Dear Pro-Vaxxers: Lay Off Jenny McCarthy

Vaccinations: I am guessing that by clicking on this entry you are expecting either some fear-mongering piece on how vaccinating your kid will make them more sick than the disease and it is all pseudo-science or you are expecting a self-righteous piece on how vaccines are safe and those not vaccinating your kids are guilty of child abuse and you are responsible for the deaths of babies. 

Sorry to disappoint, but this particular blog is my attempt to recognise that people who offer trepidation about vaccination do have some valid questions and they should not be mocked for asking them. I am writing to the pro-vaxxers: we have the science on our side, let’s maybe stop calling people who question it idiots and maybe instead help them understand. By being combative, we are not doing anything to stem the anti-vax movement, and that is something that impacts all of us.

The anti-vax movement can be traced back easily to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent studies on a relationship between autism and the MMR vaccine. I don’t really feel like going too much into Andrew Wakefield as I would equate him to the Bernie Madoff of science. There have been no less than 16 000 peer reviewed papers by reputable scientists in everything from epidemiology to chemistry who have since studied vaccines and found that there is no link whatsoever and we should all line up and get the shot. The damage done by this study is upsetting.

So why then are people still buying into the “anti-vax” movement? I would have to say that such a study simply caused people to ask questions that previously they just accepted: what is in these vaccines? Why do I have to get so many? How are they tested? How do we KNOW they are safe? It obviously didn’t help that high profile celebrities like Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey were often seen at anti-vax rallies and Jenny McCarthy even wrote the introduction to Andrew Wakefield’s book. 

 Ah, Jenny McCarthy-she is really why I am writing this particular entry because recently she has backed off her “anti-vax” stance writing an op-ed piece for the Chicago Sun Times stating “I believe in the importance of a vaccine program and I believe parents have the right to choose one poke per visit. I’ve never told anyone to not vaccinate.” Well you know the internet, this immediately caused a backlash of people calling her a hypocrite, citing every “anti-vax” statement she ever made. There is even a website called Jenny McCarthy Bodycount which shows the number of preventable deaths caused by previously eradicated diseases. 

I am a staunch pro-vaxxer. It is in the interest of public health that we get vaccinated. The situation in Disneyland is great reminder of why it is important that we vaccinate. It is how we will cure diseases and ensure no one ever gets them. Seriously, if you are the kind of person donating money to any sort of disease cure, chances are some of that money is going toward finding vaccines. With all this in mind I was utterly disappointed to see the reaction toward Jenny McCarthy’s change. DEAR PRO-VAXXERS: THIS IS WHAT WE WANT! We want people to realise that vaccines are important to the health and safety of everyone in society. We want people who were previously anti-vax to take comfort in the science of vaccines and recognise their importance and feel comfortable in choosing vaccination for them and their children. People are not likely to do that if they see someone like Jenny McCarthy get completely torn apart for changing their mind. I, for one, think it was a brave move of Jenny McCarthy to write a piece explaining that she now has a more “pro-vax” stance.

 As a matter of fact, there have been studies to show that in the face of all the evidence, people are less likely to change their minds. We are not going to make easier by being jerks when someone decides to change their minds. The Guardian published this article emphasising that being jerks about vaccination is not helping things.

 “Dumbledore says people find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right,” said Hermione.  (Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, page 95)

 I really feel that as scientists we need to be more accessible as experts. We need people to start realising that we are the “real doctors” and that there are more resources out there to get the answers than their general practitioner physician. Don’t get me wrong, physicians are great. They are great at what they do but they are not experts. They refer you to oncologists, surgeons, dermatologists, etc., when you need an expert for a medical malady. This works the same for research. Physicians are not experts. They rely on the work of experts and yet they are the ones that have to field the questions. Let’s help physicians out and get the experts out there because an immunologist is much more suited to addressing the question of “why do I have to get my baby vaccinated every 2 months?” than your public health nurse or general physician. Again, let me stress: public health nurses and physicians are great-but they are not the only resource.

 Here is where Curiosity Science can help you. I am here, with a network of science connections to help you find answers to your vaccine questions. No judgement, just science. Send us an email with your questions at thecuriosityscience@gmail.com. Also keep reading our site. There will be plenty of information relating to vaccines and how they work, like some of these previous posts on the immune system or vaccine truth.

 So for all of you, pro or anti-vax, I hope you keep reading my series with an open mind to learning something new. For all of you pro-vaxxers: please be kind when talking about the vaccine debate. I know that it can be frustrating, but remember that much of it started with simple questions, which is something that as scientists, we embrace. We have the science on our side; we don’t need to resort to childish name calling or “anti-vax shaming”. Shaming has never been a winning strategy. We are not trying to win a debate. We are trying to provide information that makes parents feel that they are doing the right thing by vaccinating their children. For all of you anti-vaxxers: please keep an open mind to peer-reviewed science. You should always feel comfortable asking questions about why your child is receiving any kind of treatment, but you should also know where to get answers that are based on fact. Unfortunately the internet is a big place and anyone can post whatever they like. It can be a challenge just to sort out what sources are valid and which ones are not. Vaccination is about more than just you and your child, though: it is about community health.

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The Immune System: Your Own Personal Military

 To understand how vaccines and other pharmaceuticals work, we need to understand the immune system. You can think of your immune system like your own personal army protecting you from outside threats. With this in mind, the first term that we should define is pathogen: an agent that causes disease. These can be foreign bacteria, like Streptococcus pneumoniae, which causes pneumonia, or it could be a virus, like the Measles virus. Your immune system is designed to protect you from pathogens. Pathogens carry foreign proteins that are referred to as antigens and these antigens are what trigger your immune army to attack.

Figure 1: White blood cell types.

Figure 1: White blood cell types.

So who is involved in this very important immune army?  The immune cells are called lymphocytes (aka white blood cells) and are made up of T cells and B cells (Figure 1).  There is a difference between T cells and B cells in where they are produced and how they interact with antigens, but for simplicity, I am not going to delve into the differences. Both T cells and B cells work synergistically to create long term immunityI am going to focus my explanation on B cells. 

Figure 2: B cell function.

Figure 2: B cell function.

B cells produce and secrete little Y-shaped proteins that bind to antigens (Figure 2). These Y-shaped proteins are referred to as antibodies and are specific to a particular antigen. These antibodies then roam around your blood system and if they encounter the pathogen they are specific for, they will bind to the antigens on the virus or bacteria pathogen. This marks the pathogen for destruction. Large cells called macrophages will come along and eat the virus or bacteria cells marked with antibodies and destroy them.

Your Body at War: A Summary of Your Immune System

A foreign invader (a virus or bacteria) enters your body and makes you sick. Your immune system sends in its troops, the White Blood Cell corps, to fend off the invaders. The cells create and secrete proteins called antibodies that will mark the invaders. Then large cells called macrophages come along and eat the foreign cells that have been marked by the antibodies. After you’ve defeated the enemy, you keep the antibodies. The antibodies will then continue to patrol your body’s perimeter and if that particular invader tries to come back in, the antibodies will mark it for destruction before it can even cause disease.

How then does vaccination work?

The idea with vaccines is that you trick your immune system into thinking that it has the disease. You provide your immune system with the necessary antigens to create an immune response, but doesn’t provide it with the actual disease causing agent. Therefore you get an immune response but you don’t get sick. Your body will produce antibodies against that particular disease so that when you are exposed to the actual disease, your immune system immediately marks the pathogens and destroys them before they have a chance to make you sick.  

I said above that your immune system usually wins, so why do we even care about this? Well, just because your immune system may win, it doesn’t mean that it does not suffer some losses. For example: measles, you may not die, but you may end up losing your hearing. Mumps: you may actually lose your ability to reproduce. Polio: you may be paralysed for life. And of course, you can actually die. The flu causes over 100 000 deaths world wide every year, and that doesn’t even count the millions who have died in massive flu pandemics prior to the advent of the vaccine. 

You Know You Have the Flu When…

IMG_0739This is me getting my annual flu shot. I love getting vaccinations and am so lucky that, as a Canadian, I can pop in to any flu clinic line and get the shot, free of charge. Few people in the world are so lucky.

Despite my love of the flu vaccine, I still ended up spending my holiday season suffering from the flu. How do I know? There are a number of websites, like this Alberta Health site, that outlines all the basic symptoms (and conveniently explains the differences between other common seasonal illnesses that you may contract) but I truly prefer my own personal spin on how you know you have the flu, rather than some other illness:

  • If you find yourself empathising with the deer in the ditch on the side of the highway, you may have the flu.
  • If you are wearing fuzzy, flannel pjs, and are under a duvet, 3 quilts and an afghan while still shivering like you are hanging out in Superman’s fortress of solitude in a sundress, you may have the flu.
  • If you find yourself seriously wondering whether you would feel better or worse if you got hit by a semi-truck, you may have the flu.
  • If you have coughed so much that your significant other is starting to ask “Do you know when you will be done coughing?”, you may have the flu.
  • If you find yourself wondering “where do people get the energy to just get the Hell out of bed because it seems like I am going to have to run a marathon just to reach the bathroom?”, you may have the flu.
  • If your significant other is concerned they will receive 2nd degree burns by touching your forehead, you may have the flu.

I have a love-hate relationship with the flu. I love, from a pathobiology perspective, what a cool virus it is. It evolves every year and manages to kill hundreds of thousands every year. (ok, so that isn’t cool.) It has an interesting history and has shaped humanity immeasurably. I HATE contracting the flu. It is awful. The worst. Honestly, all those points above-feeling like roadkill-that is how that stupid virus makes you feel. I will do whatever it takes to avoid getting the flu, hence why I will get a flu shot, even when they aren’t a 100% guarantee.

Why aren’t flu shots 100% guarantee? When it was announced this year that the flu shot would be less effective, it prompted a ton of rumours, such as it doesn’t work at all, the CDC apologises, etc. Here’s the thing, it isn’t that the flu shot this year isn’t effective. It is very effective, for the strains that it was designed against. Unfortunately, one of the prominent strains that is making its way through the populations was NOT one that the vaccine guarded against. The most common strain this year has been H3N2, but it is not optimally matched to the vaccine strain. Upside: being related to the vaccine strain does mean you get some protection from the vaccine, if not total. I will take this over when, in 2009, I contracted H1N1 and was the most miserably sick I have ever been in my entire life. I have had some terrible illnesses in my time, but nothing, NOTHING, has been worse that my 2009 bought with the flu.

The flu shot is designed months ahead (FYI it costs hundreds of millions of dollars just to produce the shot each year.) and based on strains that are predicted to be the most virulent. Most of the time, we do pretty good at predicting it, but some years, like this year, we are a little off the mark. Also, because of all the different types of flus that go around, you can still get the flu even if you have had the shot. It doesn’t mean the vaccine doesn’t work. It just means you got a strain that wasn’t in the vaccine. But hey, at least you won’t get the strains in the vaccine, so there is an upside.

Anyway, every year you will see me in line for my flu shot, even if some years it means I may still get the flu. I will do anything I can to protect myself from this illness: starting with washing my hands regularly, coughing into my sleeve, and eating all my vegetables. And every fall, you will see me in line, gleefully chatting up the public health nurses while I get my shot. It costs me only a little bit of my time, and compared to the time that being sick takes out of my life, I will take the 30 minutes in the flu clinic. As a Canadian, I am very thankful that I do not have to pay for the vaccine. This is just one of the many reasons we should be thankful for our public health care.

For more cool flu information, check out FluWatch from the Canadian Government.

The Truth About Vaccines

Here at Curiosity Science, we are big fans of vaccination. It is one of the simplest things that you can do to improve your health and it is the way that we will cure diseases. The fact that smallpx no longer threatens us is the best example of how vaccination cures and eradicates diseases. That is, afterall, the goal of modern medical research: to cure and eradicate diseases.  However, in recent years, vaccination has come under fire from an anti-vaccine movement.

The anti-vaccination movement is an example of a poor understanding of science mixed with fear mongering. As I said, we here at Curiosity Science are all about vaccines and vaccination. The science is sound. To quote Neil Degrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is it is true whether or not you believe in it.”

Now, that being said, Curiosity Science is also a welcoming place to anyone who has vaccine concerns. One of my biggest concerns has been how frustrated us on the pro-vax side have become that we are almost jerks to anyone who questions vaccines or vaccine safety. I get that. Believe me I have been there-it is especially frustrating when you see otherwise intelligent people fall victim to erroneous internet fear articles that come from seemingly legit websites like http://vactruth.com/. This information is not cultivated by experts in the field; it is cultivated by a man who fears that vaccines are somehow to blame for his kid “not meeting the developmental milestones”.

Why is this a concern? Well because people are making jumps that are not proper conclusions by reading a list of ingredients in vaccines and thinking they are somehow nefarious. The problem being that most people don’t have enough chemistry to understand what those crazy “chemically sounding” ingredient names mean. That is why you want to talk to experts about those things. You wouldn’t take surgery advice from someone who isn’t a surgeon right?

This is why I want to emphasise that here at Curiosity Science we are friendly and open to all concerns about vaccines. If you want actual, scientifically verified information, please look here. If you want to talk to an immunologist or a pathobiologist or a pharmaceutical chemist, send us an email at thecuriosityscience@gmail.com. It is ok to have questions and concerns. I also encourage all of you who are trying to change the minds of anti-vaxxers to do your best to create a friendly, open dialogue. Making people feel stupid (no matter how frustrated you get) is never going to be a winning strategy.

For those of you who are concerned about vaccines check out this awesome comic. There is no conspiracy; only a plea to make our population as healthy as possible! Vaccinate yourself against misinformation and know your experts.

Vaccines copy