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What's in the Autoclave? A Blog about Science

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Vaccines (again) [Jun. 19th, 2008|12:26 pm]
What's in the Autoclave? A Blog about Science
CNN.com, as usual, is doing a very bad job at reporting on the current vaccine debate that is playing out in the mainstream media.

Today their website includes an article headlined "Should I vaccinate my baby?" The "story highlights" at the top of the page includes the bulletpoint "Parents have concerns about possible vaccine and autism link," but nowhere in the article itself is it mentioned that the current consensus in the scientific community is that autism is not vaccine-induced. The article seems to do little more than fan the flames of anti-vaccine hysteria.

The article then goes on to list a few options that parents who are concerned about over-vaccination of their children might take. Most of these probably won't make any difference one way or another. The only one of these that I actually find seriously objectionable is #2, "Not doing some shots at all." The examples given are chicken pox and rotavirus vaccines, which some would consider unnecessary. However, the chickenpox virus (varicella zoster virus), despite often being dismissed as a harmless and expected part of childhood, can actually be quite serious in some cases -- most importantly, it can cause birth defects if a pregnant mother is infected. But also, the virus is never completely cleared from the body -- it persists in a latent (inactive) form in nerve cells and can reactivate later in life (generally in the elderly) to cause "shingles," an extremely painful (and symptomatically distinct) condition.

More information about the Varicella zoster vaccine can be found here, at the World Health Organization website. Interestingly, VZV is thought to be specific to humans (i.e. there is no insect or animal reservoir) so the virus could, in principle, eventually be eradicated in the same way that smallpox was, although this would be somewhat more challenging due to the virus' ability to reactivate from a latent infection.

As for rotavirus, if you want to deal with your child's digestive "difficulties" that is entirely up to you!

The hysteria over vaccines is a huge pet peeve of mine. I will say, though, that I'm currently reading a popular-science book on the history of vaccines, and I am beginning to appreciate why so many people still are afraid of them. The first vaccine, against smallpox, was developed even before Pasteur's demonstration of germ theory. Early smallpox vaccines were nonsterile, and often contained the tetanus bacteria, making the cure seem worse than the disease. So I can understand that vaccines historically may have a bad reputation -- but modern medicine is very different than the "medicine" of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Vaccination has saved millions of lives and unquantifiable morbidity, but like most preventative medicine, it can be a tough sell to the general public.