from the ‘letters to the editor’ – vaccines & ear infections

A couple of days ago our local paper carried a letter that included the bald statement: "vaccines cause ear infections."

My first response to that one was: citations, please! That sort of statement is incredibly dangerous, because it’s essentially saying, don’t vaccinate if you don’t want your kids to get ear infections. (The letter writer advocated avoiding antibiotics for such infections as well. Now, as you know there are issues surrounding the mis-use of antibiotics, but we’ll come to that later.) And we are already seeing what you get when vaccination rates in a population drop.

Anyway, rather than write my own letter (although I’ll probably do that as well) & wait first for it to be published & then for a response, I did a bit of searching for myself. Most of the items turned up by the combination ‘vaccination + ear + infection’ related to reports of some research investigating the feasibility of a vaccine to help protect kids against developing ear infections. But there was also one report – from 2007 – that began with the statement that [a] vaccine that has dramatically curbed pneumonia and other serious illnesses in children is having an unfortunate effect: promoting new superbugs that cause ear infections. Not exactly the letter writer’s implied causal link. But it sounds serious – what’s going on here?

The first thing to note that it’s not blanket ‘vaccinations’ that may be implicated in ear infections – it’s a specific early childhood vaccine that prevents against pneumonia, systemic blood poisoning, & other serious & potentially fatal illnesses caused by 7 common strains of a streptococcal bacterium. However, there are an awful lot of streptococcal bugs (at least 90 different strains of this particular bacterium), and apparently at least one of these strains has developed worrying levels of antibiotic resistance since use of this particular vaccine became widespread. What seems to be happening is that as the strains targeted by the vaccine become less common, others are becoming more prevalent. Because they can cause disease & must then be treated with antibiotics, & because antibiotics are a potent force for natural selection – especially if not used properly – this in turn has seen the emergence of the multiple-resistance strain. 

So – the blanket statement that ‘vaccines cause ear infections’ doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. What does appear to have happened is that one particular vaccine may be indirectly involved in the emergence of a very nasty ‘superbug’. But it’s widespread mis-use of antibiotics that has actually done the job, not the vaccine itself, though that has opened up a new ecological niche for the superbug to occupy. That suggestion of using bacteriophage against pathogenic bacteria is beginning to sound quite attractive!

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