The Vaccine Conundrum

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

It’s the most wonderful time of the year when millions of Americans celebrate the season with Christmas carols, trees, decorations, eggnogs and … flu shots. More than 150 million flu shots will be available in the U.S. this year. For many Americans, it’s a no-brainer to get flu shots – why not prevent it, if you can? For a minority, it’s simply “No thanks” or worse, “Over my dead body!” Of course, the same differences in attitudes extend to other types of vaccinations, if only with more intensity. There are few topics in America that are so divisive and dogmatic as vaccination. Why? With infectious diseases, we are all socialists – we care about our neighbor’s health and we insist they don’t get sick! So, is there a way to discuss vaccination in an objective manner and understand the science as well as the concerns of both sides of this issue? Or even reach a compromise?

Vaccination is a rather novel and a proactive way to combat diseases, having become widespread only in the last hundred years. Exposing people to weakened or dead virus/bacteria (or some fragments of those pathogens) helps people’s immune system figure out how to fight the same pathogens in the future. It’s like using training wheels on bicycles for kids, or like using Cliff’s Notes to read Shakespeare.

It sounds pretty nifty and foolproof. In the 1960s and ‘70s, medical experts thought that infectious diseases would be completely eradicated. As DuPont advertised in the 1960s, everyone believed in better living through better chemistry. With vaccines, antibiotics, improvement in sanitation, and better understanding of nutrition, people thought we had every trick in the bag to avoid or cure any disease. After all, it was just a matter of science – we had all the gadgets and the chemicals to figure out those pesky little germs. Show me a germ, I can make a vaccine or an antibiotic for it.

By the way, sanitation played an important historical role in reduction of infectious diseases. It’s hard for many people to realize that flush toilets were very uncommon in America before World War I. American soldiers returning from Europe talked about a “mighty slick invention called the crapper.” It took a while to catch on, and even in the 1950s, a quarter of all American homes had no flushing toilets. It’s harder to imagine that “splinter-free” toilet paper was not widely available until the 1940s.

Stroll Through History

In the beginning of the 20th century, the only vaccine that was available was for smallpox, a disease that has been around for 3000 years. Then, like clockwork, one vaccine was added about every decade until the 1950s – pertussis (1914), diphtheria (1926), tetanus (1938) and polio (1955). The 1960s heralded three vaccines for mumps, measles and rubella which were combined as MMR in 1971.

By the 1970s, smallpox was deemed to have been eradicated throughout the world, and the vaccine was dropped. However, there are some concerns now about bioterrorism or just natural reemergence of the virus in the future.

The 1980s were relatively quiet, with just one more vaccine added to the list – Hib. But something new happened in the legal area. A “vaccine court” was established in 1986 that gave blanket immunity to vaccine manufacturers and became the only legal avenue for people to claim damages from vaccines. The federal government also established a vaccine compensation program funded by taxpayers in 1988 to compensate victims of severe side effects from vaccines. This program has awarded more than$2.8 billion for 3800+ claims since then. Those adverse reactions that do get reported are listed in the VAERS database that can be searched with a tool provided by the CDC. For example, in 2014, more than 2000 cases of adverse reactions to vaccines have been reported for children under the age of one. One can safely assume that only a small fraction of adverse reactions get reported.

Going back to the historical development, Hepatitis B was added in the 1990s to the recommended list for all children. The first shot was administered right after birth, although previously it was given only to high-risk adults such as intravenous drug users. Then, between 1994 and 2014, the sheer number of children’s vaccines added to CDC’s list just exploded.

If you do the math, we added 9 vaccines in 90 years – about one every ten years. However, in the last 20 years – between 1994 and 2014 – we have added chickenpox, Hepatitis A, Rotavirus (1 or 5 vaccines in one shot), Influenza, and Pneumococcal (7 or 13 or 23 vaccines in one shot) vaccines. So that’s anywhere from 11 to 31 new vaccines added in the last 20 years. Taking into account multiple booster shots of the same vaccines, a child can potentially get about 100 vaccines (or, to be more precise, “antigens”) within the first year.

So, what’s the problem? More is better, right?

Side Effects and Concerns

Everything was fine – people were happy, pharmaceutical companies were happier – until chronic diseases started to increase at an alarming rate. Obesity, diabetes, asthma, eczema and other skin diseases, food and other allergies, child rheumatoid arthritis, neurological diseases like lupus, multiple sclerosis and, most significantly, autism were everywhere. Many of these charts – such as for diabetes – show significant jump in the rates of autoimmune disorders starting from the 1990s, and one doesn’t have to be a math expert to look at the chart and figure out the inflexion point. More than 25 million Americans now have autoimmune disorders, and tens of millions more have diabetes, asthma, food allergies etc.

More than anything, autism has really shaken up families who find it emotionally and financially devastating to take care of severely autistic children. Although the medical professionals keep expanding the “spectrum” of autism, about 40% of autistic children don’t speak; a similar percentage have IQ below 70; and many face extraordinary difficulties as adults. Currently, about 1 in 50 Americans are said to have autism which is a 600% increase over the last 20 years. Even accounting for increased diagnosis and new definitions which include people who grow up to be normal, there can be no doubt about the shocking rise in severe, debilitating autism. Americans are spending more than $200 billion every year dealing with autism; and a family with an autistic child can easily spend upwards of $60,000 a year taking care of the child. Scientists don’t have a cure or even medicines for the core symptoms; and they don’t really know why or how autism occurs, but they will tell you it’s not caused by vaccines.

We will never know for sure if vaccines cause autism. We can do statistical analyses ad infinitum, but they are not going to change many minds. Pharmaceutical companies don’t reveal all the clinical data either. Couple of weeks ago, a surprising article in Newsweek – a corporate, mainstream publication – illustrated how Big Pharma routinely hide negative results from clinical trials and fudge the data. The FDA cannot reveal how it analyzes adverse reactions to drugs and vaccines, because the analysis is done by a patented software. Trust us.

But people didn’t need scientific journals to know something had gone awry. Alarmed by the rising tide of new diseases, what many people focused on immediately was the list of ingredients in the vaccines, and mercury really stood out. Mercury, in the form of Thimerosal, has been used as a preservative since the 1930s. Of course, mercury is a neurotoxin, and when we constantly tell people (especially pregnant women) to avoid seafood that are high in mercury, it is reasonable to question the use of mercury in vaccines that get injected straight into an infant’s blood (when you eat fish, at least some of the mercury will be eliminated through the bowels).

After denying any and all possible damages from mercury, Big Pharma quietly phased out mercury from pretty much all the vaccines except the flu vaccine (some of the newer flu vaccines are also mercury-free). Many flu vaccines – given to infants as young as 6 months old – contain 25 micrograms of mercury which is very toxic even by the standards of World Health Organization (it recommends not more than 0.7 microgram of mercury per lb of adult body weight). A new book by Robert F. Kennedy, a good read for people more interested in this subject.

Apart from mercury, the list of ingredients and components used in manufacturing vaccines makes you wonder if there cannot be a better way. The list includes formaldehyde, aluminum, genetically modified virus, cells from human fetus, proteins from human blood, cells from cow or chicken fetus, MSG, Polysorbate-80, sorbitol, latex, and even kidney cells of dogs. And the FDA recently approved the use of cancer cells from human tumorsto manufacture vaccines. Really.

Would anybody feed their children a dose of these, however small, just for the fun of it? Absolutely, not. However, millions of people accept these because of several reasons: 1) They don’t know about these. 2) They assume these are in very minute quantities and hence are harmless. 3) They trust the doctors, government and the media. 4) Herd mentality – everybody else does it, so it can’t be bad. 5) Fear of their children getting horrible diseases. 6) It’s really forced upon the public – you have to jump through hoops to get exemption for your children. 7) There can be a social taboo (other parents may not want an unvaccinated child near their own children).

At the same time, parents whose children are irreparably harmed tend to have very little doubts in their minds about the dangers of vaccines. When your healthy child dies or becomes brain damaged within hours or a couple of days after vaccination, it doesn’t matter how many doctors tell you that vaccines are “safe and effective.” Documentaries such as “Silent Epidemic: The Untold Story of Vaccines”, “Vaccine Nation” and “The Greater Good” offer many stories of such affected families as well as arguments against the mainstream understanding of vaccines.

However, there are two major drawbacks to the current vaccination doctrine that have not been explored very well in the debates. They are about the evolution of vaccine-resistant microbes and about over-stimulation of the immune system.

Vaccine Problem #1

Long-term thinking is an anathema to politicians and corporations. It’s that attitude that has conveniently ignored the possibility of bacteria and virus evolving to become resistant to current vaccines. Can this really happen?

Well, vaccine resistance has already been observed with the whooping cough bacteria (“pertussis”, the P in DTaP). Starting around 2004, mutations have been observed all around the world. While the unvaccinated children get blamed for the current outbreaks of whooping cough, the reality is that Big Pharma should work on updated vaccines for these newer strains.

Tuberculosis is another disease that kills about 2 million people worldwide, but the BCG vaccine is almost 100 years old and has become vastly ineffective. A new vaccine based on genetically modified virus is being tested (but it goes to show that it is not easy to develop a vaccine for any given bacteria or virus).

Viruses – with a few exception like influenza and HIV – mutate a lot slower than bacteria. However, virus such as Hepatitis B has evolved to become resistant to the current vaccines.

While almost nobody gets polio in the U.S. anymore, vaccine-resistant polio has been showing up around the world.

Scientists from Oxford University have found that pneumococcus – the bacteria responsible for pneumonia and meningitis – has evolved to dodge the existing vaccines.

Experts have determined that there are quite a few ways that measles can mutate to be vaccine-resistant. In India, there have been measles outbreak among vaccinated children this year, and scientists suspect mutations.

Similarly there are some strains of mumps against whom the vaccines are effective only anywhere from 0% to 33% of the time. The efficacy of the current MMR vaccine is also in doubt since three whistleblowers from Merck have claimed that there was blatant conspiracy within the company to manipulate the data and exaggerate the benefits of the MMR vaccine.

In summary, bacteria and virus have been around for more than 3 billion years on earth simply because they are extremely agile and adaptable. It’s only a matter of time that the microbes will change enough to evade all the vaccines in the market. It’s not much different from how many antibiotics have become less effective against the bacteria over the last few decades. The list of new strains of pathogens that are partially or completely resistant to antibiotics continues to grow.

Another way that vaccines become ineffective is as follows: there are many strains of the same virus and bacteria in nature, and they all compete with each other. Ironically, the less dangerous ones tend to be more common since they don’t kill their victims quickly. It’s a balancing game for the microbes – if the virus multiplies too fast, it kills the host and hence the virus itself. The smart ones are less lethal, hang around much longer in the host, thereby increasing the chance of spreading – a good example of this behavior would be herpes. So what happens when we create vaccines for the commonly found microbes? We are basically eliminating competition and thus encouraging the spread of the more virulent and deadlier pathogens. A little counter-intuitive, for sure.

Vaccine Problem #2

Would you feed steak and wine to a newborn or a 1-year old? Would we expect a 6-month old baby to walk or run? Would we try to make an infant learn five languages at the same time?

It sounds quite silly, right? Of course, the baby has a totally immature and undeveloped body. The digestive, muscular, skeletal, nervous, respiratory and all the other systems take years to mature. Of course, the same applies to their immune system. So how come we think we can inject 100 powerful antigens into the child’s body within the first year and expect that everything will be okay?

We give MMR without thinking twice, but no child can survive getting all three actual diseases — measles, mumps and rubella — at the same time. Even superman might not survive getting infected with 23 dangerous bacteria at the same time (in reference to the Prevnar-23 vaccine).

Of course, getting vaccinated is not quite the same as getting the actual disease, since we use only dead microbes, weakened microbes or proteins from those microbes. Even so, the stress on the immune system is considerable, and it can be better explained with an analogy described below.

Imagine a peaceful town that has neighborhood watch volunteers who keep an eye for any trouble makers. If they can’t catch the guy, they call the private security guards who can call the local police if things really get out of hand. After that, you have the state police and the SWAT teams. Let’s call all these resources “Level 1” of defense. The “Level 2” consists of the National Guard, the FBI, the CIA, and the military with tanks and drones. That’s pretty much how the immune system works.

When you get infected with a real pathogen and the virus manages to invade your cells and multiply rapidly to make you really sick, both Level 1 and Level 2 defense systems are activated. In biological terms, Level 2 is called “cell-mediated” immunity. Getting a vaccine activates only Level 1 of the immune system. This is not quite enduring, and that’s why multiple shots of the same vaccine are needed – the so-called “booster” shots. On the other hand, people who get sick naturally and recover, will get protection for life.

Now imagine a situation where the peaceful town is getting attacked by a whole bunch of different kinds of miscreants – some slash the tires of the cars, some break into homes and cars, and so on. And say this happens a lot over a period of time. What happens is that the volunteers, security guards and the local police become hyper-vigilant. They start over-reacting — innocent people start getting pulled over all the time; people jogging at night get stopped and questioned; and a couple of local residents get shot on Halloween. In the worst case scenario, the police itself become the bigger threat to the town.

In biological terms, this above scenario would be called an “allergy” or an “autoimmune disorder.”

Just like the hyper-vigilant cops in our analogy, the immune system can start to misidentify innocent materials like peanuts – or any other food – and pollen for dangerous pathogens. The immune system can also start attacking and killing the highly beneficial gut bacteria in a child’s intestines (after all, it’s also bacteria, right?). Of course, a healthy gut flora is important for digestion, metabolism, low inflammation throughout the body and much more. In fact, many studies have found a strong correlation between autism and a weak gut flora. A healthy gut flora even affects how our bodies react to vaccines.

In the worst case scenario, the confused immune system starts producing autoantibodies that attack our own body. Rheumatoid arthritis, Lupus, Celiac disease, thyroid diseases and many more autoimmune disorders can be the result of such mistaken identities. The technical term is “molecular mimicry” – the close resemblance between a protein (or another feature) of a pathogen and our own cells.

Scientists actually have a name for diseases that arise because of this confusion – Acquired Autoimmunity Syndrome; and there are some studies linking vaccines to it.

Other studies show that statistically significant number of autoimmune diseases occur within 2-3 months after vaccination.

(Immune system is a fascinating topic and it’s fun to learn at least the basics. Neutrophils act as the first-responders and basically “pepper spray” the pathogens; macrophages just swallow the viruses as if they are delicious Jellos; B-cells and plasma cells produce antibodies and also memorize the details of the pathogen for future invasions; cells that are invaded by a pathogen can take a fragment of the pathogen and ‘wave it outside’ like a kidnapped person would do through a window; a T-cell, the Rambo of the immune system, can read this SOS signal and order immediate production of millions of other Rambos; natural killer cellsdestroy – for the greater good – cells that have been completely take over by a pathogen … and so on.)

So what is the overall conclusion about vaccines?

The Trillion Dollar Question

If you are looking for a conclusive, “scientific” answer for the safety or dangers of vaccine, you will not find one. There are three main reasons for that. One, the government and the elites are convinced that if you measure the pros and cons, the benefits outweigh the risks – just like we don’t ban cars even if there are car accidents.

Second, the Big Pharma make billions of dollars from vaccines. Vaccine revenue has grown 400% in the last ten years. Vaccine such as Prevnar costs $500 for the required four shots, and is a cash cow. Vaccination provides a guaranteed source of income for Big Pharma year after year, and with potential seven billion customers (and growing) on this earth, it’s not going to let pesky “facts” come in the way. For every study that shows the dangers of vaccines, the big corporations can sponsor ten studies that will claim that vaccine was not the culprit. Thanks to the lucrative revolving door in the federal government, people like Julie Gerberding can act as the best salesperson for Gardasil — the HPV vaccine — while being the director of Centers for Disease Control. Then she left CDC to become the president of the vaccine division of Merck, the company that makes that very same HPV vaccine. Not unlike Michael Taylor and Monsanto. Or thousand other examples of the cozy relationship between government and corporations.

Third, we live in a society where people want quick solutions. “One shot and you never have to worry about a disease” is just too convincing and tempting for most people. It’s human psychology and an American zeitgeist.

5-Point Solution

The good news is that there are potential changes and compromises that can be achieved through grassroots, medical and political movements. The solution can come in five ways: Refine, Reduce, Revise, Resume and Refuse.

Refine: We can definitely demand better ingredients and adjuvants in the vaccines. Just like when the public demand forced Big Pharma to quickly remove mercury from most vaccines, we can demand they refine the vaccines and get rid of all irritants and dangerous substances. If Merck, Pfizer and others are smart enough to make a vaccine, they are smart enough to make it safe.

Reduce: America is #1 in the number of vaccines administered to children (USA! USA!), yet it ranks 34th in infant mortality. Study after study shows that the countries with the least number of vaccines also have the least infant mortality. It’s really a no brainer that we can live with half as many vaccines as we have right now. For example, many countries in Europe – as America was until 1996 – don’t mandate a vaccine for chickenpox. Kids get chickenpox and they are fine after a week or two. Similarly, in Japan, most vaccines such as Hep A, Hep B, Rotavirus, Chickenpox, Mumps and Prevnar are voluntary. Japan has also stopped Gardasil’s HPV vaccination. Flu shot is another example where the dangers of the virus and the benefits of the vaccine are vastly exaggerated. Most children and adults can avoid flu (or recover very fast) if they are just normal and healthy.

Revise: We can definitely revise the current schedule of CDC which looks like a “shock and awe” invasion of an infant’s immune system. Perhaps we can start at the age of three or four and spread them out so that we give only one vaccine with one antigen every few months.

Resume: We need to resume some of the wise ways of our grandparents. There are three simple and natural ways to strengthen our children’s immune systems: encourage natural birth, breastfeed for a longer period of time and let the kids get their hands dirty. C-section babies have poorer immune systems compared to babies born vaginally. Next, mother’s milk has many antibodies and immune cells to protect the baby from various diseases, including the ones we vaccinate the kids for! A mother’s milk also has special compounds to encourage the growth of optimal gut flora in her child which further strengthens the immune system. Until the dawn of the 20th century, it was common to breastfeed until three or four years of age. Even the World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond. In the U.S., only 25% of the kids are breastfed for one year, but even that is not exclusive – many combine it with baby formulas which are full of GMO sugar, artificial vitamins, chemicals and pesticides. Of course, working mothers face a lot of logistical challenges that have to addressed by governments and corporations – the need for longer maternity leave is an example. Finally, let the kids play in parks and gardens, and interact with pets. Early exposure to various microbes significantly decrease the chances of asthma and allergies. To summarize, let’s get back to our roots.

Refuse: We need to give more authority and autonomy to parents to decide what’s best for their children. Parents should be given more freedom to decide which vaccines are administered and when to their children.

Like many other consequential health issues of our time, only grassroots efforts and education can help us reform the status quo and find holistic as well as effective solutions to this vaccine conundrum.


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Chris Kanthan is the author of six books, including the latest: “China, China, Chyyna: Greatest disruption to American century.” Chris lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, has traveled to 40 countries, and writes about world affairs, politics, economy and health.