Vaccines: The myths, facts, and foolishness

Feb 12, 2016 | 56 comments

A recent appeal for information in a favorite expat e-Newsletter got my attention. An unsuspecting reader posted a simple query: “Do we need proof of current yellow fever and typhoid vaccinations to enter Ecuador fromchl susan logo2 Columbia?” (No). This simple question escalated into an epidemic of opinions, some backed by facts, some by foolishness.

In response, an individual posted that vaccines are “deadly at worst and worthless at best”. This person testified that she never took a vaccine and never got sick. Ah, my favorite anti-science protester. The “N of 1”. The person who believes that her personal experience is the best evidence of future outcomes.LaLaLa

She went on to pronounce her self-actualized impermeability against diseases that infect lesser humans. What could be behind this phenomenon? Her heroic immunity, she claims, making her somehow safeguarded against all pathogenic bugs or viruses. According to this “one”, all diseases are manifestations of underlying lifestyle negligence, made worse by modern medicine. Painting with a very broad brush, she pronounced all vaccines as toxic; she wrote that vaccines all contain mercury and thimerosal; and all vaccines lead to Parkinson’s, dementia, and more.

A rational reader attempted to contribute some factual and accurate comments: no vaccines contain mercury. Thimerosal is made from ethyl mercury, which is as different from methyl mercury (toxic) as ethyl alcohol (in beverages made from human consumption) is from methyl alcohol (wood alcohol, which will make you blind). He added some facts on the safety record of the ingredients in vaccines, but the facts did not slow her down.

She went on to describe a fantasy case scenario featuring herself. Because of her exquisitely heightened immunity, even the Black Plague wouldn’t defeat her. She declared that since the Black Plague only killed about a third of the Europeans infected, those who survived did so because of their “immunity”.FacesofDenial

Another reader informed her that even without treatment, 50% of people would survive infection. But she countered that better sanitation was responsible for eliminating the “original diseases treated with vaccinations”. To support her argument, she pasted a link to an article written by a infamous, discredited osteopath; a man whom reports bears certain responsibility for undermining public health.

Somehow the conversation had mutated from what a traveler would need in the way of inoculation from yellow fever and typhoid viruses to the pronunciation that taking a vaccine is the height of stupidity, and that only a heightened immunity would protect from pathogenic bacterial infections or virulent viruses.

The Black Plague is an infectious disease caused by the bacteria known as Yersinia pestis. Yes, sanitation played a part in the epidemic. Those who perished in 1350 in mass epidemics in Medieval Europe were more likely to be from poorer classes, and likely to be less nourished and to live in dirty, crowded and depressed areas, where rats and fleas proliferated.Print

Plague is a disease that overwhelms the immune system, and even good, nay, perfect physical health is not much help once you’ve been infected. While no doubt, having a robust immune system could help you fight off this dread disease, modern antibiotics have saved millions of lives in the past century, for rich and poor alike. There’s no doubt that the overuse of antibiotics has created another, very significant challenge to public health, but to advocate eliminating all vaccines and antibiotics? Irresponsible.

She then moved on to anthrax, another bacterium, and stated that the isolated attack using anthrax (following the 9/11 attack) may have had a different outcome for the poor soul who was deliberately infected by homegrown terrorists (this case has never been solved) and who died…if only he had a better immune function? She couldn’t be blaming the victim’s own immunity for his demise, could she?

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by bacteria called Bacillus anthracis. The anthrax bacterium produces spores (small resistant cells), which are capable of surviving for many years in the environment. It is deadly inhale a spore, and without antibiotics you die. Your immunity may be strong, even as strong as our fearless opinionator’s, but it’s no match for anthrax.

But this ignorance isn’t isolated to one person in Cuenca. There are other conspiracy theorists writing, posting, and selling their own products, and services, and making a profit by promoting their personal agendas. All based on opinions, not on facts.flowchart

As noted by, conspiracy theorists appear to make sense out of a world that is otherwise confusing. They divide the world sharply into forces of light, and forces of darkness; they congratulate themselves on penetrating the corrupt “mainstream medicine”, while the masses are a brainwashed herd.

If you are interested in learning more about disease and prevention, there’s a plethora of propaganda written by conspiracy theorists, or you can learn all you can from scientists in the trenches, who are not posting from websites selling you “immune boosting” products.

The consensus of health experts around the world is that vaccination — making people immune to diseases caused by viruses or bacteria — is unquestionably one of the most cost-effective public health measures available.

The European Commission on Public Health notes that widespread vaccination has eradicated smallpox and made Europe polio-free. In Cuba, vaccines aren’t only seen as a basic human right, but also as an obligation. Vaccines are not without risk, but it is infinitesimal compared with the risk of contracting the disease fewer than one out of a million doses come with a negative side effect. You’re 100 times more likely to be hit by lightning than you are to suffer a serious allergic reaction to the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.

No doubt, having a resilient immune system is critical for good health. Eating a balanced diet full of raw and safely cooked quality foods, avoiding processed food, getting adequate rest and sleep, decompressing with stress-reducing activities, and not contaminating your lungs with either smoke nor “nicotine vapors” will all boost your immunity, significantly. Eating organic as much as possible, and avoiding chemicals in cosmetics and body washes and laundry detergents is helpful keeping your body healthy, but even healthy people are susceptible to bacterial and viral infections.

Measles is a highly infectious viral disease that remains a leading cause of death in children worldwide. After patients cough or sneeze, the virus particles can survive as long as two hours on doorknobs, hand rails, elevator buttons and even in the air.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), despite the fact that a vaccine has been available for decades, about 400 people died from the measles every day in 2013. Before vaccination became widespread, the disease killed about 2.6 million people per year.

As reported in the, about a year ago there was a measles outbreak linked to Disneyland in California. Experts say that the measles spread from a single person at Disneyland to 145 people in the U.S. and about a dozen others in Canada and Mexico because a substantial number of parents had not had their children fully immunized with the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Why not? Because of fraudulent research.

There is no link between autism and the MMR vaccination. As reported in, the MMR vaccine controversy started with the 1998 publication of a fraudulent research paper in the medical journal The Lancet that lent support to the later discredited claim that colitis and autism spectrum disorders are linked to the combined measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The media have been criticized for their naïve reporting and for lending undue credibility to the architect of the fraud, Andrew Wakefield, a gastroenterologist who was found to be a paid consultant to the attorneys of parents who believed their children had been harmed by vaccines. His license to practice medicine was revoked.

I’d like to share with you an op-ed from Dr. Sanjay Gupta, practicing neurosurgeon and chief medical correspondent for CNN, in response to the measles outbreak in the U.S.A. You can view it here.

Over the last few hours, I have started, scratched out and even abandoned the writing of this op-ed. I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t there. Didn’t feel it.

Something kept nagging at me, and it wasn’t until this very moment that I finally figured out what.

It’s the idea that this article would be labeled “opinion” or “editorial” in the first place. Sure, there are some topics that seem to lend themselves appropriately to opinion pages:

The President’s new budget.

The death penalty.

Is Tom Brady the greatest quarterback ever?

Vaccines, however, which have prevented 6 million deaths every year worldwide and have fundamentally changed modern medicine, should not be on that list.

The benefit of vaccines is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact.

Studies, including a meta analysis of 1.2 million children this past December, show no link between vaccines and autism. That is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of fact.

That you are 100 times more likely to be struck by lightning than to have a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine that protects you against measles is not a matter of opinion.

That is also a matter of fact.

Measles outbreak: How bad is it?

Facts should matter, and science should win, but after 13 years as a medical reporter, I know it is not that simple.

Science often loses the zeal argument to ideology, and in some ways it is easy to understand why.

At the heart of the vaccine argument is the awesome challenge of trying to prove a negative.

If you or your child never gets the disease the vaccine was designed to prevent, there is no surprise. There is no headline. Life goes on.

The flip side, though, is the one in a million child (literally, 1/1,000,000) who has a serious adverse reaction.

It is likely to make the news, confirm the worst fears and lead to the enlistment of an army in the fight against vaccines.

It is worth pointing out that 12 out of 10,000 people who take an aspirin are at risk of intracerebral hemorrhage, or bleeding in the brain. People who regularly take too much acetaminophen are the largest group of people hospitalized for acute liver failure. And, on average, one person in the United States dies every year from H20 intoxication, or drinking too much water. And yet, no armies have formed against aspirin, Tylenol or water.

David Katz, from Yale School of Public Health, wrote that it makes no more sense to rant against vaccines because you heard of someone who might have had an adverse reaction than to stop walking because you heard about a pedestrian struck by a car.

In many ways, it is a luxury to be able to have this discussion at all.

Having spent time in West Africa covering the Ebola outbreak, I saw how people hoped, wished and prayed for a vaccine to no avail.

On the other hand, the measles vaccine is readily available, and yet vaccination rates in certain areas of the United States are similar to the refugee camps I have visited in Haiti, Pakistan and Jordan.

Yes, parents have a choice in this country.

It is a choice that so many others around the world will never have.

What is your message to those who don’t vaccinate?

Of course I vaccinated my children. Didn’t think twice. Not a big fan of the measles or mumps or rubella to name a few very preventable diseases.

And here is where I may lapse for a moment into opinion.

The anti-vaccination argument is often snugly wrapped in the “I love my kids” sentiment. And, I find it, well, a little insulting.

To suggest that anyone who vaccinates their kids doesn’t love them is a whole new level of lunacy. But here is the fact of the matter, for me.

It’s not just because I love my kids that I vaccinated them it’s because I love your kids as well.


– Chemicals of Concern: Learn about a few of the top ingredients and contaminants to avoid, based on the science linking each to adverse health impacts, and the types of products they’re found in.

– Environmental Working Group: See that long list of ingredients on the back of the bottle? Some probably aren’t as safe as you’d hope.

– Wikipedia: MMR Vaccine Controversy.

– Sanjay Gupta, MD: Vaccines are a matter of fact.

– Science-Based Medicine: 9 Reasons to Completely Ignore Joseph Mercola.

– USA Today: Vaccines: Facts vs. Myths.


Susan Burke March is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management, and a Cuenca expat. Contact her at


Susan Burke March

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