You’re as likely to be struck by lightning as to have a severe reaction to a vaccine.

I was reading an article in Time last week about parents not vaccinating their children. The story was about how this phenomenon is becoming more widespread.

These kinds of stories are weird to me because vaccines are pretty safe. The risk of an adverse side effect is incredibly small. For example, the risk for anaphylaxis from the Hepatitis B Virus vaccination is around 1 in 600,000. This is about the same risk as being struck by lightning (1 in 700,000).

Of course, the article wasn’t talking about known risks. Instead, it was referring to a hypothesized link between vaccines and autism.

People proposed this link when they noticed that cases of autism and the number of vaccinations were rising at the same time. Of course, just because two things happen to occur at the same time, this does not mean they are causally linked. For example, the increase in global temperature is not related to the decrease in the world’s populations of pirates (despite what the Pastafarians say).

So how could an increased number of vaccinations cause an increase in the number of cases of autism? I have seen two ideas put forth. The first is that thimerosal is to blame. The second is that there are so many vaccinations now that we are stressing out the body’s immune system. Most likely neither idea is valid.

Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative that used to be used in vaccines. Even though there haven’t been any good studies on the effects of thimerosal on brain development, everyone knows mercury is bad for the brain. So the idea behind thimerosal makes some sense.

Back in 2001, vaccine manufacturers decided to eliminate thimerosal from their vaccines. We would predict, then, that cases of autism should go down significantly if thimerosal was linked to autism. They haven’t. In fact, in one California study, cases have continued to climb. So thimerosal is most likely not to blame.

Another point that has been made is that there are so many vaccines now that we are stressing out our bodies’ immune systems. Again, this concern is unfounded.

Vaccines are injections of viral proteins. Our bodies see the proteins and raise antibodies to them. Then when a virus invades, we have antibodies that recognize the virus and target it for destruction.

It is the number of viral proteins that matter in terms of taxing the body’s immune system and not the number of vaccinations. All of the current vaccines put together do not have as many viral proteins as the old smallpox vaccine (150 vs. 200). So the number of vaccines is unlikely to be the issue.

What all of this means is that vaccines are probably not responsible for the significant increase in the number of cases of autism. What is responsible? No one knows for sure.

It may be that the rise just comes from all of us recognizing the symptoms more. Or it could be due to some cause we don’t know about or understand.

What we do know is that vaccines save many lives. I assume no one wants to go back to the early 20th century when polio epidemics swept the country. For example, 2,500 cases of polio ended up at one Los Angeles hospital between May and November of 1934. And in 1952, the U.S. had 21,000 cases of paralytic polio.

We can prevent this sort of thing from happening by making sure everyone is vaccinated. And yet there are people who choose to hide behind the people who take the miniscule risk of getting vaccinated.

Is this a matter of free choice? Should parents be allowed to opt out of vaccinating their children even if it risks society at large?

One idea, I suppose, is to have people who choose not to be vaccinated to sign a waiver saying they accept full responsibility for their actions. In practice this would mean that health insurance and the government would not be responsible for their children’s health care bills if they become ill with one of the diseases they refused to be vaccinated against.

And if your infant, grandma, or immuno-suppressed cousin came down with a disease these folks refused to be vaccinated against, then you could sue the un-vaccinated for damages. The common good isn’t enough to encourage these folks. Perhaps threats to their pocketbook will be.

Vaccines: One Small Risk for a Child, One Giant Benefit for Mankind 10 November,2016Dr. Barry Starr


Dr. Barry Starr

Dr. Barry Starr (@geneticsboy) is a Geneticist-in-Residence at The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA and runs their Stanford at The Tech program. The program is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Stanford Department of Genetics and The Tech Museum of Innovation. Together these two partners created the Genetics: Technology with a Twist exhibition.

You can also see additional posts by Barry at KQED Science, and read his previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.

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