Are vaccines safe for children? Parenting comes with many difficult decisions. But none may be as challenging as whether or not to vaccinate a child.
Vaccines have been at the center of ongoing controversy for some time, mostly in part due to "anti-vaxxer" Jenny McCarthy, the former Playboy model who credits vaccines with causing her son’s autism. She’s written and spoken about it extensively, and she’s not alone. Scores of physicians and others in the health field have spoken out against vaccines. But are they right?
When I was pregnant, I swore I would never vaccinate my child. I said it out loud. I saw it as irresponsible and pushing the agenda of Big Pharma. These illnesses weren't a real threat, I said. But the vaccines were. I even criticized parents for jeopardizing their children’s health if they did choose to vaccinate. To those parents, I apologize. And to parents who do not vaccinate, who still believe it’s wrong to vaccinate, I urge you to continue reading about why I had such a change of heart and have chosen to vaccinate my child.
Most of my decision to vaccinate goes to the research I’ve done, and, somewhat embarrassingly, the rest of it goes to the movie “World War Z.” It was during my pregnancy that my partner and I decided to watch this zombie movie one night. Not my first choice of film genres, but I’ll watch any movie Brad Pitt is in (for reasons that have nothing to do with my child’s safety). And (spoiler alert) it was the realization in the film that people could be vaccinated against (ahem) zombies that I had an oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-be-a-parent moment. It all suddenly made sense. Just 100 years ago, communicable diseases that killed millions spread like the undead zombies Brad Pitt was (damn handsomely) determined to stop. If a zombie was chasing my daughter and in an instant a vaccine could change everything…well, I’ll just say I realized how foolish I’d been. (And, as always, how glad I am that Brad Pitt exists.)
First, let’s acknowledge the enteric-coated elephant in the room: Vaccines are now produced by the giant pharmaceutical industry. It wasn’t always the case, but today, companies such as Pfizer and Merck produce and control the vaccine business. If you’re like me and you lead a healthy lifestyle and choose the same for your child, nothing can seem more counter-intuitive than giving your child a product made by a pharmaceutical company. Pharmaceutical companies have repeatedly been fined for fraud to the tune of billions of dollars. In 2012, GlaxoSmithKline received the steepest fine in history for any kind of fraud, not just pharmaceutical fraud. This is unsettling on a number of levels. It makes choosing a vaccine (or any other product) from a pharmaceutical company uncomfortable. But it doesn’t make vaccines unsafe. We had to turn to doctors and the pharmaceutical industry when my home birth didn’t go as planned. My daughter’s life was in jeopardy, and a century ago both of us would have probably died in the birthing process. Western medicine gets some things really, really right.
Developed by scientists and funded by foundations and the government, vaccines were originally not patented because they were natural products. They are homeopathic in the truest sense: like cures/prevents like. Small manufacturers made them. “[P]roducing them involved particular challenges: using live organisms, some of them dangerous,” reports the New York Times. This is heavy science, using the best kind of research and safety trials we have. Once commercial interests were allowed into the vaccine business and mergers shrunk the industry in the 1990s, “more than half of the country’s vaccine makers had closed down,” explains the Times. Sounds like most other industries in the U.S. that have been exploited by capitalist interests, patents and mergers. The business behind it might not be the most desirable, but the product quality is self-evident. We may not like buying our electricity from big power companies, but it doesn’t negate the value or necessity of the service. Even our beloved organic food industry is now mostly owned by Big Food. But we know that those organic labels mean the food must meet certain criteria, which protects its integrity, no matter who owns it. Vaccines are similar.
Ironically, one major reason we find vaccines so foreign and so unnecessary is in part because they are so effective. When we’re not around people suffering from these illnesses on a regular basis (when was the last time you saw an iron lung in someone’s living room?), it’s easy to think that we no longer need vaccines. We don’t get small pox vaccinations anymore because the disease is not a threat (it was declared eradicated in 1979 by the World Health Organization). But that’s not the case for the diseases current vaccinations provide immunity against. They are still being spread, and in some cases, by people who’ve refused to vaccinate out of fears that vaccines cause autism and other health issues. Currently there are whooping cough and measles outbreaks in California, where I live. My 9-month-old daughter is at risk for both of these because she’s still too young for the measles vaccine and hasn’t had all of her whooping cough shots yet. And that’s scary to think that there’s really nothing we can do to prevent our child from this risk.
So, are vaccines safe?
Fifty years ago, we probably would not even be asking the question “are vaccines safe”? They were not only considered safe, they were proven to be highly effective. That small pox is no longer a threat and polio is hardly a risk today, speaks to the value of vaccines. Roughly 3 million lives are saved each year from vaccines while 2 million are lost to preventable diseases among the unvaccinated.
“Vaccines work by stimulating the body to develop immunity to a particular disease,” explains the New York Times. “The process involves injecting a molecule under the skin that mimics the virus or bacteria to prime the immune system to attack the real thing when it arrives. Vaccines can contain a fragment of the pathogen or a weakened version that can teach the immune system to recognize a germ, without itself causing the disease.” This is why babies can experience flu-like symptoms in the hours and days after a vaccination: their bodies are fighting the pathogen and teaching the immune system how to do this in the future. It’s a sign of efficacy, and only in extremely rare instances is it a sign of vaccine gone wrong. Like with almost anything we put into our bodies, there is always a risk of it being contaminated or ineffective.
Do vaccines cause autism? It’s possible that ingredients found in some vaccines may be among the list of contributing factors to autism, but what scientists are discovering is that (1) lots of things are likely contributing to the rise in autism and (2) it’s most likely not vaccines. A recent analysis of 67 studies found no connection between autism and vaccines. And in all the research I’ve done, I’ve found little about the safety of vaccines has changed. In fact, the deeper I dig into the autism risk argument, the less credible it becomes.
Ingredients in vaccines include things we wouldn’t choose to give to our children in other scenarios: formaldehyde, aluminum and preservatives like polysorbate 80. There are health concerns connected with these ingredients. But vaccines are minimal in dose and ingredients—the shots are usually 0.5 milliliters in total, containing minute amounts of each ingredient.
Aluminum is a controversial ingredient found in vaccines, but according to one study, there’s more aluminum in breast milk than in vaccines. Formaldehyde is also in many vaccines and it may also be in your child’s crib, changing table, blankets and shampoos, in much larger doses than what’s allowed in vaccines. Polysorbate 80, detergents and alcohols used in vaccines are found in thousands of personal care and household items. That’s not to say they’re safe or desirable ingredients, but if they can be removed from our laundry detergent or shampoo easier than from a vaccine (and many product options on the market are already free from these ingredients), then we can certainly opt to reduce our exposure in those cases instead of at the risk of contracting deadly diseases. Thimerosal, the mercury-containing preservative that has often been called out as a possible cause of autism, is now only found in flu vaccines. None of the other vaccines for far more serious illnesses contain this ingredient.
The body is designed to be resilient to many things. It’s why we vaccinate in the first place—to stimulate our immune systems into their highest possible fighting mode against pathogens. Processing out miniscule amounts of heavy metals and formaldehyde is a lot less difficult on our body than fighting off polio or measles. And the reality is, our children are exposed to heavy metals and chemicals in our air, water and food. If you’re not feeding your child 100 percent organic all the time, you’re exposing her to pesticides and herbicides that have been proven to cause serious health problems. If you bought a new couch recently or live near a road where there is frequent car activity and exhaust fumes, let your child drink or bathe in tap water, eat fish, or let them interact with any type of plastic—you are putting your child at risk for exposure to chemicals that may be more likely the culprit for autism than vaccines. Not to mention the other health problems those chemicals can cause including asthma, allergies, metabolic syndrome, and developmental and reproductive issues. And in the case of vaccines, at least there’s a payoff in the immunity. A plastic toy doesn’t offer much in return.
There are a lot of reasons to be wary of the pharmaceutical industry. Yes, it has taken over production and distribution, but it didn’t create vaccine science. Perhaps like the local, slow food movement, we’ll see resurgence in small vaccine manufacturers that once dominated the industry. But even if that never happens, they're still among the greatest human inventions, and they save millions of lives. Maybe even yours, whether you've been vaccinated or not.
The world is only getting stranger and denser as our population increases. Global warming is impacting our food supplies and, as a result, our health. The less healthy we are, the more at-risk our immune systems are for being compromised. And the reality is, vaccine safety and effectiveness speaks for itself.
Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger
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image: Gates Foundation