Vaccinations save lives, there’s no question about that. Unfortunately, we are in a time where anyone with access to the Internet can write an article speaking out against vaccinations and all the ill-informed “dangers” associated with them. So instead of simply talking about my opinion on the matter, we’re going to get down to the history, current facts and reality of the situation.
Edward Jenner first developed vaccines in the late 1700s during a smallpox outbreak. He noticed that milkmaids that had been infected with cowpox, a minor viral infection, were resistant to smallpox and did not fall ill. Jenner was able to use the pus from cowpox blisters to successfully inoculate people close to him. From this, those that received the inoculation were also protected from smallpox. This was the first huge breakthrough in immunization. After another smallpox outbreak in the United States towards the end of the 19th century, several vaccine campaigns erupted. Areas like Cambridge, Massachusetts went as far as implementing mandatory vaccinations for all residents. A particular resident, Henning Jacobson refused to get vaccinated and fought the city on the grounds that it violated his right to take care of his own body. He ended up losing his case in 1905 as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state could enact compulsory laws to protect the public in the event of a communicable disease.
Vaccination in Canada
Where does Canada stand on this matter? The Canadian Charter of rights states that no government is able to implement mandatory vaccination. However, in three provinces, including Ontario, children are required to provide proof of vaccination prior to starting school. These vaccinations include diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, meningitis, pertussis (whooping cough) and, most recently added, chicken pox. In all provinces, exceptions for medical reasons, conscience or religious beliefs are accepted. Although the government strongly encourages vaccination, not enough people are getting them. According to Statistics Canada, the vaccination coverage rate of two year olds is only 82 per cent. According to Dr. Theresa Tamp, Canada’s chief public health officer, coverage of any one vaccine of 95 per cent is required to protect the country’s population. Given this discrepancy, vaccine-preventable infectious disease cases have jumped by 30 per cent since 2005. In the first six months of 2017 alone, there were 853 confirmed cases of Mumps in Manitoba, compared to the annual average of eight cases. This is just one of the many impacts for parents opting out of vaccinating their children.
Myths on Vaccines
Over the past few years, concerns have emerged regarding the ingredients that are in vaccinations; including mercury, aluminum and formaldehyde. Mercury has been a concern for a long time, and doctors still frequently warn against the over consumption of tuna and other fish that may contain it. However, the mercury found in fish is a specific type called methylmercury, whereas the mercury found in thimerosal, a common preservative in vaccines, is actually ethylmercury. What’s the difference? Unlike methylmercury, ethylmercury does not linger in the bloodstream and is quickly eliminated by the liver. Furthermore, mercury is found in our water, baby formula and in breast milk. In fact, a breastfeeding infant is exposed to 15 times the levels of mercury through their diet than what’s found in any vaccines. A second ingredient that worries parents is aluminum. Like many things, it can reach toxic levels with prolonged consumption in individuals with impaired kidney functions. However, this ingredient is also found in infant formulas and breast milk. The intake of aluminum for a breastfeeding infant is seven milligrams, 17 mg for those on formula and 117 mg for those on soy formula, all in only the first six months of life. Compared to the 2.88 mg found in all the recommended vaccinations combined, aluminum is nothing to be concerned about for individuals with a functional liver. The last ingredient, formaldehyde (formalin), concerned me before I looked into it. It might seem worrisome to have this known carcinogen injected into our body, but it’s actually a naturally occurring metabolic intermediate that is present in all of our cells. This means that it’s an essential molecule for metabolic function in our cells, which we create and use in larger amounts than found in vaccines
As with any medication, vaccines come with the possibility of risks and side effects. Vaccines go through rigorous safety testing, including looking at each ingredient separately, as well as studying the use of several vaccines administered together in the purpose of working in conjunction to safely prompt a child’s immune system to build immunity. All of this is done prior to being approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and they are continually monitored for safety and efficacy. According to the Center for Disease Control and prevention (CDC), most cases of vaccine side effects are minor and go away after a few days. Side effects vary according to vaccine types but generally include:
Pain, redness, tenderness or swelling at injection site, fatigue, headache, itching at injection site, nausea, fever, mild rash, and dizziness or fainting, which mostly in adolescents.
Any more severe and long-lasting side effects are extremely rare and tend to be over represented in the media. No one talks about the millions of children that received vaccines without any complications. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Associate Chief Neurologist at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, and medical journalist, speaks to the unlikeliness of these events.
“You are 100 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to have a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine that protects you”.
Another myth that is much too commonly believed is that vaccines, specifically the MMR vaccine, cause Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder as it is now referred to by the DSM-V. This myth started due to a study published in 1998; the study was found to be fraudulent as the authors manipulated the data and their results could not be replicated. The journal eventually retracted the article, all researchers retracted their names from the study, and the only one that stands by it has since gotten his doctorate revoked. This Wakefield study looked at 12 young children in order to find a possible correlation between the MMR vaccine and developing bowel problems, followed by ASD. This study was flawed, having an extremely small study group, no control group (children not receiving the vaccine to compare results), and the results failed to support their hypothesis, just to name a few. Regardless of this, they published the paper stating that there was link between receiving the MMR vaccine and being diagnosed with Autism. This scared parents everywhere out of immunizing their children. Regardless of the research paper being retracted six years later and completely removed from the publishing journal in 2010, it had already done enough harm.
The panic of ASD had already spread, parents stopped vaccinating their children and activists and well-known celebrities likes Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and even Cindy Crawford were, and still are, spreading the word. Dr. Gupta even spoke out against this issue stating, “studies, including a meta-analysis on 1.2 million children in 2014, showed no link between vaccines and ASD.” Regardless of this, activists are still at large spreading confusing misinformation”. Even the current President of the United States posted on Twitter: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!” Some parents might rather take the risk of their child possibly catching one of the MMR diseases, rather than possibly giving their child ASD. This leads to another misguided opinion: that the diseases we vaccinate against are just another cold and are not a big deal. This is in no way true. Many parents would rather risk their children catching a rare infectious disease than be responsible for willingly letting their child be injected with something they don’t understand.
The anti-vaccination movement has strongly utilized the online platform, and uses it to spread stories of severe adverse reactions to vaccines that are extremely rare, and often not based on any scientific accident. Regardless of physician’s best efforts, a single video of Jenny McCarthy speaking out against vaccinations easily reaches hundreds of thousands of people, while they are stuck playing catch up with damage control. Dr. Ana Sanchez, a professor and health science department chair at Brock University, with a strong background in infectious diseases and parasites explained: “The anti-vaxx movement is a dangerous one because it’s based on fear and lack of understanding of the immense health benefits vaccines have compared to the negligible risks they may carry.” These days, people like to make medical decisions for themselves, they turn to the internet for information. This is problematic because only 40 per cent of Canadians have a basic level of scientific literacy. An important aspect of scientific literacy is having the ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life course. Due to the fact that less than half of Canadians have basic science literacy skills, perusing the internet that is full of misinformation and blog posts passed off as scientific ‘fact’, does nothing to educate the populace about the truth of vaccines. This results in parents trusting and looking to inaccurate articles, without any scientific truth or sources, perpetuation the anti-vaccination movement.
It’s easy to see the true importance of vaccination after taking a glance at the several diseases they protect us from. Mumps, measles and rubella alone are all infectious diseases and were some of the leading causes for disability and death in children. They may only present similar symptoms to the flu, however, without vaccinations it’s projected that there would be 2.7 million annual measles-related deaths alone. Mumps was the main cause of deafness among children before vaccination, and rubella caused severe birth defects including cataracts, intellectual disability, deafness and severe heart defects. Furthermore, people often assume that since the incidence rate is so low, so is the chance of their child being infected. However, with fewer individuals being vaccinated, more cases are being reported, which increases the chance of infection amongst the immunocompromised and unvaccinated; herd immunity is also an issue, as it can only be successful if a substantial portion of the population is vaccinated and with falling vaccination rates this puts herd immunity at risk.
Diphtheria causes a thick covering and swelling in the back of the throat. It can lead to difficulty breathing, heart failure, paralysis, and even death. Once a leading cause of illness and death among children it now has less than five cases in the U.S. every year. This is compared to the 206,000 cases and 15,520 deaths in 1921 before the vaccine was introduced.
Pertussis, also known as whooping cough is a contagious respiratory disease known for uncontrollable coughing that often impedes breathing. One in four cases in children result in pneumonia, a highly dangerous respiratory infection, and one in 20 adult cases required hospitalization. This disease is deadliest for infants under a year of age, and the earliest one can be vaccinated is at two months of age. This being said, unvaccinated individuals should not come in contact to infants until they have a chance to be vaccinated.
Meningococcal disease can cause a serious infection that can lead to life-threatening subsequent infections such as meningitis, which is an infection of the lining of the brain, brainstem and blood. Approximately 15 per cent of infected children die, and those that survive often live with permanent complication such as brain damage and deafness.
A vaccine that has also been the source of debate is the human papillomavirus, and vaccine. HPV is a serious virus that has been shown to be highly carcinogenic. HPV is categorized by the CDC as a group 1 carcinogen, meaning that there is irrefutable proof through a large variety of studies. The HPV vaccine has been promoted to 11 and 12 year old girls, but studies have shown that although the virus only causes cervical cancer in women, but several oropharyngeal (back of throat, mouth, tonsils, and surrounding areas) cancers in men. A common concern with the HPV vaccine is that it promotes unsafe sexual behaviour. However, as observed in studies on sexual education in schools, receiving the HPV vaccine did not show any increase is promiscuous behaviour in teenagers. Furthermore, HPV found in the mouth and throat can be spread with oral-to-oral contact, without any sexual contact. Dr. Sanchez elaborated on this matter, “Vaccines also prevent some types of cancer caused by infection with the pathogen: Human papillomavirus and cervical cancer; liver cancer and hepatitis B. These vaccines are now accessible for young Canadians and this translates in better health and wellbeing in adulthood and in your senior years.”
With this evidence, which is easily found in any medical journal, why would anyone pass on the opportunity to prevent cancer?
Polio is a highly infectious disease that attacks the nervous system and can cause paralysis in a matter of hours. It mainly affects children under the age of five and 1 in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis, in which up to 10 per cent die due to suffocation. When it was still widespread in 1949 there was 2,720 deaths in the United States alone. Dr. Sanchez elaborated on this topic,
“Think of polio and the hundreds of thousand children who couldn’t survive their first birthday or those who use to be in wheelchairs or use braces for life because they didn’t have access to the vaccine”.
Due to efficient vaccination Polio has been eradicated from 90% of the world, and within the next couple of centuries, it will be completely eradicated like smallpox. However this eradication campaign was started in 1957 so we still have a very long way to go if we want to eradicate other diseases.
The Flu Shot
Unlike popular belief, you cannot get the flu from the flu shot. The shot contains virus at all or an ‘inactive’ virus, which cannot suddenly activate once injected. Several randomized controlled studies (where people are randomly given the real flu shot or a placebo shot) showed that the only variation in side effects was increased redness and soreness at the injection site. It also takes up to two weeks to become fully immune to the strain of the flu that you are immunized against. Even in healthy individuals, the flu causes high fever, extreme fatigue, muscle aches, and severe headaches on top of regular cold symptoms, which often lasts several weeks. However, flu is a serious disease, particularly in children, older adults, and individuals with chronic conditions and immunodeficiency. According to StatsCan, the flu causes an average of 12,200 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths in Canada each year, and around 375,000 deaths worldwide. Even if you do not believe you can benefit from getting the flu shot, remember that you may still be putting other people at risk. Even if you never show any signs of the flu, you can still carry and spread it to the vulnerable population.
Due to lack of vaccination there was 37,563 cases of Measles, 5,598 cases of Mumps, 45 cases of Polio, 1,293 cases of Rubella, and 7,358 cases of Whooping Cough worldwide in 2016. Although everyone has the right to choose what is best for them, it’s important to take others into consideration and understand the importance of eradicating these dangerous diseases. 95 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated to effectively protect the population with herd immunity, and those that are the most vulnerable. We are lucky enough to live in a country that not only allows us to make this choice, but also offers it at a convenient and affordable price. There’s very little to argue against taking the shot.
-Chloe Charbonneau , Chief Photographer