Science Seen Physicist and Time One author Colin Gillespie helps you understand your world.

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Taking the Shot

These days there’s news about the pros and cons of vaccinations. There is good news and there’s bad news. Let’s unscramble them, because we can learn from both good and bad.

There is good news about ebola vaccines. Ebola is about eight times less infectious than measles but it’s far more deadly. It’s a gruesome way to die. Tom Clancy’s book, Executive Orders, sets an ebola epidemic in the United States. It’s fiction but, where it details damage Vaccine schematic Naturethis disease inflicts on those whom it infects, it’s fact. You would not wish this on an enemy. Today, unsung heroes are bringing the ebola epidemic under control in West Africa. They isolate victims to survive or die. They have no cure to offer. Ebola will be back some day, emerging from the jungle. That’s where it hides and what it does. The good news is by then the world should have at least one vaccine and some data showing it will work. And, faced with ebola, no-one rejects a vaccine.

Then there is news of citizens with good intentions who oppose vaccines. To appreciate the issues that they raise, let’s look at what a vaccine is. It is an agent that imitates a micro-organism (aka a bug) that causes a disease. It must be a good imitation to immunize you, but not so good that you get the disease. There are three main kinds: a disabled version of the bug; or fragments of the bug; or a like organism that won’t infect you. Each exposes you to something you could meet in Nature if you were so lucky. What they do is train your immune system to attack that exact bug fast. In other words it does what an infection does without its risks.

A practical vaccine has other ingredients. Think of this like bread. You may see it as nutrition made from flour. But the baker adds ingredients for purposes like stopping mold, improving taste, and staying fresh. Many vaccines include substances to preserve them or to make them more effective with a lower and so less expensive dose. Thoughtful parents want to know about the fine print on vaccines. Good for them! But not so good if they don’t find the truth. Some don’t.

Fact is vaccine additives are subject to testing and reporting and strict regulation. Even so there is no guarantee they are completely safe. Nothing is. Their risks are very small; the benefits of vaccines are huge. Their benefits compare with those of water that is safe to drink. No doubt additives obscure the vaccine good-news story. But they are small potatoes compared with the anti-vaccine push. Let’s not mince words here. Civilization as we know it can’t survive without vaccines. The risks from not being vaccinated are much worse than any risks from vaccines. The wholesale anti-vaccine stories are not true. The worst of them are fraudulent.

These false stories can have tragic consequences. For example, measles is less deadly than ebola but it does kill kids and ruin lives. The victims of anti-vaccine stories include the kids of parents who believe them. They include others who have reasons (like weak immune systems) why they can’t get vaccinations and who catch measles from those who can but don’t.

Measles vaccination rates in North America are now lower than the rates in sixteen countries in Africa! Vaccination is not only sensible and safe. It’s a duty that we all owe to the rest of us. The best way to encourage all to do their duty, I submit, is provide facts.

Other Materials: Tom Clancy (1996), Executive Orders, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

Image credit: Kim Caesar, in Arthur Krieg (2007), “Toll-free vaccines?”, Nature Biotechnology, London: Nature Publishing Group, vol. 25, p. 303,

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