Commentary  North America has a science problem

Unvaccinated people endanger everyone else

The Concordian (CUP) – First the H1N1 pandemic was going to kill us all, because people didn’t realize the word pandemic refers to geographical spread, not the stuff of science fiction. Now it seems the vaccine is what’s out to get us. “It hasn’t been tested; it has come out too fast; it’s not safe,” the naysayers howl.

Forty-eight per cent of Canadians say they won’t get the vaccine. In the U.S., the numbers are even higher: 60 per cent of adults said they are not absolutely certain about getting it, according to a Harvard School of Public Heath poll. An ABC News/Washington Post poll has 40 per cent of parents saying they don’t want their children to get the vaccine. In Ireland, it’s almost the opposite: 70 per cent of the population is planning to get the shot, according to the country’s national health agency.

It’s not like there’s any question vaccines work. How many people do you know who have come down with rabies, rubella, measles, mumps, polio, or smallpox?
In the early fifties, there were 50-million cases of smallpox each year. It was completely eradicated in 1979.

The new swine flu vaccine isn’t that different from the seasonal flu vaccine that comes out every year. Drug companies regularly put out more than one flu vaccine each year, some tailored to individual continents, and each specifically designed for certain strains of flu.

Flu viruses have a tendency to mutate. Each year the prevalent strains have a slightly different genetic makeup than the bugs that went around the year before. The World Health Organization (WHO) tracks the mutation of these viruses. The WHO then shares these results with vaccine manufacturers so they can tailor the vaccines to the viruses.

That’s what happened with this vaccine. So why are people so up in arms?
Part of the reason is the addition of an adjuvant, a substance that makes the body more resistant to toxins. The drug manufacturers say this additive helps stimulate the immune system, but critics say that it might be dangerous.

In this case, the adjuvant is a mixture of water, fish oil, and vitamin E – the same substances the naturopaths criticizing the vaccine probably already have in their cupboards.

But this vaccine fear is part of a larger trend. More and more, vaccines are under fire. Celebrities like former Playboy playmate Jenny McCarthy have been making the talk show rounds claiming that mercury in vaccines causes autism. The only problem with this claim is that it has absolutely no merit – there is less mercury in a vaccine than in a tuna sandwich.

Now, I’m not saying there’s no risk: there are very few completely risk-free choices in life. There have been a few cases of contaminated vaccines being released to the public, but these were the result of quality-control failures, not inherent dangers in the vaccines.

One thing the anti-vaccine lobby ignores is the concept of herd immunity. The higher percentage of a population to get vaccinated, the less chance a disease has of spreading. Unvaccinated people can also spread disease to people who can’t get vaccinations, like cancer patients whose treatment destroys their natural defences along with their cancer.

There certainly are problems with the way pharmaceutical drugs are regulated, manufactured, and sold. Drug companies spend billions to develop expensive “quality of life” drugs, and lobby tirelessly to keep drug prices high. But if there’s one vaccine we don’t need to get worked up about, it’s this one.

Jacob Severin is a student at Concordia and writes for the Concordian. This article originally appeared in the Canadian University Press.