In “PBS Frontline: The Vaccine Wars,” one particular scene that caught my attention was when NVIC’s Barbara Loe Fisher argued that the right to question vaccine safety and right to choose to be vaccinated should be no different than with any other drug. Then along came University of Pennsylvania bio“ethicist” Arthur Caplan, who for three years chaired the bio“ethics” advisory board of GlaxoSmithKline, to correct her, arguing that vaccines are “special.”
They are so special, Caplan argues, that getting a vaccine not only helps protect yourself, but others around you. No, really Arthur? This concept is called “herd immunity,” it is scientifically supported, and there is even a mathematic equation used in infectious disease epidemiology to assess what amount of coverage is necessary to prevent outbreaks.
What Caplan does not acknowledge, just setting aside efficacy and duration of vaccinations that also come into play, is that any adverse reaction associated with a vaccine will have a higher attributable risk by virtue of the fact that it is recommended for the general population as opposed to specific individuals. So, by holding vaccines to a lower standard of safety and stating people should have no choice over whether or not they get vaccinated as bio“ethicists” such as Caplan argue, the result is much more potentially devastating than it would be for a prescription pharmaceutical not administered to the population at large. In compelling everyone to vaccinate to protect herd immunity, there would also be a substantially greater herd risk. Perhaps this highlights the inherent conflict of public health officials being charged with both vaccinating as many people as possible and making sure the shots are safe.
But still, getting a vaccine even if it comes with an adverse event cannot potentially affect others around you like refusing vaccines might, right? Not so fast. In fact, the two most widely cited examples of vaccines causing adverse events - MMR and those with thimerosal – could potentially harm more people than just their recipients.
First, thimerosal as we all know is a neurotoxin, and one that is to be disposed of as “hazardous waste.” Yet, when it’s not harming the recipient of the vaccine it’s in, it is being excreted into the environment – not as the hazardous waste it is – posing a new, however indirect, threat to us all. True, there are claims that there is more mercury in a tuna fish sandwich, though what is conveniently left out is that the EPA has specific warnings on consuming fish because of its mercury content, and furthermore these levels are exceeded by mercury in vaccines. An even more ridiculous defense for thimerosal is that mercury partially makes up the core of the earth; which is exactly where it belongs, not above ground where people live. And unlike prescription pharmaceuticals that are only considered a public health threat when unused and flushed down peoples’ toilets, mercury in vaccines is ultimately disposed of this way when the vaccines are administered, if it’s not still lingering inside the recipient, causing harm. Ultimately, this environmental hazard threatens all living things, not just the people who get vaccinated, and the same argument can potentially be made of many other toxins in vaccines as well.
Moving on to the MMR now, this vaccine may not pose the same kind of health threat – being a live-virus vaccine free of thimerosal – but it may very well adversely affect more than just those who take it. Research has confirmed the presence of vaccine-strain measles in the guts, blood, and cerebrospinal fluid of children with autism and bowel disease. However, no studies have been done to determine if the vaccine-strain causing these persistent infections can be communicable to others like wild measles, which is highly contagious. Despite the absence of proof, there is evidence that this may well be the case, based on what we already know about both the measles and live-virus vaccines. It has been known that virions from the latter can be shed from the recipient, causing other people to become sick, as is the case with smallpox vaccines. It is certainly plausible, at the very least, that this can happen with the MMR, too, and who knows what other live-virus childhood vaccines. The recipients of the chicken pox vaccine, for instance, are known to shed virus, causing shingles.
Of course, vaccines may also trigger the virulence of pre-existing, dormant agents, according to Dr. Judy Mikovits who recently discovered the XMRV virus, which has been linked to autism and chronic fatigue syndrome. Dead cell vaccines, such as DTaP, have been found by research from Israel to merely reduce symptoms of Pertussis – not so much prevent infection – making vaccine recipients carriers for the illness.
In the nineteenth century, smallpox vaccines, despite their efficacy against smallpox – much later causing the disease’s eradication – spread equally deadly diseases like tetanus, and others potentially transmissible such as syphilis.
Perhaps the greatest example of a vaccine potentially causing significant adverse health outcomes to those beyond just their recipients was the CHAT polio vaccine used in Africa during the late fifties that has been widely suspected of being the origin of HIV, and therefore AIDS. The international AIDS charity – AVERT – despite saying this claim is unproven, does not deny it’s a plausibility. The virologist who discovered HIV – Dr. Luc Montagnier – does not doubt it either.
But even setting aside all of these emerging scientific realities – adverse vaccine events still pose a grave public threat beyond just those who have negative reactions. That threat lies in the enormous costs of care for those people that society will incur – because everyone is recommended to receive vaccines; thus, a very high number of people are adversely affected, even if not directly. Society will be obligated to pay the tab for the immense morbidity caused – putting a strain on the healthcare system by raising everybody’s insurance premiums while diverting funds from other health services. The net result is an adverse effect on care, and ultimately on the collective health of society. We don’t think about it this way as much as we do about herd immunity, even though the net impacts of the former stretch far beyond the latter.
Of course, all this is not to say that vaccines are evil and must be eliminated: far from. What this says is that vaccines’ tremendous potential public health benefits need to be weighed against the vast public health risks posted by their adverse events – making concerns of their safety no less primary than those of other drugs. The benefits of vaccines – however great – do not make them “special.”
Jake Crosby is a college student with Asperger Syndrome at Brandeis University who is double majoring in History and Health: Science, Society and Policy. He is a contributing editor to Age of Autism.