Vaccination, especially in children, has become a huge topic of debate and controversy over the last 20 or so years. Are vaccines safe? Do they cause other health problems? Should we require vaccines for our children? Should this be a choice each parent makes? These questions are a lot more prevalent now than they used to be. Let’s take a closer look.
I am a certified immunizer. Part of my job is to administer vaccines at work. This hasn’t always been the case. When I was in pharmacy school there was no mention of pharmacists giving any type of shots or vaccines. I never would have thought that this would be such a major part of my career. I remember asking my boss “You want me to go to a class to learn to do what??” Honestly, I was more than a little nervous about receiving training as an immunizer. Now this is a routine part of my day, and pharmacies are thought of as optimal places to go to be vaccinated.
What is a Vaccine?
To put it in simple terms, being vaccinated is basically a way to teach your immune system how to recognize and fight against a specific disease. It works by introducing a small amount of that disease (an antigen) into your body. Your immune system will recognize that antigen as an “enemy” and will destroy it. Your body develops antibodies in this process that serve as a way for your immune system to “remember” that antigen and know how to fight it, should it be seen again. The antigen used in most vaccines is a “killed” or inactivated form of the disease, although some vaccines are still live vaccines.
Vaccines Work is a popular hashtag you will find on social media these days. Vaccines do work. There is an overwhelming database of evidence that supports this fact. This isn’t an opinion. Vaccines are one of the most important scientific and medical breakthroughs the world has ever seen. Vaccines have protected our population against so many different diseases and viruses. Some very serious diseases of the past have all but been eliminated by vaccines. For the first time ever, Helpful Pharmacist has conducted interviews for the site. Here are the high points as we spoke with a few infamous diseases.
HP: Polio, you used to be kind of a big deal. Tell us about your history.
Polio: You are exactly right. I had been around for centuries. I hit the early Egyptian cultures. I toured Europe for a while. Then, in my heyday, 1952, I hit the United States big time. I affected 58,000 Americans that year, crippling or disabling about half of them.
HP: All of the Americas were declared Polio-free in 1994. What happened?
Polio: Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin put a real hurting on me right after my romp through the 1950’s. They created vaccines that devastated me. I pop up every once in a while in poor countries that don’t immunize. I am afraid that I will soon be eliminated completely. The anti-vaxxers give me some hope. I am really rooting for those guys.
HP: Measles, you used to infect just about everyone. Tell us a little bit about your history.
Measles: Well, Brady. Can I call you Brady?
Measles: OK then. I had a lot of fun back in the day. I was one of those diseases that almost everyone got once in their lifetime. I covered them with these hilarious red spots all over their bodies. Those people looked silly! The adults would be miserable. But the kids, once I got a hold of the kids, that might be it for them.
HP: Are you saying you kill people? I think most people believe that you are not deadly.
Measles: You better believe it! In 1531 I killed half the population of Honduras. From the 1850’s to the 2000’s I killed about 200 million people worldwide. I eliminated up to 8 million children per year until that vaccine was created.
HP: So, what are you up to these days?
Measles: Times aren’t as much fun as they used to be. Most people survive now, although I am still the leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths in the world. I have been eliminated in the U.S. The anti-vaxxers in California left me an opening back in 2015 and I was able to infect some folks. I have bigger plans in the upcoming years. If people keep skipping MMR for their babies, I will be back!
Editors note: Helpful Pharmacist was unable to reach Smallpox due to it’s complete eradication in 1979. Instead, we interviewed Chicken Pox on it’s behalf.
HP: Chicken pox, before we talk about you, let’s talk some Smallpox. Would that be ok?
CP: Of course! Smallpox was a legend. All of us diseases grew up wanting to be just like it. Did you know Smallpox caused as many as 500 million deaths during the 20th century? 500 MILLION!! It had been around since almost as far back as 1000 B.C. It was so deadly that it has been used in chemical warfare.
HP: Smallpox doesn’t even exist now. Do you know why?
CP: Yes, of course. Everyone knows. It all started with that pesky scientist, Edward Jenner. His discovery of the smallpox vaccine in the late 18th century could be considered one of the greatest achievements in human history. The vaccine was refined much later but Smallpox has now been gone for almost 40 years! There will never be another one like it.
HP: I recognize these scientists’ names but I never could have told you why before I conducted these interviews. I didn’t think I would ever be writing stories about these guys.
HP: Let’s move on to you, Chicken Pox. Tell me your story.
CP: Well, HP, I used to infect everyone, and I do mean everyone. I never have been all that dangerous, but I can cause death in rare cases. Like the others, vaccines has taken most of my fun away. Kids now get routinely vaccinated for me, reducing the number of cases by about 90%. Kids growing up now will not believe their parents actually used to all get good ole Chicken Pox. I have had some fun hanging around and coming back as shingles, but now there is a vaccine for that too. Life is dull these days.
I think we have demonstrated quite well how effective vaccines can be. An even more exciting fact is that there is a lot more to come for vaccines. More diseases equals more opportunities. Hopefully, we will see a Zika vaccine soon, possibly Ebola, and there are certainly more surprises to come.
Do vaccines cause autism? Uh, no. You will not be able to find any credible source that will support the idea that vaccines have any link at all to autism. This includes the Autism Speaks Organization, Wikipedia, Web MD, the CDC, Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, and Dr. Pepper. These entities believe that vaccines work and encourage you to keep to the recommended schedule.
There has been a huge increase in the number of autism cases in the last 40 years. There has also been an increase in the number of childhood vaccines over that same time span. No link has been found. It has been studied very closely. Why do some people still believe this? Where did the idea come from anyway?
I hate to give this guy publicity here, but I think it is important for everyone to know where this vaccine link to autism came from. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a former British GI doctor and researcher, published a study linking the MMR vaccine to autism. This study received a lot of attention and caused a very large anti-vaccine movement that is still going strong to this day. His study has now been thoroughly disproven, has been retracted by the publication that ran the original article, and has been denounced by everyone else who co-authored the study. Wakefield has since lost his medical license.
Some very public figures jumped in and have attempted to influence our opinions on vaccines. Names like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carey and Robert DeNiro have spoken about autism linked to vaccines. Look, I like Dumb and Dumber (I like it a lot), and I am sure Jenny McCarthy is making some good money off of her reality show about Wahlburgers (a show about cheeseburgers). Robert DeNiro is a great actor. But leading scientific minds, these are not.
I guess I am guilty of listening to celebrities too. Here is my favorite….beware there are a few bleeped out bad words toward the end of the clip (and a Breaking Bad spoiler).
Wakefield’s study affected me quite a bit as a father. When my first son was born, I was aware of the suspicion of a link between MMR and autism. I was not an immunizer at that time, and did not have a very extensive knowledge about risks from vaccines. The study had not been disproven at that time, and the anti-vaccine movement was strong. I eventually did my own research and decided that I would not let one study deter me from what my pediatrician had recommended. I am glad I came to that conclusion.
Thimerosal is a preservative used in vaccines. Thimerosal is mercury based and has been accused of possibly being the culprit in this autism link. As only a precaution, childrens vaccines in the U.S. no longer contain preservatives.
Anti-vaxxers are people who believe vaccines are dangerous and refuse to vaccinate themselves or, more importantly, their children. In my opinion there are three types of anti-vaxxers.
The first type is a hippie-type political society. They show mistrust in our government, love conspiracy theories, and latch on and off of different ways to protest generally accepted ideas and practices. You will likely find these people at homeschool playdates and Phish concerts.
The second type is parents of autistic kids who are looking for a reason beyond reason. They truly believe vaccines caused autism in their kids and will not be convinced otherwise. This is a very emotional subject for them and I don’t want to make light of it. They believe promoting an anti-vaccine agenda is the right thing to do.
The third type is a little more puzzling to me. They are educated people who believe that science is on their side. They will reference all sorts of lawsuits and settlements by drug companies. They talk about testimonials from all types of parents. They make documentaries. They speak in public forums. They don’t believe that vaccines work, or they are suspicious of why there are so many vaccines. I am not sure of their motivation but I believe it is misdirected.
The Anti-vaccine effect
More and more parents are deciding not to vaccinate their children these days. Decisions like this can really have an effect on our ability to limit disease in our communities. When you decide to forego a vaccine for your child, you also decide to possibly expose other children in your community to vaccine-preventable diseases. But those kids will be vaccinated so it won’t hurt them, will it? My decision only affects my kids, right? Other kids will all be vaccinated so my kid won’t be exposed, right? Make sure you think long and hard about those types of attitudes. Your kids are the ones who could suffer if you are wrong.
Some of these diseases are making a comeback. Ask your grandparents what it was like to have mumps, measles, chicken pox, whooping cough, or polio. We have these diseases under control. Why let them up now? Vaccines have been working for a long time and will continue to work….as long as we let them.
In the medical profession, there are almost no areas that we all agree on. However, vaccines are universally accepted and promoted by doctors, scientists, nurses, pharmacists, pediatricians, insurance companies, and drug manufacturers. There are a lot of parties on that list that usually don’t get a long so well. If we all agree that vaccines are safe, don’t you think that is sending a huge message?
I try to be very honest with my readers here at Helpful Pharmacist. Hopefully it is one of the reasons you keep coming back. I also try to have fun while writing. Some parts of this article are very tongue-in-cheek but this is a serious subject. I believe that vaccines work and look forward to what the future holds for this area of medicine. My kids are fully up to date on their vaccines. Are yours?
If you have comments or opinions please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.