By: Julia Hurst
The Anti-Vaxxer movement, led by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Charlie Sheen and Donald Trump, argues that vaccinations designed to fight viral diseases like measles, Mumps, and rubella have side effects that cause autism, or infect you with a virus you might not even get. When it comes to investigating these claims, what matters isn’t celebrity endorsement or personal experience, but the biochemical reactions happening when vaccines are injected into the human body.
Vaccines: the science in the syringe
Vaccines are typically delivered via an injection directly into the patient. The contents of this injection include various parts of already “dead viruses,” or viruses that have been severely weakened to the point where they cannot do any serious damage. A virus in full force is never injected.
Once injected, the human body recognizes these broken pieces as foreign (as not-self), and immediately globs around broken pieces. The main detecting agent used in humans are called B Lymphocytes, or B Cells. These little goobers make up some of the clear fluid found in healing scrapes and cuts. B Cells are the immune system’s spy team; they’re present throughout the system, on the look out for unknown antigens. When an enemy particulate is detected, the B Cells trigger a cascade that eventually creates an Antibody, a specialized, tailor-made protein that attaches to the surface of the invader, either neutralizing it, or tagging it to alert T Lymphocytes. If B Cells are the spy teams, T Cells are SWAT, kicking down the door and locking up the foreign invader for good. T Lymphocytes attack the tagged antigen, and destroy it, preventing any replication or further infection.
The most fascinating thing about the immune system is that it can in fact learn; as foreign bodies are taken down and destroyed, the immune system effectively remembers how to attack each one with its complementary antibody. If it detects a virus, the immune system flips through its veritable library of antibodies, picks the matching one, and begins pumping it out to combat the infection. That’s why someone who’s already had the chicken pox rarely gets it again, because they have an army of antibodies waiting.
Vaccines provides the pieces that B Cells can attach to, allowing them to pump out the corresponding antibodies. However, these cells are recognizing either dead virus that has been ‘heat-killed’ by exposure to high temperatures that breaks down their internal proteins, leaving them non-functional. That means, the B Cells are adding to the antibody database, and responding to a perceived infection, save that the virus is in no condition to actually infect any human cells. However, if an individual who received the vaccine comes across a live version of the virus in real time, the antibodies are quick to react and deftly neutralize an infection. Thus, vaccines make it possible for generations at a time to go uninfected in the face of persistent, and even deadly, viruses like small pox, polio, tetanus, or pertussis.
Why we might feel sick when we get a vaccine
Many people complain that after they get a vaccine (particularly the flu vaccine), they get sick. The sniffles, coughing and fatigue are the typical symptoms of illness. However, these aren’t actually symptoms of infection, but symptoms of an immune system response. A runny nose is a way for the body to cleanse itself of foreign particulates, sneezing helps expel microscopic invaders, and coughing helps get rid of virus filled mucus or particulates that have gravitated toward the longs. These minor symptoms are in fact evidence that the vaccine is working, and that the body is fighting back, even though it’s enemy is already disabled.
Vaccines and the connection to autism
In 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a study in the Lancet journal, concluding that the MMR vaccine (which stimulates antibody protection against Mumps, Measles, and Rubella) could cause autism in children. In the 17 years following the study, the scientific community has cross examined Wakefield’s work and found a variety of flaws in his process, and that his conclusions don’t hold up compared to larger, more modern studies.
An important preface to Wakefield’s study is the fact that he had a financial incentive for the downfall of the current (then and now) MMR vaccine. Before his 1998 paper, Wakefield filed a patent for a new type of MMR vaccine that would also provide protection against mumps, measles and rubella. If confirmed, and his competition fell out of fashion due to, say an autism scare, he would have stood to make millions of dollars if his own came into mass production.
His study only examined 12 children, and in a normal sample size at the time, most kids would have been injected with vaccines at an early age; it’s not surprising that a child with autism would have been vaccinated. What would be surprising is that the vaccine caused that autism.
A more recent case study (check it out here) done by the Massachusetts Medical Society accumulated data from over 100,000 vaccinated children, with an equally large control group of unvaccinated children, and found equal rates of autism in both groups. That is to say, an enormous study with an incredibly large number of data points found no correlation between vaccines and autism, while an incredibly small, non-repeated study of 12 individuals, run by a man who had a financial motivation for the downfall of the (then) current MMR vaccine, found a connection.
Good science is defined by a large data set with consistent protocols, and persistent repetition of results to confirm the conclusions. Wakefield refused to replicate his study, and of the research in the past ten years, the scientific community has come to the conclusion that there is no correlation (or causation) between vaccination and autism.
Wakefield manipulated his data, exaggerating the number of children that had autism in the study, and even suggested that some developed symptoms. That is immediately concerning. However, a British reporter followed up with the families Wakefield used in his study. The parents denied that their children developed any symptoms of autism after vaccination and reported no autistic behaviors in their children.
So, why is the Anti-Vaxxer movement so strong?
There are a lot of arguments about why so many people resist vaccines, and it’s this blogger’s opinion that it’s a combination of two things:
- Fear of something that isn’t wholly understood.
It’s easy to be afraid of science, and to be afraid of things that we as human beings or consumers don’t completely understand. It’s easy to be afraid of something that makes us a little bit sick and leaves our arms sore or our noses running. But it’s better to be afraid of measles, or mumps, or rubella, which can and quite possibly could kill us. The fear of the common cold should not override common sense, and vaccines are at the foundation of good science and common sense.
- A desire to preserve our children and our inherent “human-ness” by going on as biologically unassisted as possible.
Some others argue that vaccines aren’t “natural,” and that they deviate from nature’s own course. If nature didn’t make it, how can we be sure that it’s safe for our children? Does a vaccine coincide with the organic, wholesome, all-natural, healthy lifestyle many people style themselves as living? Well, no, it doesn’t. But getting measles isn’t exactly part of a healthy lifestyle either, nor is generously infecting all the people around you.
So be brave, and get your vaccinations; your immune system will thank you later.