those nasty toxins…

Thankfully, the antivaccination lobby is (so far!) relatively small & quiet in New Zealand. It’s another story in the US, where various celebrities lend their names to the anti- voices. A couple of days ago Orac posted another in his series on what’s wrong with the US anti-vax groupings, & I thought I’d talk about some of the issues he highlights – they need to be made here too.

One argument against the vaccination schedule is that it represents too many antigens, too soon, & so children’s immune systems are simply unable to cope. This is plain silly – we are all exposed, every day, to a very large number of potential antigens (molecules that provoke an immune response). And unless someone is severely immuno-compromised, their immune system deals with those challenges with no difficulty.

A second anti-statement is that we don’t need vaccines, and that your immune system can somehow be ‘boosted’ by attention to diet or by taking supplements. But again – most folks’ immune systems work fine on their own, & in fact, I’d be a tad cautious about taking steps to ramp it up, given that autoimmune diseases seem to be due to an immune system that’s looking around for something to target.

Until recently, arguments in the US centred on the presence of thimerosal, a mercury compound, in many vaccines. (It’s actually been absent from vaccines for some years now, but acted as a preservative.) High exposure to some forms of mercury is known to cause neurological damage – think Minamata disease. (Or think of the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland: mercury was used in the process of making felt for hats.) This was extrapolated to claims that the thimerosal in childhood vaccines was linked to autism – but after many thorough studies there’s no evidence to support those claims.

Anyway, the focus has now moved to ‘toxins’ (a suitably vague term), including formaldehyde. Which is indeed found in some vaccines, as an adjuvant. But – & it’s a big ‘but’ – formaldehyde is produced in your body as a normal metabolic by-product, regularly & at levels higher than those found in any vaccine. What’s more, it’s released into the air by a range of industrial processes, and also by many household products & building materials. It would be surprising if the tiny amount in vaccines made any difference at all to that normal exposure.

Which links to my final talking point for the day – the idea that ‘chemicals’ are bad & ‘natural’ substances are good. This one really bugs me: for a start, we’re all made of ‘chemicals’. Water is a chemical (and much fun can be had by calling it ‘dihydrogen monoxide’, which somehow makes it sound like a Bad Thing). So is the atmospheric component that we require for cellular respiration: oxygen.

Maybe what’s meant in this claim is that ‘man-made’ chemicals should be avoided, but ‘natural’ is OK. Hmmm. Tell that to the family of Georgi Markov, assassinated using a pellet of the poison ricin, derived from castor oil beans. Or to someone who’s consumed fugu (made from pufferfish) prepared by an unskilled chef. Or what about botulinus toxin? It’s produced by bacteria, so definitely ‘natural’. But consume enough of it – & ‘enough’ is a very small quantity indeed (about 1 nanogram per kg bodyweight) – & you’ll die a rather unpleasant death. Of course, as for many things dosage is important, & where would the purveyors of botox be if that wasn’t the case?

Much about our world is neither simple, nor intuitive. But doesn’t that make it a more interesting place? You just need to keep asking questions 🙂

2 thoughts on “those nasty toxins…”

  • Grant Jacobs says:

    Its nice to see that the current SMC (Science Media Centre) “Did you know?” is about the success of the smallpox vaccination campaign:
    Measles is declining too, although ‘d suspect that the Wakefield-based fuss hasn’t helped.
    There is a particular anti-vaccine campaigner that has caused something of a mess in NZ, of course. I’m going to leave him unnamed: I feel the less “media space” he gets the better, etc. Needless to say, these people are extraordinary for pushing for views based on taking websites, etc., at fact face value, then presenting the material that have read as “truths” that somehow are more correct than decades of research science. It’s all very sad and bizarre.
    I have to say that “the media” (a terrible term in some ways), has to carry some a fair bit of responsibility, in that they have given false credibility to statements that have no sound basis and should really have been given little media time at all.
    While I hope that the media can pull it’s socks up and try hold to some sort of standards (vein hope that it might be!), websites are more troublesome, in that they can’t really be asked to, or be made to, be held to any particular standards.
    To make this post relevant to teaching, I think it is very important that teachers show the danger of taking information from the WWW uncritically and to work students through sourcing the truth of statements made there, and vice versa exposing false claims. I can’t help but wonder if one of the underlying issues is that many of the current adult generation have never really had to sift for the truth in a line of argument (or at least not since their school days!) and so are too inclined to “swallow” what is written on the WWW on the basis of “seeming credible” or conforming to what they would like to have true.
    I’ll put a sock in it here before I start writing an extended essay 🙂

  • Alison Campbell says:

    I have no objection to extended essays 😉 I think part of the issue can be traced back to the media’s (slavish?) adherence to the idea of ‘balance’ – there seems to be a drive to present ‘both sides of the story’ regardless of whether or not both sides have equal merit. Plus a deplorable lack, in many instances, of any real investigative journalism. Mind you, that’s hardly a recent thing. Look at the lyprinol fiasco of a few years back. It was touted as the best thing ever for various ailments, but no-one asked where the data were, or what were the vested interests in getting the tale out there.

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