Answering FAQs on Vaccine Safety

My previous article titled “Vaccine Safety and Loving Our Neighbors” generated some ardent reader responses. In this follow-up article I would like to acknowledge and address many of these responses, especially those from readers who expressed concern over the evidence for vaccine effectiveness and safety.

As RTB brings forward scientific evidence to support biblical faith, we desire to facilitate dialogue and have committed ourselves to pursuing truth together. It is with humility and grace that I attempt to answer the most frequently asked questions and objections concerning viruses and vaccines. (For clarity, question topics are highlighted in bold.)

What are your background and credentials for writing such an article?

In college I knew I wanted to study and research viral microbes that challenged medical science’s ability to treat and prevent diseases. For the majority of 20 years, that’s exactly what I did.

In grad school, I researched viruses that cause encephalitis, AIDS, and demyelination. In 1996, I completed my PhD in molecular and cellular biology (with an emphasis in virology) at the University of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, I conducted proof-of-concept (or preclinical) studies for vaccine development for viruses that cause respiratory ailments, AIDS, and other human diseases. My research focused on developing animal models and evaluating potential vaccines (and related products) to prevent and treat infections caused by human viruses.

My colleagues and I examined the best ways to generate and administer vaccines to offer the most protection with the least risk. We evaluated different routes of inoculation and different doses. We had to demonstrate the mechanism of protection for each potential vaccine and examine any potential side effects or adverse outcomes observed in the animal models.

Research of this nature is detailed and time consuming. Nevertheless, these studies must precede all clinical studies of every potential vaccine. I was involved in preclinical research for eight years at Yale University and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), two of our nation’s premiere research institutes.

My motivation for writing about vaccine safety was the same motivation for my research. I believe Christians are called to steward God’s creation, alleviate suffering, and pursue truth—all from a love for God and a sacrificial love for others. For me, this meant researching ways to prevent and treat virus infections. During a two-year mission trip to Russia (between research at Yale and the NIH), it also meant informing others about risks of exposure to HIV and the importance of making moral decisions. For the past decade, my Christian convictions have compelled me to continue to inform others about the scientific evidence that supports both the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

My commitment and contribution to research and education helps alleviate human disease and suffering only when others use the knowledge and developed products to secure our public health. Christians are to care for society’s most vulnerable, motivated by love, never by fear. It is, in fact, this sometimes costly love that will witness to the world that we are Christ’s followers (Matthew 25:40; John 13:34; Philippians 2:3-5; 2 Timothy 1:7).

What is Dr. Ross’ position on vaccine safety?

Dr. Ross reviewed and was supportive of my previous article. His primary concern was that I handle the scientific data regarding vaccination accurately—as I did.

What about the side effects of vaccines, such as injury and even death?

I, like many of you, am aware of cases where immunized individuals react aberrantly to vaccination and suffer greatly as a result. Such occurrences are extremely rare—nevertheless, every instance where an individual suffers is tragic. The direct and immediate causes for severe adverse reactions are, for the most part, unknown, unidentifiable, and unpredictable. They could be related to genetics, physiological conditions, or a rare combination of the two. The suffering seemingly triggered by vaccination is real and extraordinarily unfortunate.

Still, this suffering should not prevent a socially responsible individual’s participation in life-saving vaccinations. We need to balance our emotional responses to suffering with the overwhelming evidence for vaccination’s high rate of success.

The whole reason for vaccination is to avoid suffering associated with disease. It may help to remember that vaccine-preventable diseases are far more frequently associated with severe disease and death than are vaccines themselves.

Vaccines, nevertheless, are associated with real risk. Some vaccines are in fact a weakened but live virus. Since each person’s physiology is different from the next’s, even giving a weakened virus to someone is risky. The real question is whether the risk is reasonable. Not everyone who contracts a disease suffers severely or dies. But some do. Prior to the introduction of vaccines, many more people suffered from disease. Comparatively, the numbers of those who suffer severe side effects following vaccinations are extremely low. Furthermore, it is not unreasonable to think that those who suffer when vaccinated with a weakened live virus would, if left unvaccinated, likely suffer worse or possibly even die if exposed to the actual virus itself. Overall, for the population as a whole, the assumed risk associated with vaccination is far, far less than the assumed risk of an unvaccinated or under-vaccinated population.

How should we sort through all the conflicting information on vaccine safety?

The Internet is replete with conflicting data on vaccines. I have explained my credentials as well as my motivation in advocating immunizations. Whichever authorities we appeal to should be willing to provide the same. Many anti-vaccine commentators have no formal training or experience and are impassioned by personal anecdotes. Their data are gained second- or third-hand and manipulated in such a way as to support their agenda, which often appears fear driven.

One example of data manipulation is the claim that mortality associated with a particular disease was declining before vaccine implementation, thus this disease would have disappeared without immunization. While a decline in mortality was observed for many diseases, the conclusion is completely unsubstantiated by any data. Furthermore, it is not solely, or even primarily, death that vaccines prevent. They help us prevent deafness, blindness, paralysis, neurological disorders, pneumonia, and even spontaneous abortions. They also help protect highly vulnerable populations—the very young, very old, and very sick.

If one looks at morbidity (disease) rates over time, the continued positive impact of immunizations on mitigating disease and alleviating suffering is obvious. The conclusion supported by scientific data is that vaccines prevent suffering and save lives in the vast majority of those vaccinated and in the general population.

Is it safe to give individuals, particularly children, multiple vaccines at one time?

Vaccines are basically foreign proteins introduced into individuals artificially. All humans come into contact naturally with thousands of foreign proteins in the environment every day. God has endowed humans with amazing immune systems to handle most of these encounters of which only a fraction are associated with severe disease, and we can immunize against many of them. So although it seems like a lot of vaccines are given at once, they account for a minuscule fraction of foreign proteins we encounter naturally every day.

Do vaccines include contaminants, like mercury, animal proteins, and DNA, and how does that impact vaccine safety?

FDA representatives continually monitor the safety of vaccines and other biologics for potential contaminants such as DNA and animal proteins. Pharmaceutical companies readily comply with FDA guidelines and regulations restricting vaccine ingredients, as failure to comply can result in suspension of production and subsequent loss of income and public trust. If identified violations cannot be resolved and safety cannot be reestablished, production is halted and licensure revoked.

The FDA is so vigilant that even when there is a perceived link between an ingredient and a potential adverse effect, they restrict its use. For example, thimerosal, an ethylmercury-based preservative, was previously used in multi-use vaccines to prevent bacterial contamination. The ethylmercury killed the bacteria and was safely regulated at levels set for the far more hazardous compound, methylmercury. (Think of the difference in drinking methanol versus ethanol—the former can cause blindness, the latter a bad hangover.) Even without evidence that thimerosal was hazardous at levels found in multi-use vaccines it was removed from practically all vaccines by 2001.1

Far from being harmful, vaccines actually save millions of lives. They prevent millions of hospitalizations and millions more cases of severe disease. These are appropriate conclusions based on solid scientific evidence.

A majority of those vaccinated will experience some side effects. Most side effects are negligible. The vast majority of additional side effects are transient and not severe. Rarely, adverse, severe side effects occur that are far less serious than the debilities, disease, and risks associated with the vaccine-preventable diseases. Nevertheless these rare adverse, severe side effects do occur in a small number of individuals. Their suffering is real and tragic; but their suffering should not result in the abandonment of reason nor of a socially responsible individual’s participation in life-saving vaccinations.

The current debate over vaccination is a byproduct of a privileged society where we are not usually confronted by the horrors of diseases that vaccinations have eradicated. One of the tragedies in Western Christian culture today is the idea that our rights and wellbeing are more important than others’. Too often we choose to care for others only so long as our rights are not impinged upon. Frankly, I find no model for these culturally normative attitudes in Jesus or the New Testament. I believe these attitudes model a secularized, self-oriented posture. In the Scriptures I see that we are challenged to live counter-culturally and sacrificially. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “Our charity must be a real and costly love.”2 It is this love we are called to show others for the sake of Christ and for the sake of His witness to the world.

Endnotes

  1. The only exceptions in the US are multi-use influenza and meningococcal vaccines which still contain thimerosal.
  2. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1942).

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2 thoughts on “Answering FAQs on Vaccine Safety

  1. Hi, Becca. I appreciate your comments.

    I would like to highlight one comment in particular and try to elaborate on this in a way that might be helpful. You said, “The fact of the matter is that whether you choose to vaccinate or not, you are taking a calculated risk. When it comes to not vaccinating, you take your chances with the diseases. Now yes, there are possible severe side effects with these diseases, but more often than not patients recover from these diseases without any permanent damage. The same can be said in the case of vaccinating.”

    I agree with this statement in totality and it is actually at the heart of the case I am making in vaccine safety. But I would add the very foundation of vaccination is to give a “weakened” virus in comparison to the virus we would encounter in nature. The weakened virus is hopefully enough to stimulate the immune response to leave the vaccinated individual safe against exposure to the wild-type viruses circulating in nature. If you argue, as I believe you do, that the threat of serious events following natural infection are extremely rare, then it would follow that similar serious events following exposure to a weakened virus (via vaccination) could also be considered (much more) rare. A claim I made that you took issue with.

    Because many vaccines are weakened viruses and not virus parts or inactivated viruses, it is possible that these weakened viruses are shed. In fact that is why polio vaccination with the live oral polio vaccine was so effective, and entire populations did not need to be vaccinated. Many were exposed through subsequent shedding of a weakened virus and therefore also protected. Because some vaccines are weakened viruses and because we are not all the same physiologically it is reasonable to think that some may be more vulnerable to vaccination than others. But it also follows the same line of reasoning that those individuals would be more susceptible to adverse and even worse outcomes if exposed to the natural pathogen (and not merely the weakened virus in the vaccine).

    It’s important to note that when naturally infected with a virus we are sometimes able to spread harmful diseases to others even when we have no symptoms ourselves. So isolating ourselves by not attending public schools or going to the store or to church when we are ill is caring for our neighbors, but perhaps we may not always know when we should practice isolation or quarantine for the benefit of others.

    A recent study also shows that people who have experienced natural measles infection are actually more susceptible to diseases and disabilities from other pathogens following recovery of measles than those that were immunized against measles are when exposed to the same pathogens. This study suggests that natural exposure and recovery does not always provide better immunity and health for the individual.

    One final comment, and I hope you see that I am taking each of your concerns expressed above seriously, even though I may disagree with your overall conclusion. Herd immunity can be established naturally or artificially or through a combination of the two. Vaccination provides artificial herd immunity that can be maintained through vaccination of subsequent generations. The cause of reduced mortality prior to introduction of many vaccines was likely the result of better hygienic and palliative care. (e.g. If you help someone sick through a period of dehydration and imbalanced electrolytes, they will more likely survive and thus reduce mortality rates – but not morbidity rates. They were still ill (morbidity), requiring care, but they did not die (mortality).)

    If you choose not to vaccinate it is very Christ-like that you isolate yourself (or your unvaccinated children) from others when you (or they) are sick. This is the least that should be done by those who choose not to vaccinate against potentially debilitating and life-threatening diseases. (But as noted above we may not always know when we are infected and exposing others to pathogens.) It is also praiseworthy that you care deeply and actively through service of those who are sick. You are right that this clearly reflects a Christ-follower. However, I whole-heartedly believe that understanding the benefits and risks associated with vaccines and choosing to vaccinate ourselves (assuming some relative lesser risk) for the potential safety and benefit of the more vulnerable in our midst is also a reflection of Christ to the world – and a position worth advocating.

    Thank you again for you thoughtful comments.

  2. I find it very disturbing that an article of this nature is posted on the RTB website. Using “love thy neighbor” to bolster vaccination borders on indoctrination. If I am ill, I take care to stay away from my “neighbors” so that they do not get sick. If my “neighbors” are sick, I care for them. This would be an example of “loving thy neighbors” when dealing with illness. I have serious doubts that when Jesus spoke these words he meant that we must be inoculated with foreign antigens and adjuvants that may possibly be harmful to ourselves or our children’s bodies. Yes, we do come into contact with foreign agents every day, but they are introduced to our bodies through the mouth and into the gut, not directly into our bloodstream. There is substantial difference in those two acquisition methods.

    The implication that loving our neighbor is a weighing factor on whether or not to be vaccinated hinges on the assumption that herd immunity can be realized through inoculation processes. Vaccines are not 100% effective and many individuals in the population cannot receive vaccinations because they are immunocompromised. The truth is that we do not know how each individual’s immune system responds to vaccines (if it even produces an antibody)or how long the immunity lasts in each individual. These things are not checked for in our current medical vaccine procedure. Individuals can get there titer tests done, but this rarely ever happens. Not to mention the fact that vaccines can and have been known to shed ( I will allude to this later in my response with an article published by ScienceMag). Yes, you can spread disease if you acquire it (unvaccinated) and are in close contact with others, but there are possibilities of passing on the virus to others after you have been vaccinated as well. Herd immunity is simply a fallacy when it comes to the issue of vaccination. The true definition of herd immunity is acquired by natural acquisition of a disease, not by injected introduction.
    Bear in mind, that we may never come into contact with the diseases that we are inoculated against. Therefore, we are assuming a risk that may never be there in the first place. Now, I know what you’re going to say following the statement I just made; The reason why we do not come into contact with these diseases more often is because of the vaccines. However, in the article above you alluded to the fact that vaccines were on the decline before the introduction of mass vaccinations for a particular disease, (” One example of data manipulation is the claim that mortality associated with a particular disease was declining before vaccine implementation, thus this disease would have disappeared without immunization. While a decline in mortality was observed for many diseases…”) then you quickly dismiss it with “the conclusion is completely unsubstantiated by any data.” So I ask you this, What were the factors that were causing the decline in the diseases? It is easy to just say that the ” conclusion is completely unsubstantiated by any data,” yet you give no alternative answer. People who are against the need for vaccinations are making assumptions on the data presented. People in science do this all the time. There was no way to know if the disease would have disappeared on its own because of the introduction of the vaccines, so we would have never found out if they would have disappeared on their own because of the fact that the vaccines were introduced in the first place (a bit circular, wouldn’t you say). These researchers look to other reasons why these diseases were on the decline. May I recommend Dr. Suzanne Humphries book “Dissolving Illusions: Disease, Vaccines, and the Forgotten History”. She is just one of the many people in the medical field who have put their careers on the line in order to get the truth about vaccinations out in the open and discusses the reasons why diseases declined without the use of vaccination.
    The fact of the matter is that whether you choose to vaccinate or not, you are taking a calculated risk. When it comes to not vaccinating, you take your chances with the diseases. Now yes, there are possible severe side effects with these diseases, but more often than not patients recover from these diseases without any permanent damage. The same can be said in the case of vaccinating. There are serious risks when you choose to have your self or your child vaccinated. All you have to do is look at the VAERS website to see that this is the truth. It can also be said that vaccine injury is also very underreported either because the government doesn’t recognize it as vaccine injury, the lack of knowledge on the parents behalf, or the feeling of not wanting to bother because reporting a vaccine injury is stigmatized. With vaccines, you may get immunity (for what period the medical establishment does not really know) or you may not at all. On another note, vaccine shedding is a real issue. Just take note of this article:

    http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/04/measles-outbreak-traced-fully-vaccinated-patient-first-time

    This article implies that this is the first time it has been traced back to a fully vaccinated patient. However, this does not mean that it has never happened before. There could be many other cases that only got so far as to find unvaccinated persons afflicted and then the search stopped there. Vaccine virus shedding can also include those who carry the disease but are asymptomatic. Therefore, they are still capable of passing it to others without a representation of the disease in their own person. Look at the failure of the whooping cough vaccine. Is it vaccine failure or shedding? Something fishy is definitely going on there.
    The truth is, I could go on and on and on about the reasons why I choose not to vaccinate and the research which backs my view. The internet is an absolutely wonderful resource for seeking out information on both sides of the coin. You can access databases with peer-reviewed articles, read research papers from qualified PhD’s, and look at personal testimonies from people who have had bad experiences with vaccinations. Doctors don’t know it all, and in many cases it has been the actions and research done by laymen to find out what maybe ailing their loved one when a doctor could provide no answer.

    Some may say that personal rhetoric doesn’t hold water when it comes to causation and adverse vaccine reaction, but these parents and caretakers who claim that their children or loved one suffered after getting jabbed are not delusional. Nobody knows their children better than their parents and there are too many cases in which parents report negative side effects ( in many, many, cases very severe ones) to just dismiss their claims as unsubstantiated. As you quoted above, “I, like many of you, am aware of cases where immunized individuals react aberrantly to vaccination and suffer greatly as a result. Such occurrences are extremely rare—nevertheless, every instance where an individual suffers is tragic,” and also “the suffering seemingly triggered by vaccination is real and extraordinarily unfortunate. ” I would only argue the “rare” scenario. Adverse reactions are not rare. Like I said before, just have a look at the VAERS database. I doubt Jesus would advocate a procedure that produces these kinds of sufferings.

    Bottom line is, the Bible I read is more opposed to vaccination then for it. I could list many verses which illustrate my stance, but I have spent enough time on this post already. I strongly suggest that you do your best to keep this site as “Reasons to Believe” and not include along with it “reasons to vaccinate”. You were absolutely right in saying that God provided us with this amazing thing called an immune system. He didn’t get it wrong. We do not need to improve on his design.

    “And hearing this, Jesus said to them, ‘It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'”
    (Mark 2:17)

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