The although the conversation drifted, we circled around a few times to the topic of vaccination. This is much-traveled ground for skeptics, and I assume that most readers of this blog know that a lot of naive people were (and still are) confused by the onset of autism which correlates with the regimen of vaccinations administered to children. The beginning of this panic is traceable to the fraudulent publications by a British physician Andrew Wakefield. The long, sad, story of Wakefield is beautifully illustrated in cartoon form by Darryl Cunningham. Everyone loves cartoons--so go check it out. I'll wait. Unfortunately, a few celebrities, notably Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey were convinced that vaccines are dangerous, and their anti-vaccine views are now running rampant. The issue has devolved from a public health issue to, supposedly, a civil rights issue, with many people now exercising their rights to refuse vaccination resulting in a reduction in our immunity and a resurgence in some serious diseases. Let's not pull any punches, people have DIED because the anti-vax movement. For more info about the vaccine controversy I suggest the wikipedia entry on vaccine controversies--which I think is a pretty good general summary.
On the podcast, I told the co-host, Shannon, that I would try and explain the basis of vaccination. I think the host, Morgan, as he explained it, didn't want to get "too deep into the weeds" regarding the topic, which is understandable. After all, it's an entertainment show, not a science show.
The story of vaccines started with Edward Jenner, who in the 18th century, long before the discovery of germ theory with it's champions Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch. At the time smallpox was a devastating disease, but it was noted that if you survived smallpox, you never developed it again. Although they didn't understand the details then, our immune system, once it recognized the "bug" would prevent us from developing the disease. This led to attempts in Jenner's day at treatment in a process called "variolation" to actually infect patients with a mild case of smallpox to prevent onset of the full-blown disease. It didn't work very well. Dosing was a problem. Sometimes the variolation was inadequate, other times it led to smallpox. But, the observant Dr Jenner, noted that milkmaids often were immune to smallpox. In fact, many were employed as nurses for smallpox victims. It turned out, to make a long and fascinating story short, that the milkmaids were often infected with certain forms of cowpox that they caught from milking cows. So, Jenner treated an 8 year old, James Phipps, with cowpox (called "vaccinia") and then inoculated him six weeks later with smallpox. (This experiment is of dubious ethics and certainly would not be approved in this way today.) The boy survived and Jenner is said to "have saved more lives than any other human." Smallpox has now been eradicated from the planet in 1977. And there are ongoing efforts to eradicate polio.
So, how does it work? In simple terms, the cowpox virus has a region similar in shape on the surface of the smallpox virus. Once our immune system recognized cowpox it could repel smallpox. More recent vaccines use harmless chunks of the pathogen to stimulate the immune system, thus using our own bodies' immune systems to prevent us from getting sick. The reason it is harder to develop vaccines for the common cold and AIDS is because these viruses tend to change. It's really that simple.
One problem that is feeding the antivax movement is that we're forgetting how effective vaccines are. Here's a list provided by the Center For Disease Control of vaccine-preventable diseases. It's quite a list. My advice to anyone under 50 years old, who perhaps has never seen it, is to ask an older person just how devastating a disease that polio can be. It was a disease that not only paralyzed its victims, but paralyzed society with infectious fear. So, if you bring your child to the doctor, instead of complaining about the number of vaccines that your child is subject to, I recommend that you feel grateful for the number of deadly diseases they prevent.
In summary, let me reiterate what I told Shannon at the recording session, I'm really glad you and your husband made the decision to have your child vaccinated. Now I'm going to gross you out a little. Below are three pictures showing, left to right, the devastating effects of smallpox, polio and whooping cough (Pertussis).