Blowing the whistle on anti-vax false claims – Part 1

This photo is taken from a gathering outside one of our recent local sporting events. These signs contain so much misinformation that I have to call “Foul!” Because of the sheer volume of hooey that needs debunking, this blogpost will be split into multiple parts. We will look at each message and address each claim. Presenting… Part 1 of “Blowing the whistle on anti-vax false claims”.

1. Vaccines are made with aborted fetal DNA
Um, no. There are six vaccines (varicella, rubella, hepatitis A, the original – not the most recent – shingles vaccine, adenovirus, and rabies) that are grown in one of two different cell strains. Cell lines WI-38 and MRC-5 were taken from two fetuses aborted in the 1960s. These fetuses were aborted by maternal choice and not for the purpose of making vaccines. No, fetuses are not continually being aborted for vaccine manufacture. The cells used to grow these viruses are descendent cells. They are NOT the original aborted fetal cells. These six viruses are grown in the human descendent cells just like other viruses might be grown or replicated in yeast or canine cells. These viruses are then removed from the cells and purified. Consequently, there is no fetal DNA in the final vaccine product.

Our Catholic patients and others who have a religious or moral objection to abortion can sometimes have difficulty with this. However, the Catholic Church itself draws a distinction between aborted fetal cells and descendent cells. Here is a statement from the National Catholic Bioethics Center on the subject that may relieve our patients’ moral dilemma.

“The cell lines under consideration were begun using cells taken from one or more fetuses aborted almost 40 years ago. Since that time the cell lines have grown independently. It is important to note that descendant cells are not the cells of the aborted child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim’s body.”

Then, they go on to instruct that we have a moral obligation to protect our children and others in our communities.

“There would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious disease, for example rubella, especially in light of the concern that we should all have for the health of our children, public health, and the common good.”

Looking for shareable images that counter common anti-vaccine tropes like this one? Check them out here.

2. Paid vaccine injuries: anaphylaxis, encephalopathy, chronic arthritis, death
This claim references the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (NVICP), a program established by the US government. It is based on the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986. Development of this program was not as an admission of common harm caused by vaccines, as anti-vaxxers claim. It represented an attempt to ensure compensation for those suffering from the known, but very rare serious harms from vaccines. Also, it served to take the burden of litigation off the shoulders of vaccine manufacturers. The costs of defending against litigation would have put many of these companies out of business. In order to permit continued production of life-saving vaccines, the government opted to take on the risk itself.

Additionally, this claim shows you some scary words – anaphylaxis, encephalopathy, death. It is meant to evoke an emotional reaction in you – fear. There are very rare risks associated with vaccines (on the order of 1 in 1 million). However, these events occur more often as a result of the illness itself. For example, in the case of measles, 1 in 1000 people with measles will develop encephalitis. One to two in 1000 will die from the disease. Regarding anaphylaxis (a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction), your child could eat a peanut or shrimp or touch a latex balloon and develop anaphylaxis. This happens much more commonly than would ever happen after a vaccine.

Eating is not without risk. Walking down the street is not without risk. Life is not without risk. It is the measure of that risk that we need to be concerned with.

3. Live virus vaccines shed and spread
Well, very rarely, yes. Shedding (spread of active virus) does happen very rarely after some vaccines. However, it happens oh so much more commonly in a person infected with the actual disease. Shedding after a chicken pox vaccine? Maybe, but highly unlikely. Shedding during a chicken pox illness? Every. Single. Time.

Here, it is the “spread” part of this claim that we should concern ourselves with. This is why herd immunity is so important. Vaccination of as many in a community as possible helps contain the spread of disease. This works whether it is shed from a natural illness or, much less commonly, from a vaccine. The “spread” part is exactly WHY we need to vaccinate MORE people, not fewer.

4. Vaccine ingredients: Aluminum, Formaldehyde, Mercury, etc.
Ok, let’s look at these “big 3”.

a. Aluminum – aluminum is used as an adjuvant in vaccines. An adjuvant is something that is added to a vaccine to boost the body’s immune response. Adjuvants are only used in killed virus vaccines. They allow for the use of fewer viral or bacterial proteins in the vaccine, while maintaining a strong immune reaction.

Aluminum is everywhere. It is in the earth’s crust, in our food and water, in products we use every day (like tinfoil, seasonings, and pots and pans). We can’t escape it. Babies are exposed to more aluminum in breast milk or formula than they ever get in any series of vaccines.

Breast feeding exposes a baby to approximately 7 mg of aluminum in the first 6 months of life. Exposure through formula feeding is even higher. Babies get approximately 36 mg in 6 months from regular formula feeding and approximately 117 mg in 6 months with soy formula. How much aluminum are babies exposed to in 6 months worth of vaccines? 4.4 mg – much less than they get in feedings.

It’s not the substance itself that is a concern. It is the amount of the substance we are exposed to that can be problematic. Anything in a large enough dose can be harmful. Water can be harmful. We use a measure called the Minimum Risk Level (MRL) to determine a substance’s toxicity. The substances in vaccines are closely monitored, according to this measure, by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Levels of aluminum in vaccines are definitively below the MRL (for aluminum, 1.0mg/kg/d)

b. Formaldehyde – that dreaded embalming fluid. How can that be acceptable to put into vaccines? Well, first you should know that there is very little, if any, formaldehyde in vaccines. Package inserts for vaccines are different from those for other products we consume. Vaccine manufacturers have to list any substance used in production of vaccines as an “ingredient”. This is required, whether there is any of that substance in the final product or not.

Formaldehyde is used in the manufacture of vaccines. It is not placed into the vaccine end product. It is used in production to inactivate viruses and to render bacterial toxins no longer toxic.  This is good, right? The MRL for formaldehyde is 0.3 mg/kg/d on an intermittent basis. Let’s take a 6 month old baby, average weight being about 16.5 lbs. Per the MRL, this baby could be exposed to 2.25 mg of formaldehyde per day and suffer no ill effects. Want to guess how much is in all of the shots recommended at a 6 month checkup (including a flu vaccine)? 0.2 mg – far below the MRL.

Also, we have way more formaldehyde floating around in our bodies naturally than we are ever exposed to in a series of vaccines. Not many people are aware that our bodies NEED formaldehyde for certain cellular processes. In fact, our bodies make formaldehyde just for that purpose. The average newborn, weighing about 6-8 lbs, enters the world with 50-70 times more formaldehyde in their body than they are exposed to in a series of shots.

c. Mercury – Argh. This old thing again. This is a concern that just won’t die. There has been no consistent evidence that ethyl mercury, the form that was used in vaccines as a preservative, causes harm in children. Additionally, there have been millions of children studied since a mercury/autism link was claimed by He-who-shall-not-be-named, showing this assertion to be absolutely false.

Ethyl mercury, in the form of Thimerosal, was removed from all vaccines except for multi-dose flu in 2001. If there was a link between this substance and autism spectrum disorder (ASD), one would expect rates of ASD to go down since its removal. But they only continue to climb. And, it’s not even in our vaccines any more! Please. Let’s move on.

5. Average FDA testing – Drugs 4.5 years, Vaccines 4.5 days
Well, this is just an outright lie. Really, I don’t even know where this claim comes from. Any person doing any tiny amount of research into the vaccine development process would see that it takes many years, on average 10-15 years, to develop and produce a vaccine.

Because vaccines are given to healthy people, the bar for safety is set extremely high. They are studied much more rigorously than drugs, which are used to treat disease. Vaccines go through 8, count ‘em 8, stages of testing/oversight. Let’s look, shall we?

a. Exploratory phase – to start, scientists monitor new, persisting, or mutating infections in the community. These are then taken to the basic science lab where the viral or bacterial proteins are identified.

b. Preclinical phase – this next phase tests the safety and ability of a vaccine to trigger an immune response. Animal subjects are sometimes used at this phase to try and gauge the response we would see in humans. Researchers may challenge their test subjects with vaccination then expose them to the targeted illness to monitor immune response. Many vaccines never make it beyond this phase of testing.

c. Clinical development phase – there are three parts to this phase of testing.

i. Phase 1 – the first stage of human testing happens with a small number (fewer than 100) of subjects. This phase may be non blinded and open label. This means that researchers and test subjects may know who is getting vaccine and who is getting placebo. If intended for children, tests are first conducted on adults. Then, if proven safe, tests on younger and younger subjects are conducted until the target age is reached.

ii. Phase 2 – next, a larger number of participants is enrolled (hundreds). Testing often includes those who are most at risk for the disease. These are often conducted in other countries where disease risk is higher. Trials are typically randomized and placebo controlled. They are looking to determine safety, degree of immune response, dosing, scheduling, and method of delivery.

iii. Phase 3 – lastly, thousands to tens of thousands of test subjects are enrolled. These are randomized, doubled blinded, and placebo controlled trials. Primary endpoints are safety and monitoring for any adverse effects seen when vaccine is given to larger numbers.

d. Regulatory and review phase – If a vaccine makes it through Phase 3 testing, a Biologics License Application is submitted to the FDA. Then, the FDA inspects the manufacturing facilities, approves labeling, and continues oversight to assure safety, purity and vaccine potency.

e. Manufacturing – Next, major pharmaceutical companies undertake manufacturing. They are equipped with the personnel and infrastructure to make and distribute large quantities of vaccine

f. Quality control – Finally, after a vaccine comes to market, quality and safety monitoring continue and involve several different entities:

i. The manufacturer may choose to conduct Phase 4 trials to monitor safety and effectiveness and look for other potential uses of the vaccine.

ii. The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) – VAERS is jointly overseen by the CDC and the FDA. It is a passive reporting and early warning system which takes reports of any adverse reactions to vaccines. It monitors for any concerning trends.

iii. The Vaccine Safety Datalink (VSD) – the VSD is a collaboration between the CDC and 8 health care organizations around the country. It monitors safety and then conducts studies on any rare and serious adverse events following immunization.

Whew. I’m tired just writing that. Now, just think about the flu shot, which has been available since the 1930s. How long did it take to develop a universal flu vaccine (one that is not impacted by the flu’s tendency to rapidly mutate)? Well, it’s 89 years and counting. We still don’t have one.

In summary, vaccines are highly tested and monitored. No scientist, drug manufacturer, or government health care entity is out to put children or others in harm’s way.

Until next time…

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