Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam

Essential thinking for reading Catholics.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Catholicism and vaccines.

If you're reading this it's because you have a privileged view to a work-in-progress. I'll likely edit it many times over before I publish.


Yesterday, on the FB page of a dear friend of mine this subject came up. Because I feel SO VERY strongly about it, I expressed my views on this matter in, frankly, an intemperate and uncharitable way. That others expressed their views (which I consider to be -- demonstrably -- wildly incorrect and lacking in logic) in rather acid terms is no excuse.

I'm posting this now because I think I have calmed down enough to do so in a dispassionate way. You see, this issue touches my family in a direct way. My beloved was born in Cuba and moved here in 1970 at the age of almost-four. Between birth and flight to the land of liberty she contracted, and nearly died from, measles. Cuba, in spite of its oh-so-wonderful standard of medical care had a drastic collapse in the Soviet-funded immunization program starting in mid-1967. Unofficial estimates (officially, "this never happened") are that between 1967 and 1970 +/-3,000 children died of measles.

My wife was nearly one of that number.

Secondly, I have a son with autism. And I mean autism-autism. Much of the anti-vaccination movement stems from fears that vaccines are somehow responsible for autism. I'll deal with that claim anon, but for now I'll just say that the logical conclusion of such a mindset is "I'd rather chance it that my kid dies of an otherwise preventable disease than risk having him be autistic."

This, you may unsurprised to realize, upsets me beyond even my capacity for expression.

Now, I realize that there are people for whom there is, simply, NO satisfactory standard of proof. God could descend from Heaven and He Himself could tell them straight out and they'll still believe what they wish to believe while refusing to consider any evidence that refutes their opinion. As I have discovered in trying to set the record straight about the manifold errors told about Pope Francis, such people do exist and their mindsets are armored and correction-proof.

But I am hoping against hope that others (the percentage of which I know not) may be amenable to reason and logical entreaties and may have the temperament to consider evidence that challenges their ideas. We shall see.

My concern, bluntly, is that the anti-vaccination movement is going to wind up killing children.

The short version of how vaccines -- the measles vaccine, say --  work in an epidemiological sense is:
The measles is a virus and because of that, it mutates from one person to the next. (The extent and rate of mutations is what makes an AIDS vaccine so devilishly difficult to accomplish.) In the epidemiological sense, vaccinations work when the whole of the population is vaccinated and that particular virus (measles in our example) is functionally extinct in an "at large" sense. When a select group of parents wilfully chooses to not vaccinate their children, the measles virus establishes a beachhead in the population and with much greater opportunity (and "room") to multiply, it does, creating a far larger and extensive mutation-set, making immunizations less effective and increasing the opportunity to infect other people's children.

Vaccines for viruses are continually changing and evolving, being adapted all the time to the virus "version" being combated. The purpose of the immunizations so constituted are to build an immunity within a population to a virus' base genetic material. While some of the virus' genetic code may mutate, the core molecule remains -- at least for now -- exactly the same.

Now, however we are seeing an outbreak of measles racing eastward from Disneyland in California, in the worst such episode in over two decades. This unfortunate outbreak is being fostered by the upsurge in clusters of unvaccinated subsets of the population.

According to the latest CDC reports, in just the last month, 84 people (from 14 states) have contracted measles. By my lights, such a number certainly underestimates the thing, as the CDC doesn’t always record every individual case. Just in the State of California (California being California) there are almost 60 confirmed cases, the majority related to the Disneyland episode. The majority of people who contracted these cases measles were -- quelle surprise -- not vaccinated.

(If you're concerned that the virus may have mutated further than the immunization "range" of the unfortunate people who had been vaccinated, you're a very astute person.)

For a very long time, scientists have issued warning upon warning anti-vaccination movement could easily bring about epidemics of disease. I had the good/bad fortune of spending from ages 3-11 living in The Third World. I vividly remember outbreaks and epidemics killing little kids all the time. Watching funeral processions -- 7, 8, 10 a day -- going past your dad's office window in Colombia or Ecuador, all on foot, and almost invariably carrying a cheap wooden coffin barely three feet long, well...that gives you a slightly different perspective.

Two years ago the anti-vaccine movement gave us the worst whooping cough outbreak since World War Two. Of course, now it’s measles' turn. Funny thing is that the US had (basically) eliminated measles by 2000, due to the measles vaccine. As in "fewer than 100 cases." While the incidences of measles had been declining, a simple graphical regression analysis shows the disease would not have declined nearly as quickly or impressively as upon the advent of the measles vaccine. (Note the cases are not weighted for the growth in population.)

Yet we saw 644 cases (someone check my math but that strikes me as a 644% increase) in 27 states last year, the most number of cases in a couple of decades.

This year looks to be even worse. Measles could very well become endemic in the U.S, with outbreaks of cases spiking semi-regularly across the population, all courtesy of the ever-growing numbers of unvaccinated individuals. Until these last few years, outbreaks in the U.S. were the result of someone traveling overseas and returning carrying the measles.

The anti-vaccine movement has relentlessly traded on incorrect information. And yet, with a preponderance of scientific evidence that vaccines are of vast epidemiological benefit, we still must address things such as:

"Vaccines are the cause of autism."
They are not.
"Well, then, the thimerosal in those vaccines...THAT causes autism."
Um. No, it does not.
"Well, healthy living will give you Natural Immunity® and THAT's all you need."
No it doesn't and not it's not. Measles infects 90% of people exposed to it unless they are vaccinated.

I'm very serious when I say the anti-vaccination movement will get someone killed. Just in the last few days on CNN they reported on the case of Rhett Krawitt. He's 6 years old who, after four years of chemotherapy due to leukemia has a gravely compromised immunity, but his system is not yet ready for vaccination. If he contracts measles, a contingency growing in likelihood as noted above, he might not live through it. And like him are many, many other children. The odds are that, if this lamentable trend goes unabated, some of them will not survive the disease.

On whose conscience should such an event weigh?

This trend has been growing for some time. It started in 1998 with a publication in The Lancet (UK) by Andrew Wakefield of a paper which claimed the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine had a link to autism. His work turned to be fraudulent um, "problematic" and what he claimed about the MMR vaccine “dishonest and irresponsible.” Following very detailed, protracted investigations, Wakefield's paper was retracted and his license to practice medicine was revoked.

That Wakefield remains a martyr/hero to anti-vaccine groups, is disconcerting, truth be told.

The anti-vaccine message torch has been carried with enthusiasm by former Playboy Playmate of the Year Jenny McCarthy, and by groups such as Age of Autism who are doing so as I write this. Last summer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. started to revive the notion thimerosal is a cause of autism.

A cynical person would note that most of the vocal anti-vaccine proponents have no scientific or medical expertise or education. In the last couple of decades, tens-upon-tens of studies involving hundreds of thousands of subjects have amply demonstrated that vaccines (or any of the components thereof) are not, in any way, linked to autism.

While vaccines are demonstrably safe, measles is very dangerous. In this latest outbreak, fully one quarter of victims have needed hospitalization. Moreover, measles is extremely infectious. According to a statement of the CDC “You can catch it just by being in the same room as a person with measles even if that person left the room, because the virus can hang around for a couple of hours.”

Frankly, I'm pretty pessimistic that even the Disneyland outbreak (which, as mentioned above, has now spread to 14 states) will finally convince most of those parents who are the most ardently resistant to vaccines.

Let us switch gears for a moment and address the "freedom" issue.

Those among the assembled who have been with me the longest will attest to the fact that I'm as hostile to the overreach of the police power of the state as is possible to be. But the "freedom" argument, to be totally honest, doesn't convince me.

Parents have the right to bring up their children as best they see fit. But is that right absolute? Because if it is, then Mom and Dad should be able to feed Junior nothing but cabbage juice and blueberries from birth to age 18 and, golly, everyone should just back the HECK up. Or refuse to use child safety seats, or choose to neither send their children to school NOR homeschool, or perform female "circumcision" or refuse to take them to the dentist, or...

But let's just say there is such an absolute right. Do other parents not have the right to not have their children associate with unvaccinated peers? Do the owners of private property have the right to withhold entry into their premises to the unvaccinated?

"What about religious exemptions, Mr. Pro Life? Didn't you know about the link to abortions and vaccines?"

Of the arguments made by right-of-center anti-vaccination advocates (there are an equal-or-greater number of LEFT-of-center advocates, but that's not trendy for the MSM to focus upon), this is one of the most powerful, as it strikes at a hot-button moral issue.

Nonetheless, Biology 101 teaches us it's impossible for vaccines (or other injectables medicines) to have human tissues. Why? Well, should you be injected with anything with tissue from another person, your immune system will classify it as an invasive action and promptly dispatch antibodies to deal with said invasion. This "rejection response" by your immune system is frequently very aggressive and could very readily lead to your death.

That's why the match between an organ donor and a recipient must be VERY precisely matched before a transplant can happen. Therefore, it's safe to say there isn't ANY human tissue of any kind in vaccines. Unfortunately, the anti-vaccination movement has convinced many people that vaccines have tissues from abortions and that these must be performed ceaselessly in order to supply pharmaceutical companies. This views is incorrect, but it is powerful precisely because someone holds the morally correct viewpoint that abortion is, unquestionably, the unjustifiable killing of an innocent person.

In the interests of strict accuracy, it must be said that rumors are most powerful when they have a grain of truth to them, as is the case with this one. There is some connection between some vaccines and aborted babies. Hepatitis A, MMR, and the chicken pox vaccines all feature weakened or "inert" viruses cultivated in human cells. For a virus to propagate, it has to do so in a suitable medium. Lots of vaccines feature weak/inert viruses that propagate in the cells of assorted animals. However, there are viruses so specific they can only be propagated in human cells. Like the ones above; they must be propagated in human cells.

Where do pharmaceuticals get the cells for vaccines? From "cell lines" which are cultures of self-perpetuating cells. Each of these cultures is continually reproducing, churning out more cells. The cell lines we're focusing on for this discussion are MRC-5 and WI-38.

Both of these cell lines were cultured from cells taken from two abortions from the mid-1960s. That's your kernel of truth right there. (Incidentally, I harbor ZERO illusions that pharmaceutical companies are clean and pure and noble entities.)

In a June 9, 2005 statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life says that when an alternative vaccine exists (i.e. one with no connection at all to abortion) and is available, parents should use that one. Moreover, when there is no such alternative, parents should make their objections heard in order to "encourage" pharmaceuticals to develop such an alternative.

Nonetheless, regarding the administration of vaccines with no alternatives, the Vatican explicitly declares parents may do so in order to protect the lives and health of their children and the community. My translation of the document (from the Italian) states, "Regarding the vaccines without any alternative, the need to contest [i.e. "protest" or "demonstrate"] so that other vaccines may be developed must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insofar as is necessary in order to avoid a serious health risk not only for one's own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health condition of the population as a whole - especially for pregnant women."

Pay close attention to what this Vatican document is stating. It says we should contest/dispute/complain/protest these vaccines so as to make pharmaceutical companies seek and develop new, acceptable, vaccines. But until such a happy outcome comes to pass, " order to avoid a serious health risk not only for one's own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health condition of the population as a whole - especially for pregnant women" parents may still use the vaccines without an alternative for now.

Furthermore, the document specifically focuses on rubella as a disease to be vaccinated against, even though there isn't (yet) an alternative vaccine: "Moreover, we find, in a case such as this [i.e., rubella], a proportional reason to accept the use of these vaccines in the face of the danger of encouraging the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children. This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles."

To clarify even further, in a Catholic News Service piece quoting Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau (himself a medical doctor) an official at the Pontifical Academy for Life, as saying, "If the health of the child or the whole population [is at stake], parents should accept having their child be vaccinated if there is no alternative."

The way I look at this in addition to (not substitution of) official Church pronouncements is along the lines -- this is an imperfect analogy, so don't go there -- of receiving an organ donation from a murder victim.