Save Your Child, Save The World. Part 1: The Science

by Amanda K and Sara C

Want to know how getting a shot can contribute to your own well-being and to that of the world at large?  Then read on, Good Husbands and other faithful e-readers, and let a couple of biologists and health enthusiasts shine some light on the subject of vaccines. Our title might be a bit hyperbolic, but only slightly. If there is any natural force on this planet that will be the downfall of the human race, it will be the virus, and it’s very easy to join the fight against this tiny but ferocious foe.

We realize that vaccines are a sensitive subject for some people. As such, we will focus on the physiological and public health aspects of this issue; the spiritual and political arenas, although certainly relevant, are outside the scope of this essay.

What’s Actually In a Vaccine and How Does it Work?
One main concern that we have heard expressed pertains specifically to the ingredients used in vaccine solutions – most notably the mercury-containing preservative, thimerosal. We feel that this is the most valid argument against vaccines.  Mercury in the body is bad news, especially for infants, young children, and pregnant women, as mercury toxicity is most damaging during the developmental years.  As women of reproductive age ourselves, we take mercury quite seriously.

Regarding general population mercury exposure, however, a few things need to be considered. First of all, the majority of vaccines today contain little to no thimerosal. Most vaccinations had their mercury-based preservatives removed as a precaution in the late 1990’s. Secondly, mercury poses the greatest threat when absorbed or ingested in (comparatively) large quantities within short spaces of time, and the amount of mercury in vaccines is (comparatively) small.  Finally, we hope that none of us are so naïve as to believe that vaccines are the only medium through which we encounter mercury in the environment.  For decades, industrial processes have been pumping mercury in various forms into our air and water supply. Of course, with the constant threat of mercury exposure surrounding us it only makes sense to avoid unnecessarily introducing more of it into our systems. Thus, we should certainly continue to research and lobby for the safest possible ingredients in our vaccines.  However, we do not believe that a mass boycott on vaccines is an appropriate means of achieving this – not when vaccines have saved and continue to save millions of lives, and not before we address some of the other causes of mercury exposure in our environment. Interestingly enough, it’s possible that you ingest just as much mercury from eating a few tuna fish sandwiches as you do from getting a vaccine. (Chart 1, Chart 2) How is it that there is such public outcry over vaccines, and so little over tuna fish sandwiches?  All things considered, vaccines have saved a lot more lives than tuna fish sandwiches ever have.

Next, let’s consider concerns that people may have with the mechanism of immunization itself.  Perhaps people find vaccines to be “unnatural”?  Now, we are two ladies who certainly appreciate “natural” things: organic food, walks in the woods, aluminum-free deodorant, you name it!  Interestingly enough, a vaccine is quite possibly one of the most natural ways to prevent disease on the planet. Unlike antibiotics and painkillers, vaccines rely entirely upon our bodies’ own defense systems to prevent illness.  The mechanism by which vaccines function is very much like the mechanism our bodies employ when they encounter a virus “in the wild.”  The only key difference is that we control the time and place in which we encounter the virus (in a vaccine), and the viability of the virus that we encounter (dead or weakened, i.e. unable to cause disease).  This gives our bodies the chance to learn how to combat the virus before encountering the full-blown, disease-causing version on a door handle or in an airplane after a stressful workweek or a night of bad sleep.

Here’s a nerdy metaphor (because, yes, we’re nerds).  Think about a video game that allows you to do a practice round.  You figure out the controls while playing against the computer on a very easy setting, before attempting to take on a far more powerful opponent in the game itself.  Without the practice, you’d go into the game blind, and would almost certainly be defeated as you have no prior knowledge or tools with which to fight the bad guy.  Vaccines work similarly.  They provide a powerless enemy in a controlled setting that is unable to cause disease in the body. The fascinating part is that a healthy immune system can still learn how to destroy this enemy, even without previously having encountered that particular virus before.  Vaccines trigger an immune response in which your body identifies the appropriate “B” and “T” cells needed to destroy a particular virus and replicates them, creating “memory cells” that stay in your body.  Then when your body encounters the stronger, meaner version of the virus in the real world, it is already equipped with the prior knowledge and weapons to defeat the virus.  Thus, it has a better chance of eliminating the virus before that virus has the opportunity to co-opt your body for use as a factory for unleashing armies of viruses into the world to infect other members of the community, not to mention make you miserably ill in the process.  This is the SAME WAY that your body creates immunity to a virus after getting sick – only, you don’t have to actually get sick to do it.  A vaccine, in other words, is target practice for your immune system.  What’s so unnatural about that?

How Does a Vaccine Affect the Body?
We often hear that someone is choosing to not get a flu vaccine because it always “makes them sick”. It is important to note that it’s highly unlikely that these symptoms are due to the vaccine. On the contrary – they are an effect of the immune system doing its job. To further clarify – when you are actually sick, some of your symptoms, such as fever, are not a result of the infection, but tools the body uses to fight said infection. Overall, we would argue that a few days of sniffles and an achy head are a pretty good deal in comparison to the flu; especially since, well, at its best, the flu can knock you flat for a week, and unfortunately at its worst it can kill you.  People die from the flu every year, including healthy children.  According to the CDC, “approximately 5% to 20% of U.S. residents get the flu, and more than 200,000 are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year.” Approximately 20,000 of these annual hospitalizations are for children under 5-years-old.

There’s one more angle here – the long term risks of not being vaccinated, beyond the misery of the flu itself.  Persistent immune activity and inflammation can cause restructuring of lung tissue and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes. These conditions are extremely common, and the contributing changes in the body begin long before the symptoms appear. So yes, protecting yourself from the flu today may help you avoid heart disease when you’re 50.

Alright, we’ve gone on long enough for the day. We appreciate that you’ve all taken the time to read this much about this important topic. Stay tuned, we’ve got more tomorrow!

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  1. Tia says:

    I feel like an alternate title that would’ve been equally awesome would be “Down with Tuna Fish Sandwiches.” Additionally, your video game metaphor was brilliant.

    On a more personal note, one of my best friends died from complications with the flu in January. It doesn’t just happen to children, but also adults. Vaccinations save lives.