I was hoping that maybe Trump’s anti-vax statements would be one of those things he backtracked on (I have in my head the little tune from Scrubs, Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,); but his recent ask, this one to Robert Kennedy Jr, a well-know anti-vaxxer who maintains that the MMR vaccine causes autism (despite the overwhelming science), to chair “a commission on vaccination safety and efficacy,” suggests otherwise. I don’t know why I’m surprised. Says Kennedy, “We ought to be reading the science and debating the science.”
I’ve been writing about vaccines for a few years in different contexts. Below is an excerpt from my upcoming book. The book is about how we can reduce our dependence on drugs and chemicals like pesticides, by relying on natural allies. One of those allies is our own immune response, this excerpt from a chapter about tech advances in vaccine development includes a bit about Maurice Hilleman, the virologist who developed the vaccine anti-vaxxers love to hate (along with many other vaccines):
The concept of a vaccination is simple enough: vaccines provoke immunity by exposing individuals either to pathogens that have been weakened or killed so that they can no longer cause full-on disease, or to bits of pathogens. But pathogens are wildly diverse, and a vaccine strategy that works for one disease may not work for others. Some are fairly straightforward—for example, injecting weakened or killed polio virus provides lasting protection. (Since 2000, the United States has used only killed polio virus.) When I was vaccinated as a kid, I likely received the next best thing to a natural infection: live but weakened versions of polio, mumps, and measles. A generation later, most of my children’s shots were filled with inactivated or killed viruses, or bits of microbes.[i] Kids today do still receive some attenuated (weakened) virus vaccines, notably against mumps, measles, and rubella.
Many of these twentieth-century vaccines began with Maurice Hilleman, a virologist and vaccine developer who spent most of his career at Merck Pharmaceutical. The mumps vaccine my kids received may even be traced back to the 1963 mumps virus that once infected Hilleman’s own daughter, Jeryl Lynn. As he tells the story, one night she woke complaining of a sore throat. “Oh my god,” said Hilleman, pointing to the glands under his chin and holding out his hands, “her throat was like this.” Though rare, a mumps infection can have serious complications, from permanent hearing loss to life-threatening brain swelling. There was no vaccine. So Hilleman raced to the lab and grabbed some swabs. Three years later, he treated his one-year-old daughter Kirsten with a vaccine he had developed from Jeryl Lynn’s virus. “Here was a baby being protected by a virus from her sister, and this has been unique in the history of medicine. . . . It was a big human-interest story.”[ii] Hilleman, who passed away in 2005, is credited not only with developing dozens of vaccines but also saving more lives than any scientist before him. But, as the authors of an article in Science about twenty-first-century vaccine development pointed out in 2013, “By the latter part of the twentieth century, most of the vaccines that could be developed by direct mimicry of natural infection with live or killed/inactivated vaccines had been developed.”[iii] In other words, the most manageable pathogens, like mumps, were under control. What’s left for vaccine makers are the problem pathogens…. They are also confronted with a growing trend of distrust in vaccines. Ironically, vaccination critics are part of a population that has benefited greatly from vaccines, largely avoiding the raft of infectious diseases that plagued earlier generations.
Yet no matter how many lives vaccines save, there is no skirting the issue. Vaccination is a medical intervention. We inject newborns and toddlers—the most vulnerable members of society, who cannot decide for themselves. Some parents worry about their kids receiving too many vaccines at once. Others are concerned by the small amounts of toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and ethyl mercury used to kill or to preserve vaccines. Some believe conspiracy theories about vaccines spreading disease. And many have been frightened by a now-discredited study accusing the MMR vaccine (also developed by Hilleman) of causing autism. Some of these concerns contain an unsettling kernel of truth. A portion of the polio vaccines that my generation—millions of children—received were contaminated with the monkey virus, SV40. Until the 1960s, polio vaccine was grown and isolated from green monkey cells. Hilleman and a colleague discovered the virus; a couple of years later, another researcher showed that the virus caused cancerous tumors in hamsters. By the time vaccine makers had replaced monkey-cell cultures with human cell cultures, an estimated 100 million of us baby boomers had been vaccinated. Fifty years later, despite much suspicion and study, the virus has not yet been shown to cause cancer in humans.[iv]…
While there may always be unintended consequences of vaccines, the role they have played (and continue to play) in saving lives over the past century has been huge. Now vaccine makers have the tools to develop increasingly safer vaccines, effective against some of the most obstinate pathogens—and they can do so more rapidly.
Adapted from Natural Defense: enlisting bugs and germs to protect food and health (Island Press, Spring 2017)
[i]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “U.S. Vaccines,” Appendix B-2, April 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/B/us-vaccines.pdf, accessed August 9, 2016.
[ii]. For a video story by Maurice Hilleman, see: The College of Physicians of Philadelphia, “Mumps: Jeryl Lynn Story,” The History of Vaccines, October 29, 2004, http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/mumps-jeryl-lynn-story, accessed August 9, 2016.
[iii]. Wayne C Koff et al., “Accelerating Next Generation Vaccine Development for Global Disease Prevention,” Science 340 (2013) doi:10.1126/science.1232910, accessed August 9, 2016, 2.
[iv]. Vicent Rancaniello, Virology (blog), http://www.virology.ws/2010/04/13/poliovirus-vaccine-sv40-and-human-cancer/, accessed October 2016.
[v]. Polio Global Eradication Initiative, “Vaccine-Derived Polio Viruses,” http://www.polioeradication.org/polioandprevention/thevirus/vaccinederivedpolioviruses.aspx, accessed August 9, 2016.