It’s a good thing I have such smart friends because I had another question come in that I knew someone else could answer way better than I ever could. This question, about vaccines, I sent to my friend and former colleague, Heather. I found her answers, suggestions, and resources very helpful; I’m sure you will too.
Let’s talk a little bit about vaccines. Do they cause autism? Are they even necessary? Just to give a little background and caveat, I am a chemist and am about to complete a M.A. in bioethics. Medical ethics is one important area of bioethics. I am not a doctor, but I work with doctors and medical health professionals in discerning bioethical issues. This post is not to serve as a replacement for seeing a doctor, but is to help you ask your doctor the right questions.
In 1998, an article by Wakefield, et al reported a link between the measles, mumps, rubella vaccine and autism. This article has since been retracted and found to be fraudulent; however, because of the fears and uncertainty surrounding autism spectrum disorder, many people chose to continue believing that there is a link between autism and vaccines. Those that questioned the paper were characterized as uncaring monsters or in collaboration with the companies that distribute vaccines, so it has taken many years to right the wrong information. According to one well-known pediatrician’s lecture I had attended, many of the objections to this study were actually because doctors care very much for children and do not want to see them suffer with devastating and painful diseases. As he pointed out, if parents had seen what some of these diseases looked like before we had vaccines, they would be very reluctant to not vaccinate their child.
The American Institute of Science and Technology Education (AISTE) has an excellent article on this topic. They report on some important lessons we can learn from the MMR/autism fraud:
“What are the lessons we can learn from this scandal? First, peer-reviewed papers are not always right. And, according to this article, if one questions a new and interesting paper, being believed is an uphill battle. Second, scientific error, whether as a result of fraud or genuine misunderstanding, is costly. Some parents still do not allow their children to be vaccinated, even though the annual death rate from measles prior to development of this vaccine exceeded 5000/year in the USA alone. Mumps and rubella are not terribly dangerous diseases, but have serious repercussions for post-adolescent boys and pregnant ladies, respectively. Finally, it is always good to assess the validity of a scientific claim. In this case, Dr. Wakefield appears to have been seduced by the prospect of money and revenge (he was involved in a lawsuit against the manufacturers of the vaccine) and his paper contained elaborate fraud.”
I encourage you to read the 2011 article retracting Wakefield’s study. He was not just wrong, but is accused of gross misrepresentation and fraud. I think it serves as a good lesson and cautionary tale for all of us.
This does not mean ALL vaccines are necessary, but it hopefully promotes careful consideration and discernment when new studies come out that either promote MORE vaccines or tout the dangers of old vaccines. It is interesting how many people readily believed Wakefield’s study, even though vaccines have been proven successful in eradicating horrible diseases. To me, the burden of proof should be on the scientists that say vaccines are dangerous. In other words, the study needs to be pretty rigorous to convince me NOT to vaccinate children. People tend to fear the diseases or conditions we know the least about. Autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and certain cancers all fall within this category. Claiming something causes one of these scary diseases or even demonstrating a correlation (different from causation) does not count as rigorous proof. To put it bluntly, the public’s level of fear or relief over an experimental claim is not a gauge for the validity of an experimental claim.
The MMR/autism fraud dealt with vaccines for air-born, communicable, and often deadly diseases. What about vaccines for sexually transmitted diseases? Should those be required? Should those be held to the same standard? In the same AISTE article mentioned above, the authors address vaccines for Hepatitis B and Gardasil for HPV. Hep B is contracted through sexual contact and sharing needles. HPV is contracted through sexual contact. Looking at the data from the FDA process and the demographic of people who contract these diseases, the authors note that these vaccines lack long-term study data, and in the case of Gardasil, were rushed through the FDA process. Furthermore, all data for the Hep B vaccine was for older children, but some states were requiring infants to get the vaccine.
Additionally, even if the Hepatitis and HPV vaccines had adequate long term studies, vaccines that prevent diseases caused by behavioral choices  as opposed to vaccines to prevent air-born, communicable diseases should be prioritized differently. This prioritization is regardless of whether we are talking about a state mandate or parental decisions. Usually it is safest and most appropriate for parents working with medical health professionals to make final decisions for children. However, most states require some immunizations for students attending public schools, which can be problematic for any vaccine. Some parents may have medical reasons to withhold certain standard vaccines. For example, their child may have a particular condition or disease that compromises his or her immune system, in which case parents may want to delay certain immunizations. And with vaccines against diseases resulting from a certain lifestyle, some parents may want to leave that decision to their children once the child is older. Other parents may be morally against vaccines for sexually transmitted diseases.
Finally, in discerning what vaccines are best, we need to consider how vaccines are made. One resource that addresses the ethics of vaccines is Sound Choice Pharmaceuticals. I attended a lecture by the president of Sound Choice, Dr. Theresa Deisher. Dr. Deisher works to produce ethically sound vaccines and pharmaceuticals that are not made from fetal or embryonic tissues. Many vaccines that we use today (see the web site for a list) were originally made form fetal cells lines. The way cell lines work is that the original cell line may be derived from a source, such as a fetus or embryo, but the cell line is then preserved and perpetuated using laboratory techniques. So some vaccines have cell lines that date back to the 1960s or 1970s, but it was only the original fetus that was used. Fetuses or embryos are not farmed (or killed) for every vaccine. Instead cells are replicated from the original line. This displacement in time means that people are not necessarily morally culpable for using these vaccines, but we should take it upon ourselves to find vaccines that come from a better source for both practical and moral reasons. By way of example, it is possible to incubate and grow a vaccine in animal tissues. All flu vaccines come from chicken embryos, a more ethically sound source than using cells replicated from old fetal cell lines.
Included in Dr. Deisher’s research is an investigation on the correlation between those vaccines derived from fetal tissue, and the incidence of autism. She takes a much more tempered approach to this issue. For example, academic resources on Sound Choice’s web site (http://www.soundchoice.org/education.html) clearly indicate that there are a variety of factors that have been associated with autism and autism spectrum disorder, and probably there is no single cause to autism. Some of these factors are genetic markers or mutations, some are metabolic, some auto-immune, some have to do with the in utero environment or whether the pregnant mother contracted a virus during pregnancy, some have to do with the development of a child’s blood-brain barrier, and other factors have to do with environmental exposure. In fact, it can be overwhelming to read the number of factors that are linked to autism. It calls into question whether autism and autism spectrum disorder is really one condition or if it is many different conditions that all exhibit the same symptoms. Dr. Deisher is investigating one possible link to some cases of autism – the use of human fetal tissue in certain vaccines. Her research is looking at correlations and whether those correlations are also causations.
In sum, with every medical decision, we have to weigh the possible risks with the benefits. Every medical procedure, drug, vaccine, or pharmaceutical has side effects. Drugs for healthy patients as a preventative measure should be held to a high standard. It is important to be discerning with vaccines and to take reports on long-term effects seriously, but it is also important to not let fear tactics dictate our decisions.
 In the case of rape, this is still a “behavior-based activity” but what makes rape so egregious is that it removes the choice in behavior, and someone suffers from another’s behavior. I do not advocate vaccinations to protect against STDs contracted through sexual assault. This perpetuates a “victim” mentality. If a parent is truly fearful of his or her daughter becoming a victim of sexual assault, I recommend self defense and martial arts classes, and pepper spray. The statistics of women who have taken martial arts and have been victims of sexual assault are staggeringly low, and even if they are attacked, the attacker is NOT expecting her to fight back, so she often is able to get away. This perpetuates an empowerment mentality in young women rather than a victim mentality.
Heather Zeiger graduated magna cum laude from the University of Texas at Dallas with a B.S. in chemistry and a minor in government and politics. She received her M.S. in chemistry, also from UTD; her research was in organic synthesis and materials. She served for four years (2006-2010) at Probe Ministries as a Research Associate in the area of science and culture. Currently, Heather is a freelance science writer, teaches SAT/ACT prep classes, and is working on a M.A. in bioethics from Trinity International University.