With the recent outbreak of measles in California and last summer's outbreak among the Amish, vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement are once again hot topics. I got into a minor discussion on Facebook yesterday with some anti-vaccine proponents. They defended their positions with a fervor and dismissed any and all evidence that contradicts them.
1. Believing anecdotal stories are proof of a connection. As soon as the topic of vaccines arise, stories about children sicken by the vaccine and their autism come out. I have no doubt that some children show an immune response to the vaccine. That is the intention of it- to stimulate the immune system and train white blood cells. Is autism the result? No. Wakefield was a fraud.
Autism becomes more apparent as the child grows. At 18 months, my son lost his language abilities. He went from simple sentences to non-responsive. This is probably about the time of his vaccinations but that was not the cause. The cause is much more complicated and, I believe, genetic. I truly wish vaccines had caused autism and we could prevent autism by simply changing our vaccination protocol.
2. Fearing autism more than the diseases. I have never seen anyone suffering from measles, small pox, rubella, mumps, or polio. Our lack of experience with these diseases makes them less threatening and less real than autism. Autism is a reality in many people's lives including my own. We seen kids struggling with autism every day. I would not wish autism on anyone. It can make life very difficult but it is not a death sentence.
Until recently, the diseases were abstract and distant. Measles is the first to make a come back as our herd immunity is compromised. I fear it will quickly become a reality in many people's lives.
I fear the diseases. Vaccines have always come with a risk. That risk is minute when compared to the risk of the disease. The whole concept of a vaccine is to introduce a very small amount of the antigen (bacteria or virus) to the immune system. Train the cells so that when a real infection happens it can fight it. At first, the vaccines were crude and the antigens were live. People died but others were still willing to take the risk.
3. Not understanding how vaccines work and why they sometimes don't. I understand vaccines better than the average parent. I worked for a time as a research technician in an immunology lab working to develop a safer influenza vaccine. The ins and outs of our white blood cells became my daily work. B cells, T cells, IgM, IgG, IgA, antigens, antibodies, etc. Vaccines train the non-specific and less effective IgM producing cells to become antigen(disease) specific IgG producing cells.
It is like turning a militia of farmers into a trained army. Think of the Continental Army after training for the winter at Valley Forge.
Vaccines give our immune system a fighting chance in the event of a real exposure to the disease. It is not a guarantee. Viruses change rapidly and the B cells may not recognize the mutation. This is why we need new influenza vaccines yearly. The antigen can also over whelm the immune system.
Think of our small army of B cells running into an army of overwhelming size. Go further back in history to the battle of the 300 at Thermopylae. The Greeks did not stand a chance against the overwhelming Persian army.
4. Believing that the decision to vaccinate is theirs and theirs alone. The vaccinated in our society create an effective barrier against the diseases which protects those who cannot be vaccinated. This is "herd immunity". As fewer and fewer are vaccinated, our herd immunity is compromised. This puts ALL of us at risk especially our very young, elderly and those whose bodies are already fighting a disease or illness.
Look at the babies. Look at your grandparents and parents. Look at toddlers. Look at your co-workers. Look in the mirror. All of these people are at risk when you choose not to vaccinate healthy children.
Vaccinations are not a life choice without repercussions to others. This is not the same as choosing to homeschool your children, become a vegetarian, or get a tattoo. Public health is the domain of the government. Vaccinations are a major part of our public health defense strategy. That defense has worked so well that we don't have memories of other strategies such as quarantines of houses and even cities.
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