Wednesday, October 10, 2007

On Vaccinations

Forgive me for diverting from Second Life.

Nothing riles me more than people who willingly place themselves and their loved ones at risk due to irrational and misinformed behavior. People who oppose nuclear power even as our current oil and coal power plants gradually heat the planet. People who spill hot coffee on themselves and sue others claiming 'you never said it was hot'. People who honestly believe that Stalin had the right idea and that America should emulate him. People who drive 90 miles an hour in top heavy SUVs packed with children. People who let go of and hit people with Wii remotes. People who yell 'fire' in a crowded movie theater. People who move to New York. The list goes on and on.

But those are more comical than dangerous. Well, a few are dangerous, but on the whole, we pass it by and take only enough time to laugh at the silly silly people our species produces.

Until we hit something that is really really stupid and dangerous. Today's topic is people who believe that vaccinations should be abolished or reserved for adults. Their theory is that the vaccines, whether by the chemicals used in their manufacture or the actual disease itself, are causing harm to their children and stunting them mentally and physically.

I'm willing to not completely write them off as batshit insane, so I am going to, rather briefly and unscientifically, look over some of the arguments raised. That's a disclaimer. This is going to be a very superficial study. If you quote me in your high school research paper, I will disavow any knowledge of this post, and possibly make a new post making fun of you. The best idea and advice I can give you if you are serious on this topic is to look over some of my sources and do your own research from there. In other words, use this as a jumping board, but don't use it as the pool.

First, we cannot deny that vaccines have greatly increased the health of the world. Diseases that used to inflict terrible rates of attrition on children are footnotes in medical textbooks today. Even a disease such as chicken pox has become more or less unheard of as vaccines for that have come out (unfortunately for me and my parents, it came a tad too late to save me from missing a week of elementary school). Not vaccinating children leaves them exposed to diseases like hepatitis and whooping cough. Sure, you may get away with it now, since the probability of encountering such diseases in a population vaccinated against them is low, but suppose the majority isn't in the next few generations? Then you're exposed to the possibility of an epidemic spreading through the land. We can see this with smallpox, where it is a potential biological weapon precisely for the reason that the number of people vaccinated against it is decreasing and more people are increasingly not vaccinated.

So why are people so riled up against vaccines?

First, we must understand that the very first arguments, all the way from 1800 AD, were centered on that lovely topic of religion. The Church and many other Christian sects all held the belief that disease was the will of God himself, and to circumvent his will was unholy. God obviously wanted that six month old to contract measles and die, and who are we, foolish mortals that we are, to go against His will? Being the good Christians they were, many pastors took it upon themselves to threaten and attempt to murder physicians of the time who inoculated the population to satisfy the Holy One:

"So bitter was this opposition that Dr. Boylston's life was in danger; it was considered unsafe for him to be out of his house in the evening; a lighted grenade was even thrown into the house of Cotton Mather, who had favoured the new practice, and had sheltered another clergyman who had submitted himself to it."

Only after vaccinations halted epidemics that would have otherwise wiped out parishes and dioceses did most churches grudgingly condone the practice.

This is important, as we must understand that on occasion the opposition is reacting with an almost religious fervor and resort to arguments such as "I don't like it, too much science, I don't understand it, so it should not be allowed". There is nothing wrong with being cautious, and indeed caution should be the main line of thinking with any new procedure. However, after almost two hundred years of use, it can be said quite confidently that vaccines are effective, and that God has not wiped us off the face of the earth for denying His will.

On the topic of religion and incorrect beliefs, some other adherents to anti-vaccination propose that our idea of disease and microorganisms is fundamentally incorrect, and as a result vaccines are really glorified placebos. Adherents usually subscribe to something called the "cellular theory", which I will summarize here as the cells themselves and the components of our cells cause all disease. Notice I said 'all disease'. Cellular theory states that everything from the common cold to xanthoma, and not just cancer or autoimmune disorders, are caused by the cells in your body.

The fundamental flaw in this concept is that all evidence suggests against it. Microorganisms have been seen under microscopes to invade healthy tissue and infect/destroy it. The most famous example is John Snow and Cholera. Had cellular theory been correct, Snow's removal of the pump should have had no effect on the spread of the disease through Broadwick street. But it did! Kind of. The disease was hampered. Had cellular theory been correct, this should have had no effect on the disease cells. The poor health of the infected and those around them should have carried the contagion beyond the area of the rotten pump.

Cellular theory was proven false, germ theory held the day. There is much more to it than I have presented here, and I encourage you, if you still doubt me, to do your own research. Avoid Google or Wikipedia, or the internet in general, as you'll likely get millions of conspiracy websites advocating cellular theory and the man in the grassy knoll.

For a while, fundamentalists and cellular theorists were the foremost opposition to vaccines. This changed for the most part in 1998, when Andrew Wakefield published a paper concerning the effects of the Measles Mumps and Rubella vaccine (hereafter known as MMR). To be more accurate, he was actually researching Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. In English, that is he was searching for the cause of developmental disorders, colon disease, and swollen glands in children.

The general idea was to take a dozen children with such disorders and examine them intensely through the course of a month or so. There are problems, though. Some potential big ones.

For one, his paper is terribly misleading. The tone implies that of all the possible causes, he definitively found MMR to be the number one reason for developing these diseases. I looked at it many times, hoping I was wrong and that somewhere he entertained the notion of another source, but I was proven wrong. How he came to that conclusion is rather sketchy, he notes under "Findings" that "Onset of behavioural symptoms was associated, by the parents, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination in eight of the 12 children". Everything in his methods and interpretations is geared toward fingering MMR as the sole cause.

"In eight children, the onset of behavioural problems had been linked, either by the parents or by the child's physician, with measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination. Five had had an early adverse reaction to immunisation (rash, fever, delirium; and, in three cases, convulsions). In these eight children the average interval from exposure to first behavioural symptoms was 6·3 days (range 1-14). Parents were less clear about the timing of onset of abdominal symptoms because children were not toilet trained at the time or because behavioural features made children unable to communicate symptoms. "

Six to three days? Perhaps the parents were overreacting? If my child had such a violent reaction to a vaccine, I'm sure I'd see everything linked to it as well. When my father developed leukemia, my mother claimed she saw symptoms in me, and she did that for about six months. Parents overreact, and physicians do not want to be on the wrong end of a malpractice suit.

"One child (child four) had received monovalent measles vaccine at 15 months, after which his development slowed (confirmed by professional assessors). No association was made with the vaccine at this time. He received a dose of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine at age 4·5 years, the day after which his mother described a striking deterioration in his behaviour that she did link with the immunisation. Child nine received measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine at 16 months. At 18 months he developed recurrent antibiotic-resistant otitis media and the first behavioural symptoms, including disinterest in his sibling and lack of play. "

Who were the professional assessors? Don't make an appeal to authority without backing it up. This was behavior noted before this study actually began, so it could not have been one of the researchers for this paper. Who diagnosed a slowdown in development? The parents? The physicians? Who? And in what ways did he slowdown? The paper contradicts itself when it lists the symptoms and the actual onset of the symptoms. It claims the behavioral symptoms began at 4-5 years, when according to professional assessors it began at 18 months. Which is it? Are we picking and choosing now?

The crown achievement of this paper is the discussion, which is a masterpiece of contradiction and ass covering. In it, he reiterates the symptoms that he found, and lists one or two other possibilities, besides MMR, that could cause what he found. However, it's laden with weasel words that you get the impression he really believes it's MMR. He trips over himself to say that they found no direct link between the vaccine and the disorders, but then says that he thinks further research will reveal it to be true. He also notes that this vaccine has been given (in England) since 1988, and hey! No rising incidence has been found to support his theory (although there is supposedly insufficient data according to him). Overall, Wakefield did a masterful job at painting a red arrow to MMR, saying 'This is it! This is bad!', and then covering his behind with a lame disclaimer.

There is more literature on the glaring errors in this paper, and more problems that I, as a student, cannot comprehend or discuss, and again I encourage you, the reader, to do your own research. For now, let's continue.

Despite a wide variety of following articles in science journals proving and debunking Wakefield's research and claims, the big problem is that it has all the airs of a scientific study. It was in the proper jargon, with all these fancy graphs of things, and was written by a man with a PhD. To most people, that's more than sufficient to give validity to these claims, and indeed safety in all manners of health and medicine is the foremost concern ("First do no harm"). The man may have more holes in his research than the Titanic, but if there is a possibility it should be investigated, right?

But it already has been. The National Health Service in the UK, among many others, have researched into this and found nothing to these claims. And it was found again and again that vaccines are, outside of the occasional one in a million chance freakish accident, for the most part safe and effective.

It was found that the mercury in vaccines is in trace amounts, and of a form (because chemicals almost always come in compounds, and rarely in a solid element) that passes rather quickly out of the body. The diseases being injected go through rigorous trials to insure they don't start killing children (if nothing else, then to prevent the company's and lab's loss of face and the resulting law suits). Getting a vaccine is safer nowadays then eating improperly prepared meat.

But again, we must remember that anti-vaccinationists are fervent in their beliefs. No amount of studies will sway them from their original assertion, and so we get tragedies like a Pittsburgh boy who died when his parents, scared at having learned of the trace mercury in vaccines and hoping to cure his autism, killed him with a chemical that strips metals from one's body. The problem is, this chelation treatment also removes calcium from your body. Calcium not only provides bones, but it also interestingly enough enables nerves to do their nerve thing and send messages around the body. And the most calcium greedy nerves, the ones that need a constant supply, happen to be the ones that keep the heart pumping. So, children die from cardiac arrest (among other things) while their parents keep dosing them with chelation like fools.

In that same article, other couples continue to send their children for these treatments, despite the fact that it has killed and injured several others! The truly sad part of all this is that if this becomes increasingly common, the morons who kill their children with this will lobby to have it banned from the US, and patients who really need chelation, like acute poisonings from lead paint or mercury thermometers, won't be able to get it because Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum went off and injected little Johnny without doing any kind of research on their own. "Oh, this website says it's vaccines? Guess the internet is always right!".

What is also tragic is that by wasting time looking into vaccines, we waste time and energy from actual autism and developmental research on things that have been proven nine times over.

And this, in a nutshell, is why I cannot stand people who lobby against vaccines. They fuel useless research on methods that have been tested relentlessly, they feed unwarranted fears from parents who truly don't know any better and in addition they fool these parents into treating their children with methods and chemicals that, if it doesn't kill them, will harm them physically and possibly emotionally.

If they weren't so blind, I'd call them evil.

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