hold, with predictable results--polio has become endemic in Nigeria and is spreading to the surrounding areas and throughout Yemen.
Interestingly, vaccination has always been used as something of a racial hot potato. In Third World countries, people looking to spread fear and uncertainty point to white First World doctors as the enemy; in the developed world, white supremacist whackos claim that vaccines are part of a Jewish conspiracy. (More on that later.)
CLAIM: Vaccines have never been shown to confer immunity. All clinical studies show only correlation, not causation.
Much of the vaccine effectiveness data is correlatory; nations with high rates of vaccination have lower incidence of serious disease, and in nations where the rate of vaccinations falls, the incidence of disease rises.
But correlation does not necessarily show causation; a link between the cause and the effect, and the mechanism by which the cause produces the effect, must be shown.
With vaccination, the means by which a vaccine works are well-documented. The body's immune system works by producing antibodies in response to foreign agents such as bacteria and viruses. When a new bacterium or virus is introduced into the body, the immune cells attack the invader, then present the invader's proteins to other cells which then produce antibodies against it. But this process is very slow; a virulent invader can kill you long before you can produce those antibodies. Vaccines use weakened or killed viruses; they do not cause illness, but they do give the immune system a target. The immune system responds just as if they were live, and eventually produces antibodies. The presence of these antibodies can be tested. You can test a person, show that he has no antibodies against a virus, give him a vaccine, then test him again and he will have those antibodies. You can also demonstrate that a person who has antibodies has a strong and rapid immune response to the virus. Pretty straightforward.
CLAIM: Vaccines short-circuit or circumvent the body's defenses. When you inject someone with a vaccine, you bypass the body's defenses.
This is just silly.
The body's immune system is carried in the blood. Your immune cells live in your bloodstream. Injecting someone with a vaccine doesn't "bypass the body's defenses;" it brings the virus straight to the body's defenses.
CLAIM: Polio isn't caused by a virus. The polio vaccine virus is useless, because polio is caused by other things like insecticides.
Polio is not airborne; you can't get it by being in the same room with someone who is infected. Because of that, some people falsely claim that polio is not contagious, and therefore isn't caused by a virus. This is nonsense.
The polio virus is normally spread by contact with the biological waste of infected patients. In countries without good sanitation, where fecal contamination of drinking water is common, this is the normal route of infection.
The polio virus was first isolated in 1903, and was shown to be transferrable from filtered nervous tissue of infected people to other primates. This categorically rules out environmental toxins.
The polio virus has since been genetically sequenced, mapped, and modeled; its method of infection is now very well-understood. It's an RNA virus, like HIV; unlike HIV, though, it does not rely on the enzyme reverse transcriptase for its operation.
CLAIM: Vaccines cause autism. We are facing an autism epidemic because of vaccines.
A while ago, a bunch of newspaper headlines were made when a researcher announced a hypothesis that there might be a link between aluminum and Alzheimer's disease. It got so much attention, in fact, that some people even threw away their aluminum pots and pans and stopped using deoderants (which contain aluminum salts). Later, after more research and investigation, it turned out to be a dead end.
But the dead ends, which are a normal and natural part of the scientific process (the greatest strength of the scientific method is that it is inherently self-correcting), don't make newspaper headlines. Today, if you do a Google search for "aluminum" and "Alzheimer's," you'll find hundreds of thousands of sites proclaiming that aluminum causes Alzheimer's...even though no such link actually exists, and the researcher who first investigated the connection says it didn't pan out.
Alzheimer's is a scary and complex disease with no known cause. People don't like that. People like certainty, and feel frightened and adrift, helpless to prevent things like Alzheimer's, without it. So people latch on to certainty, and convince themselves that they can stop themselves from getting Alzheimer's if they do not drink from aluminum cans.
Same deal with autism.
The researcher who first proposed a link between vaccinations and autism theorized that the thimerosal in vaccines, which contains mercury, might be responsible for brain dysfunction in developing children. Mercury is a known neurotoxin; it seemed likely that there might be a connection, and the knowledge of mercury's effects made the link plausible.
But the research showed that the theory just didn't pan out. Children who are not immunized are just as likely to be autistic as children who are.
And, of course, modern pediatric vaccines do not contain mercury, so even if there had been a link, it's a dead issue now.
Still, that does not stop worried parents from latching on to this idea because it gives them a sense of power and control over a very frightening and potentially devastating thing. Parents generally want to protect their children, and they want to keep them safe. If someone comes along and tells you "Do what I say and your child will be protected from autism," well, a lot of people will believe him.
Many parents have tales of how their child seemed normal before a vaccine and displayed signs of autism some time after. This is to be expected; children who are autistic start showing signs of it at about the same age when children get their first immunizations. As the anti-vaccination people like to point out when talking about immunity: correlation does not show causation! Yet in this case, they ignore their own reasoning.
CLAIM: Vaccines are not responsible for a drop in illness. It was already dropping when vaccines were introduced.
This seems like a reasonable claim; after all, better nutrition, better sanitation, and better overall healthcare do have an effect on public health, so it's possible that a drop in major illnesses could be attributed to things other than vaccination, right?
Well, if that's so, how come only the diseases for which vaccinations exist have dropped, and diseases that are not (or were not) immunized against have stayed the same? If better sanitation and better nutrition were responsible for the drop in polio and measles and mumps, then why did they not cause a drop in chicken pox, too?
And why, when vaccination rates decline, do these diseases return?
Fact is, the dramatic drop in once-common diseases like whooping cough, measles, mumps, and polio coincided with vaccinations against these diseases, and in places like Russia, where vaccination is on the decline, these diseases are recurring at the same rate that vaccination is waning.
CLAIM: Vaccines kill 500,000 Americans a year.
Do you know someone who has died in a car accident? I do; most people do. Statistically speaking, it's quite likely you know at least one person who's died in a car wreck.
Every year, about 40,000 people die in the United States in car wrecks. Some people claim that over 500,000, or more than ten times this number, die from vaccinations every year. Were that true, statistically speaking, you and I and everyone else would know, personally, ten or eleven people who'd been killed by a vaccine.
Don't think so.
CLAIM: Vaccines, along with artificial margarine, are part of a Jewish plot to kill Christians. And the Holocaust never happened.
STATUS: you figure it out
This is one of the most interesting things about the anti-vaccination movement: when you start aggressively searching for the sources of the information you find repeated over and over on the Web--something that takes a lot of patience, and sometimes some trips to the Wayback Machine archive of the Web, you find that, over and over, the source of the information is a broad coalition of white supremacist groups.
And that's just really, really weird.