Dear Science

Answers for a Vaccination Skeptic


Are you sure that science doesn't want to rip his hair out and stab himself in the eyeballs every time he reads something like this?

Just me I guess.
Every time I hear someone say "I don't trust traditional Western medicine," what I hear is "I'm an idiot who wants to look organic." You can bet that if their appendix bursts or they break their arm, these people will be more than happy to trust 'Western medicine' to deal with it.

You can't replace scientific research with anecdotal evidence, no matter how ancient or ethnic that evidence is, and expect to get as consistent of results. I'm not saying there's no value to herbs or other treatments, just that insinuating that 'Western' healthcare is inherently bad is flat out ridiculous. People who live in countries where they rely on homeopathic remedies get on their knees and PRAY when they are sick that they can get to a country with Western medicine. We should be grateful we have access to it when we need it.
Fucking hippies. I hope she takes his advice instead of attempting to cure (and ending up killing) her future kids with some BS organic remedy in a pretentious attempt to avoid western technology.
Your pediatrician is sick and tired of having to explain basic science that eradicated polio and minimized nearly all previous horrible, fatal, disfiguring, and permanently disabling childhood diseases.

Sometimes, I want a time machine for anti-vaccine advocates. Let them visit pre-Salk children's hospitals. See kids in iron lungs.

(I am not a doctor.)
Read Roald Dahl's account of his daughter's death from measles in 1962, it's devastating:

I have no patience for anti-vaccination nonsense.
LW- Let the (proven) falsehoods about vaccines cause the sickness or death of your child, then tell us what you think. You'll wish to god you'd had 'em vaccinated because nothing this life has to offer is worse than the death of your child. NOTHING.
Grow up and use your brain, lady.
Don't forget the biggest side effect of vaccinating your children: not having to budget for tiny coffins.
Very smartly crafted response.

Of course it's important to point out that modern vaccines don't only contain the "small amount of pus powder" that trains the immune system. They also contain carriers and preservatives. These other ingredients are likely what skeptics or ill-informed people view as "poisons". The most famous is thymerosal, which was the putative cause of autism in a now thoroughly discredited publication in the Lancet years ago. Unfortunately, "proof" against thymerosal, which appears to in fact have been out-and-out fabricated, took root in the conspiratorially minded and has been difficult to stamp out. Although thymerosal is no longer used in vaccines, the modern carriers and preservatives that replace it have been very thoroughly tested, and are indeed safe.

There remains a very small risk from vaccines due to allergic response or with "live vaccines" contraction of the disease itself. A concerned parent, and I am one, should remember that this risk pales in comparison to the risk of contracting and dying from or being permanently harmed by a disease. And for the more altruism-minded, one might wish to recall that since we don't live alone on uninhabited islands, allowing your child to catch a terrible illness doesn't only affect you and him/her.
PS to the LW: Don't rely on "herd immunity", either, because that means that everyone else vaccinates and therefore the disease doesn't appear and get your kid sick. I have a feeling that you live in one of those communities where NOBODY vaccinates yet depends on everyone else.

Good god, when will this debate be over?! The anti-science sentiment (loosely disguised as "anti-Western medicine" sentiment by this LW) in this country is breathtakingly ignorant.
@9 What I think is interesting is that Bill Maher - who is normally a harsh critic of America's anti-intellectual, anti-science stance - has fallen for this silliness. When he had Ann Druyan on his show to talk about how stupid the public is for being skeptical of science, I wish she would have taken him to task on the vaccine issue.

As you note, the only way that purportedly pro-science types can get away with this without losing cred is to make it out like it's Big Pharma's conspiracy.
@10... that disappoints me tremendously - I would expect better of Maher.
Well, here is a person admitting they don't know everything and asking for knowledge being attacked for not already possessing that knowledge. Shame on you all.
Seems the pro-vaccines are a bit worried? Why? If you and your kids are all shot to the max why so defensive? My kid is vaccine free. Caught the Pox at 2 and that is it. No Strep, no flu, no stomach bugs, no ear infections, nothing. Yes we 'catch' flu/cold bugs but fight them off with ease.

We are the working poor living within the legal free-lunch (never feed that toss to my kid though) poverty guide lines. We still eat organic whole food. No car so we cycle/walk/metro, we live in the city. If there is a germ we come in contact with everything yet -- we are healthy. Unlike the vaccinated sickly kids. Funny that :-)

From where I am looking you ONLY need vaccines to live the 'american dream' of junk food, obesity, legal/illegal drug use, and abuse of alcohol. There are choices -- my choice is health.
@13: You're mostly right, but the parts you've got wrong are pretty dangerous. I firmly believe that exposure to "ambient germs" like you come into contact with on a daily basis is important for healthy development of the immune system. And as long as you limit your child's world to your city, and the same people (who have probably all been vaccinated for the really bad stuff) there's a good chance they'll be fine. Here's hoping he/she doesn't run across someone carrying one of the bad bugs. All the exposure to colds and flus in the world won't provide your kid with immunity to whooping cough or hepatitis.

And whatever, it's your choice, it's your risk, it's up to you. What sucks for the rest of us is this: diseases don't mutate sitting in a drop of spit on a countertop or in a test tube in a lab. They change and mutate while they're multiplying inside people. So all those dumbshits who allow themselves to become hosts for these nearly-eradicated diseases are endangering the rest of us by giving them a place to mutate into something inoculated immune systems won't recognize and can't fight off.

Personally, I buy into the notion that allergies, asthma, etc (the stuff the "sickly kids" have) is exacerbated by central air and overuse of antimicrobial garbage. What really drives me up the wall are the hippy-dippy idiots who 1) don't immunize and then 2) slather their kids with hand sanitizer and saturate their homes with lysol. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet your next epidemic.
*Click.* This Russian Roulette stuff *click* ain't so tough. *Click.* I've pulled the trigger *click* four times already and nothing's happ...
@13, this is what educated people call "anecdotal evidence." I could play the same game. I got every bloody vaccine that came along, and I rarely get sick either. I could probably show you other perfectly healthy children who got vaccines and rarely got sick. I could show you children who didn't get vaccines and rarely get sick. Some people have better immune systems than others. That has little to do with immunization. Your sanctimony isn't just annoying, it's dangerously short sighted.
@13. I live in a community with a lot of anti-vaccine types. Every few years we have an outbreak of measles or mumps or something. Believe me, the CDC knows all about our town.
Most recently a group of non-vaccinated college kids (kids who'd been super healthy their whole lives, just like yours) went on a trip to India, were exposed to measles, and then came home to our town where a massive outbreak followed that affected a lot of our state. When you don't vaccinate your kids you're are endangering not just them, but the elderly who may not have had all the vaccines, people who did not acquire immunity even though they were vaccinated, and all the other kids with parents as blindly ignorant as you.
By the way my kids are vaccinated and the complete opposite of sickly. The two are not related, so stop using that as an excuse.
@13 This is why you have a responsibility to vaccinate your children:…
@13. Your logic is idiotic. Vaccines don't keep people from getting sick. They keep people from getting specific diseases. So your kids have fought off the common cold. I hope they never have to fight off measles, rubella, pertussis etc al. Because no amount of organic food will contain those antibodies.
At everybody- Modern medicine has provided us with miracles. (Penicilin. Anesthesia. Germ theory. Glasses and other eye correction. Prostheses. Anti-retrovirals. C-sections when necessary. These are some of my favorites- no doubt you can add some of your own.)

It has also committed barbarities. (Thalidomide. The Tuskegee experiment. Too early implementation of drugs and procedures before side effects were known. Criminalizing medical users of marijuana. Induced labor as a routine practice. Episiotomy. C- sections when not necessary. If you're honest, you can add to this list too.)

It's time we don't just make gods of our doctors. If you want the good without the bad, you have to be an informed patient.

The person who wrote this letter is a responsible parent, trying to make informed decisions, so ease up on the scorn.

Though the "autism/vaccine" study was not in any way valid, are there legitimate reasons to be cautious about vaccines?

It's not a black and white issue. When the alternative to the vaccine is the actual disease, and it's a horrible one, it's an obvious choice.

But it's usually not that simple, and many doctors question the wisdom of universal vaccination of populations where the risk of actual infection is small.

Some questions you might think about yourselves:

What's a safe quantity of mercury to consume? (Many studies say "none.") Many vaccines contain mercury. This isn't enough to make you turn down a polio vaccine in a country where polio kills thousands, but it might make you think twice about next year's flu shot. (Rather get the flu than the mercury that some shots contain.)

What are the side effects? The kindergarten explanation "Science" offered conveniently leaves this out. THere have been some pretty horrible events in the 20th century, though- do you research. Vaccines can have side effects. So why do we use them routinely when either the probability of exposure, or the danger if infected, is low? Side effects can be from the vaccine itself, or from other ingredients. Your doctor should be able to tell you about side effects of any vaccines she routinely offers. (And for most childhood vaccines, this is pretty reassuring.)

Have other diseases ever been spread as a side effect of vaccination programs? (Yes.) How do you know that this isn't the case about THIS vaccine? (And for common childhood vaccinations, this question has reassuring answers.)

@4. If your pediatrician is sick and tired of responding to legitimate medical questions from parents of patients, he should retire. Jeesh.


@13: the reason why your children have not caught measles, polio, etc. is because you are surrounded in your community by more responsible parents who have had their children immunized against those diseases. The community is generally immune, so the diseases aren't spread.

One day, if more parents are careless like you, your community won't be as safe from disease, and your children will get very ill.

And why does it matter if your kids have had ear infections? That doesn't have anything to do with vaccines.
@13: you are a baby-killing sociopath. @20: we shouldn't vaccinate where risk of infection is low? why the hell do you think risk of infection is low? because we vaccinate, moron! The amount of mercury in vaccine is less than the amount in a can of tuna, and is not the type of mercury that we are to be afraid of, besides. When someone starts fearmongering over the amount of "mercury" in vaccines, that's when you know that this person is either uninformed or a liar.
Hmmmm. @ 22. You really elevate the dialogue here by going straight to the name calling and insults.

There are many factors involved in reducing risks of infection. Vaccination is one. You don't need your yellow fever jabs if you live in the mountains. No mosquitos. Random example of which you can think of many more.

Which "type" of mercury is it safe to consume, then?? Wanna come over for mercury shots?

And I suppose all vaccines have the same amount? (Since you assure us that it's "less than a can of tuna." Care to back up that factoid?)

I'm not fear mongering- just chimed in with the fact that:
A) The original question was not unreasonable.
B) There is no benefit without cost- just as vaccines have benefits, they have costs as well.

In addition to not fear mongering, I am not a moron, nor uninformed either. Cerainly not a liar.

You, however, are a good example of why people are sometimes sceptical about received wisdom. A couple of legitimate questions, a couple of indisputable facts, and you throw a hissyfit, calling names at all and sundry.

Hmmmm. @ 22. You really elevate the dialogue here by going straight to the name calling and insults.

There are many factors involved in reducing risks of infection. Vaccination is one. You don't need your yellow fever jabs if you live in the mountains. No mosquitos. Random example of which you can think of many more.

Which "type" of mercury is it safe to consume, then?? Wanna come over for mercury shots?

And I suppose all vaccines have the same amount? (Since you assure us that it's "less than a can of tuna." Care to back up that factoid?)

I'm not fear mongering- just chimed in with the fact that:
A) The original question was not unreasonable.
B) There is no benefit without cost- just as vaccines have benefits, they have costs as well.

In addition to not fear mongering, I am not a moron, nor uninformed either. Cerainly not a liar.

You, however, are a good example of why people are sometimes sceptical about received wisdom. A couple of legitimate questions, a couple of indisputable facts, and you throw a hissyfit, calling names at all and sundry.

656 preventable deaths since 2007 because people didn't get vaccinated or didn't get their kids vaccinated. How many deaths from mercury overdose due to vaccines? Would that number be ... zero?

Let's have your link if you're going to throw stats.

If you had read my first post, you would know that I ADVOCATE vaccinations for deadly diseases that people are likely to catch.

Still haven't had my flu shot though. Mercury tends to build up in the body, a shot, environmental exposure, a can of tuna at a time. When folks suffer as a result, they've usually got it from multiple sources.

Why are you so bothered by me saying that it makes sense to limit exposure to mercury? Anybody with any sense knows that.

Thanks for not name calling this time, though.

@Docme You can get all the major childhood vaccinations mercury free these days.

The flu shot is an unfortunate exception. I haven't had mine either. And probably won't unless I start to come into contact regularly with a vulnerable population like the elderly in which case it would be the responsible thing to do.

There is no question that more can be done to make vaccines safer. And it always pays to question your doctor and apply critical thinking to the situation. It is your health and your life after all, so who has a bigger investment in the outcome of your medical care than you?

Abusing the original question writer is stupid. There is so much misinformation out there about vaccines it can be hard to find out the truth. Good for her for asking.

#13 on the other hand...
That's the thing- vaccines have always been a hell of a lot safer than, say, polio. (Happy NOT to have that in my past- my MIL did, and it was NOT nice.)

We've committed some tragedies with vaccines. CHeck out the 70s swine flu "epidemic," with more killed by the vaccine than ever caught the disease. The overall balance, though, is that vaccines have been a force for more good than bad.

What I object to is the attitude that "Your doctor knows what's best, so shut up and do as you're told."

Many shots have got safer over the years- it isn't because of those who spent all their time telling people not to ask questions.


Remember: Skepticism has its place. When there is evidence that a conventional belief is inaccurate, or lack of evidence for it, doubt away, and don't worry about how many people you're disagreeing with.

But don't be skeptical of something BECAUSE it's widely accepted. That isn't true skepticism, nor is it open-mindedness. I don't completely trust "Western" medicine, either. But I trust all other forms of medicine even less, because when I have a range of people offering me a range of treatments, I'd rather go with the one that relies on more than just tradition (or someone's "word") as evidence that it works. I don't go by the promises of strangers. Maybe it's the atheist in me?

13: Viruses don't come from junk food. A healthy diet definitely boosts the immune system, and you should keep that up. But it doesn't create immunity from viruses, and there are some viruses that no healthy diet can soften. My parents raised me with healthy organic everything also, and we got plenty of exercise (farm life will do that). Yet my siblings and I got sick about as much as everyone else, because we were exposed to other sick kids at school, and the virus spread to our healthy, leafy-green-laden bodies.

I don't do vaccines for milder viruses like the flu either, but hepatitis isn't worth the cool "anti-establishment" image you're trying to cook up. Besides, swallowing anti-science bullshit is about as establishment as it gets. Just look at all the climate change denialists. Skip the cold and flu vaccines by all means, but get the hepatitis and tetanus shots up. And keep feeding your kids that pesticide-free organic food. It won't protect them from viruses, but it'll reduce their risk of cancer.

Pretty much agree, Bonefish.

BUT I'll still say this: While vaccinations have saved inumerable lives, and should responsibly continue to be used, mercury is dangerous to consume or inject. This is not trivial- the dangerous toxicity of mercury has effects proportional to the size of the person consuming it- what might be a "safe" dose for me, weighing a strong, fit 180 pounds is NOT safe for a 20 pound toddler.

When the time comes (shortly) for my son to have his vaccinations, I'm glad to be able to chose shots without thimerosal. (The preservative that contains so much mercury.)

So rather than writing off the anti-vaccinationists for swallowing "anti-science bullshit," I feel I owe them my gratitude.

Without their efforts, the mercury free vaccines would not be available.

I'm passionate about everyone I know having the mumps vaccine. Why? Because my family has a hereditary problem with immunity to mumps. I'm vaccinated and have had it twice (supposedly not possible). If you catch it and give it to my elderly mother or my children and they get complications because of our (minor) immune weakness, I will be angry.

If someone has cancer/AIDS/is on immunosuppresents, then they have the same problem but much worse. This is why society wants everyone to be vaccinated.
@17: And in addition to the elderly and "chose not to vaccinate my kid" folks who get exposed, you also have infants who aren't yet old enough to get a particular vaccine, and they get exposed to, let's say, whooping cough, and die... slowly... and painfully... because some OTHER parent decided "I don't want to vaccinate my child."…

I appreciate wanting to know what's in vaccines. I don't appreciate the idea that some careless conspiracy kook could murder my child.
@4, Actually, Polio is on the rise. That's right, a disease that should be gone is coming back, thanks to people like the letter writer that think vaccines are "full of horrible poisons."
"I also don't entirely trust traditional Western medicine to tell the whole story."

30: Oh, I agree about the mercury concerns. Mercury is the reason I no longer eat tuna or salmon, and I disapprove of having it in my vaccines also.

But I think there's a difference between people who have a specific and rational beef with vaccines, and people who have a blind mistrust of "Western" (read: boring, non-exotic, doesn't-make-me-look-cultured-for-using-it) medicine.
Or people like #13, whose disapproval of the vaccine is based on an irrational mindset that "vaccines" = "e$tablishment" = "bad." I have my own anger with the pharmaceutical industry and its pushing useless drugs, but I'm not going to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

These are not the people responsible for alerting us to the mercury problem; if anything, they drown those people out with their noise.

Use of a treatment should be based on its reliably demonstrated safety and effectiveness (and any lack thereof, like the mercury, should be addressed). It should not be based on its geographical origin, traditional roots, or contribution to a subcultural image.
@33- Source for your statement that antivaccine activitsts have somehow caused the return of polio? Or the reasoning behind it? Or did you just make that up?

Bonefish- I gotta disagree. It does seem to me that the valid concerns about mercury in vaccines were first brought into the mainstream by folks who were at the time dismissed as anti-vaccine-crazies. (No doubt many of them really were.)

The ones who drown out those voices are generally on the other side.

@36 - This is a few years old (…) but is still relevant in that area. The same types of rumors were spread in Nigeria in 2003 (…). So it's a different type of anti-vaccine activist than you find in the 1st world but they are still anti-vaccine. Unfortunately, the result of these rumors has been to reinfect at least 20 countries, which had been declared polio free. :(
It's wonderful that people are looking up that there's mercury in vaccines. It's less wonderful that people don't take the next step to understand that mercury can be bound up in different forms. The kinds in tuna and in the little vials in science lab can accumulate in your brain and other organs. The kind of mercury in vaccines comes out in your poop.
@36 Given that most of the rest of the world still uses Thiomersal in vaccines, and non-childhood vaccines still use it, and it's GRAS as a preservative, one could argue that this is a marketing, as opposed to a Good Manufacturing Practise or patient safety issue.

It's also a marketing issue in that single doses, which don't need a preservative like thiomersal and which are now common in NA, are sold for significantly more, but don't cost much more to produce. The pharma industry should thank you, not the reverse.

The argument that you should minimize mercury exposure is a red herring. Some mercury compounds accumulate in the body. Some do not. Thiomersal metabolizes to ethyl mercury, which does not.
32 - come off it. Your child getting sick and dying because of contact with a contagion source is not murder.

In general? The letter writer, in taking an interest and trying to inform herself about the things that everyone accepts are part of child rearing is a hell of a lot more responsible than the people who never question anything they're told and do it because everyone else does.

Why is it that two thirds of the comments section is almost always folk responding to a poster or letter as though that individual is attacking them personally?
Oh for... *grumble* Vaccines do not contain "mercury" any more than table salt contains "sodium." Those metallic elements in their pure form are extremely dangerous. Bonded with other elements, tehy have different properties, effects, physical states, etc. That is how the world works. Please return to eighth-grade chem if this is a difficult concept for you.

And if you need a reason to vaccinate your special snowflake babies that will totally never get sick because you give them organic tomatoes and pat them on the head a lot, here's one. Children whose immune systems are too weak to support immunizations (you know, cancer patients and such) need herd immunity to be protected. At best, your selfish insistence on defying science in favor of what your gut tells you results in these kids having to stay home all the time to protect them. At worst, yes, your tough little cookie fighting off diptheria will infect a classmate with leukemia. Dead or permanently disabled children. Full stop. Grow a brain, please, or at least a basic conscience.
One part of the conversation on vaccines that doesn't come up enough is that some already very sick children cannot be vaccinated. Kids with HIV, cancer and a lot of under immunocompromising conditions cannot get the live vaccines. Even a small amount of a tame virus is too much for them to be exposed to.

In a perfect world, these children are protected by the herd immunity, but when a lot of children who should be vaccinate aren't, the kids who simply can't get vaccinated are put at an increased risk. So by not vaccinating your healthy child, you are potentially hurting an already ill one. I hope parents really take that risk seriously.

#13 should do us all a favor and drown her kids now before they spawn a super virus.
This column really put my mind at ease. Phew! Vaccines are safe. What a relief. I know big pharma, and big pharma would never put an entire generation at risk, just to make a few extra bucks. I am going to start loading my salt and pepper shakers with powdered Thimerosal. Tasty!
There are strange studies out there that suggest small amounts of lead and mercury (in VERY small amounts) actually improve cognitive reasoning in children. The key to any poison is dilution, that said, no person who studies this crap advocates dosing children with Mercury. They find it an interesting phenomena that certainly all things have the capacity to to metabolically adjust and adapt.

I just say this because so many of these heavy metals were more ubiquitous in society with respect to so many things, for a number of years without the effects of autism etc. etc.

Of course we have had other public health problems because of this and hence why this crap was phased out.

Strangely enough, we are actually finding more GENETIC evidence for autistic behavior.

When eggheads procreate, they pass on their egghead traits and their slightly autistic behaviors. There might come a time when we can genetically screen the unborn for autistic tendency genes. Anecdotaly speaking maybe we smarter more intellectually active people should just pair with dumbass trophies (face palm here too ...).

I don't know bioethics are hard.

@44, oh BTW big pharma HATES vaccines. There is no money in vaccines. With very few exceptions the government BEGS the pharmaceutical companies to develop vaccines, they hate them more than antibiotics. Why? Because the market share is extremely small compared to treatments like celebrex or prozac. Pharmaceuticals like long term treatment drugs, and of course the single use take and forget vaccines are just not profitable. I am amazed that Merck even came up with their cervical cancer vaccine.

OneTrickPony, boy is your screen name appropriate.

Repeat after me: There is no Thimerosal in vaccines. There is no Thimerosal in vaccines. There is no Thimerosal in vaccines. GOT IT. Rinse, wash, repeat.

The same people who worry about vaccines killing their kids are probably feeding their kids McDonalds and coca cola without a second thought. There are so many sources of toxins in this world, at least this one is doing some good for the kid.