Below are blog posts, posted by permission by students in the class. For many students, this assignment was their first time reading peer-reviewed scientific articles, and their first time trying their hand at science communication. 

| 2017 |


Do Vaccines Cause Immunity or Autism?

By Kristen Dolan

            Vaccines have been a source of debate for years, and much of this controversy stems from a lack of understanding. Are vaccines hurting our children? Is the mercury content dangerous? Do they cause autism? As a parent, having adequate knowledge to address these concerns with facts is crucial, but many are misinformed and misled by inaccurate science. In short, vaccines are like seat belts: you can go years without one and be perfectly healthy, but if you get in a crash you have no safety barrier to protect you. Vaccines serve as extra protection for the body, but their positive effects are not always seen. Vaccinations are a beneficial aid for humans, but their reputation has been squandered by fear and altered science.

            Vaccines were first widely used in 1938 in response to the yellow fever epidemic that took many lives (U.S. 2017). This vaccine contained a weakened version of the virus and it was injected into the human body in order to give the virus-fighting cells practice. The cells couldn’t tell that the virus was weakened, and thus fought it like they would have fought the real infection. The virus-fighting cells are then able to remember the infection and are more prepared to fight it in the future (U.S. 2017). In addition to the previously described live vaccines, there other variations that include inactivated vaccines. Inactivated vaccines evoke the same response as live vaccinations do, but the immune response is weaker because the virus is killed instead of weakened (U.S. 2017). In these types of vaccines, a modified toxin or virus is injected into the body to allow the body a chance to learn how to fight it. In essence, they are giving the body a practice run before the real infection hits. There are two primary concerns regarding vaccines that lead the anti-vaccination movement: the presence of mercury in vaccines, and their link with autism.

            One major concern regarding vaccines, especially in children, is the presence of mercury. A preservative historically used in the production of vaccines is called Thimerosal, and it contains a mercury-based compound that prevents bacteria growth. The mention of mercury causes panic for many parents because it’s troubling to inject your child with a substance that you have been taught is dangerous. The difference in this case is that the mercury in the preservative is ethylmercury, while the mercury that doctors warn you about is methylmercury. The difference occurs on a molecular level, but that small difference allows ethylmercury to be processed by the body quickly, making it less toxic (Christensen, 2017). In a study conducted in 2015, researchers tested the effects of thimerosal containing vaccines on early stage neurodevelopment in animals, and found no substantial adverse effects (Curtis et al, 2015). This study shows that the fear of thimerosal in vaccines is unwarranted, and reassures consumers that the protection they are being given is not itself dangerous.

            Another major concern surrounding vaccines is the belief that they can cause autism in young children. This idea stems from a research paper published in a well-known journal, The Lancet, in 1998. Andrew Wakefield led a research project that linked the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine with developmental defects in a group of children (Wakefield et al, 1998). While this result seemed shocking, the article was retracted when scientists were unable to replicate Wakefield’s results. Not only were his methods inaccurate, Wakefield was ruled to have acted “dishonestly and irresponsibly” by the General Medical Council (Novella 2010). In all, the core of this argument is a research paper that was deemed unethical and false by the scientific community. Despite this, many still fear the chance that a vaccination they force upon their child may cause irreversible developmental delays and autism.

            What we can conclude from this information is that scientists are confident that vaccines are beneficial in the grand scheme, and that there is a gap between that confidence and the confidence that the general public holds. The current communication methods used to inform the public about vaccines are not effective and in some cases, they may even increase misconceptions. A study conducted in 2014 explored parental reactions to different forms of vaccine education, and presented surprising results. There were four information types: information showing the lack of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism, information about the dangerous outcomes of the diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine, images of children suffering from the diseases that the MMR vaccine prevents, and a dramatic story of a child who almost died from the measles (Nyhan et al, 2014). None of these modes of intervention increased the likelihood that a parent would vaccinate their child, and the image even increased the belief that there was a link between autism and vaccines (Nyhan et al, 2014). This miscommunication is dangerous because the public is not receiving the correct information in a timely manner.

When analyzing the perceptions of the public compared to the findings of scientists, it is evident that there is gap in understanding between the two parties. Scientists have found no firm evidence of ethyl mercury causing adverse effects, but the public continues to perceive mercury as deadly. The study linking the MMR vaccine with autism was retracted because the findings could not be replicated, but the anti-vaccination movement continues to cite it as evidence to support their position. Vaccines exist to protect humans from deadly diseases, and to be most effective they need to be widely used. The fear and misunderstanding that currently surrounds vaccines needs to be addressed and the first step to combatting it is to find a method of communication that is accepted and utilized by both scientists and the public.

Christensen, Jen. “Thimerosal: Everything you need to know about this vaccine preservative.” CNN, Cable News Network, 15 Feb. 2017. Web. 3 Oct. 2017.
Curtis, B., Liberato, N., Rulien, M., Morrisroe, K., Kenney, C., Yutuc, V., Ferrier, C., Marti, N., Mandell, D., Burbacher, T., Sackett, G., Hewitson, L. (2015). Examination of the Safety of Pediatric Vaccine Schedules in a Non-Human Primate Model: Assessments of Neurodevelopment, Learning, and Social Behavior. Environmental Health Perspectives, 123. doi:10.1289/ehp.1408257 [Online]. [Accessed: 25 Oct, 2017].
Novella, Steven. “The Lancet retracts Andrew Wakefield’s article.” Science-Based Medicine, Science-Based Medicine, 3 Feb. 2010, [Accessed: 21 Nov, 2017].
Nyhan, B., Reifler, J., Richey, S., & Freed, G. L. (2014). Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial. Pediatrics, 133(4). doi:10.1542/peds.2013-2365d. [Online]. [Accessed: 25 Oct, 2017].
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “How Vaccines Work.”, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 11 May 2017. Web. [Accessed: 21 Nov, 2017].
Wakefield, AJ, Murch, SH, Anthony, A, Linnell, J, Casson, DM, Malik, M, Berelowitz, M, Dhillon, AP, Thomson, MA, Harvey, P, Valentine, A, Davies, SE, Walker-Smith, JA. (1998) “Ileal-Lymphoid-Nodular hyperplasia, non-Specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” The Lancet, vol. 352, no. 9103, 28 Feb. 1998, pp. 637–641., doi:10.1016/s0140-6736(97)11096-0. [Online]. [Accessed: 23 Nov, 2017].