By Henry H. Bauer
Bauer is Professor Emeritus of Chemistry & Science Studies and Dean Emeritus of Arts & Sciences at Virginia Tech.
Recent outbreaks of measles have brought widespread unrestrained criticism of parents who have avoided vaccinating their children under the presumed influence of misguided ideological “anti-vaxxers.” But at least some of the anger and blame should be directed at official sources for refusing to admit that some vaccines occasionally do bring sometimes very serious harm to some individuals. By not admitting that, officialdom provides unwarranted credibility to allegations of official cover- ups, allegations then expanded to blanket warnings against vaccinating in general.
There are three main ways in which vaccines can sometimes cause harm to some individuals.
One is the presence in some vaccines of preservatives to protect against contamination by bacteria. Being toxic to bacteria, they can also be toxic to higher forms of life. A commonly used preservative, thimerosal, is a mercury-containing organic substance, and organic-mercury compounds are indeed often toxic to human beings.
A second possible source of harm in some vaccines is the use of so-called adjuvants. These cause a non-specific stimulation of the immune system, in the belief that when the immune system is already aroused it will respond better to the specific components in the vaccine. Adjuvants work through being recognized by the immune system as foreign and undesirable, in other words as being potentially harmful to the person receiving the vaccine. Commonly used adjuvants include organic aluminum compounds, which are known to be harmful if they accumulate in the nervous system, particularly the brain; some people of my age may recall the long-ago warnings against aluminum cookware because of that possible harm.
A third possible danger lies in the inherent specific action of the particular vaccine. Some vaccines sometimes, though quite rarely, actually bring about the very disease against which they are intended to act. More generally, since vaccines are intended to cause the immune system to do certain things, it is far from implausible that the immune system may sometimes react in a different fashion than desired, for example by setting in process an autoimmune reaction. Our present understanding of immune-system functioning does not warrant dogmatic, supposedly authoritative pronouncements alleging that all vaccines are safe for everyone.
The known sources of possible harm from vaccination makes it not unreasonable, for instance, to recommend that babies be vaccinated against mumps, measles, and rubella separately, at intervals, rather than with a single dose of a multiple (MMR) vaccine. The known nervous-system toxicity of organic aluminum and mercury compounds makes it unreasonable to dismiss out-of-hand that these additives in some vaccines may produce such neural damage as symptoms of autism; reports and claims need to be investigated, not ignored or pooh-poohed. Moreover, wherever possible we should be offered the option of vaccines free of adjuvants and preservatives.
The public would be better served than we are now if official proclamations were to distinguish among different vaccines. The benefit-to-risk ratio of measles vaccine, for instance, or of polio vaccine, seems well established through long experience of efficacy and relative safety (“relative” because there is never 100.000…% certainty). By contrast, vaccines against HPV (human papillomavirus) have accumulated quite a substantial record of serious adverse events: the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program of the Department of Health and Human Services had by 2013 awarded about $6 million to 49 victims in claims against HPV vaccines, with barely half of 200 claims adjudicated at that time; by May 2019, 130 of 480 claims against HPV vaccines had been compensated. Here the benefit-to-risk ratio is not known to be favorable because it cannot yet be known whether the vaccines actually prevent cervical or other cancers, it is only known that they act against viruses sometimes associated with cancer but never yet proven to actually cause cancer.
It is dangerous and without reasonable basis for ideological anti-vaxxers to raise alarm over all vaccinations because of instances like the HPV vaccines. But the conspiratorial and ideological anti-vaxxers are lent unwarranted public credibility and plausibility because officialdom refuses to admit the harm done by, for example, the HPV vaccines, while emphasizing the desirability of maintaining herd immunity against, say, measles, as though the same logic and practical experience applied to all vaccines including new, recently-devised ones. “Since they are lying to us about HPV vaccines, why should we trust them about measles vaccine?”