Vaccines: The Short on Shots

by Anne Zauderer, DC

There are certain rites of passage that every child goes through. Those Lead Article - NEW (2)-web resizemoments that define childhood: losing a tooth, learning to ride a bike, the first day of school, the nauseating anticipation of going to the doctor to experience the most painful form of childhood torture—shots! As a child, there is nothing worse. However, all of the pain and agony is worth it to protect our children against deadly childhood diseases. Right?

Vaccines have become an unquestioned, essential component of the childhood wellness care paradigm in our medical profession. They have been heralded as one of the greatest medical advancements in the 21st century. No question, they have saved countless lives and prevented disease in thousands of children. However, how many of us really understand how vaccines work? What is it that we are injecting into our children? What are the benefits and risks? My purpose for this article is to leave emotion out of this highly-charged conversation and just educate, for:

“Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.” (Kofi Annan)

Edward Jenner is credited with developing the first vaccination. Up to that point, inoculation (administering full-strength pathogens to induce an immune response) was a standard practice, but it carried a much higher risk. Jenner’s discovery was based on an observation that milkmaids were generally immune to smallpox. He theorized that their exposure to cowpox (a disease similar to smallpox, but much less dangerous) protected them against smallpox. Thus the idea of utilizing a weakened form of a pathogen to induce an immune response was born.

Jenner’s work is the premise behind how vaccines work today. The vaccines that are currently used are a weakened form of a bacteria or virus. They are combined with agents that stimulate the immune system into a hyper-responsive state so that the body will develop protection against that particular strain.

Before we get into the different types of vaccines, let’s take a look at how our immune system works. Typically, when an antigen is encountered by the immune system for the first time, it takes a relatively long period of time for a defense to be mounted; this is known as the primary response (Figure 1).

Primary and Secondary Immune Response

Figure 1

The T-cells and B-cells, which make up the immune system, must first identify the antigen, activate, and then replicate. Cytotoxic T cells must kill the infected cells and B cells must produce plasma cells that secrete antibodies that bind and neutralize the agent. However, one of the key components of the primary response is the fact that the T-cells and B-cells produce memory cells that remain in the body. This provides a shortcut so that the next time that particular antigen is encountered, the response will be much faster and much more potent; this is known as the secondary response. The secondary response not only occurs faster, but more antibodies are produced and the response lasts a longer period of time.

This mechanism of response of our immune system is the premise behind a vaccine. Vaccines take a weakened or dead preparation of pathogens and stimulate the immune system to respond and produce memory cells without the host person ever getting “sick.” This is known as artificial immunity. In concept, this is brilliant. However, in reality there are some concerns in how scientists prepare the pathogens and stimulate the immune system to respond to their weakened form. Let’s look in greater detail at the process of preparing the vaccines and some of the chemicals and agents that are used.

Figure 2: Source:

Figure 2: Source:

There are four basic types of vaccines (See Figure 2 for individual vaccine types):

  1. Live, attenuated
  2. Inactivated/killed
  3. Toxoid (inactivated toxin)
  4. Subunit/conjugate

The live, attenuated vaccines are made by a process where the virus is passed through a series of (up to 200) cell cultures. These cell cultures are a single type of cell that multiplies in a predictable fashion so that it can be grown in a laboratory for a long period of time. The cell lines that are used in cultures to make vaccines are taken from a variety of sources: monkey embryos, kidney cells, chicken embryos, rabbit embryos, and aborted human embryos. The premise behind this practice is to produce a version of the virus that can be recognized by the human immune system, but cannot replicate well in the human host cells. The major risk with this form of a vaccine is that the virus will revert back once injected or mutate into a form that is a more virulent strain.

An inactivated/killed vaccine is made by using heat or chemicals, such as formaldehyde. (Remember the frog you dissected in high school biology? It was preserved in formaldehyde, a highly toxic chemical). The heat and chemicals destroy the virus’ ability to replicate, but keeps the virus in a form that is recognizable by the immune system.

Illustration of a Cytotoxic T cell activation and actionA toxoid (inactivated toxin) vaccine is designed to protect against certain strains of bacteria. The bacteria release a toxin, which is the agent that makes you sick. The vaccine is made by inactivating (with formalin, or formaldehyde) the toxin into an inactive form.

The final, most common types, are subunit and conjugate vaccines. Both of these types use component pieces, such as proteins, to stimulate an immune response. Scientists use these components in different ways such as attaching them to carrier proteins, inserting them into other viruses called producer cells, and isolating specific proteins.

So, what other ingredients are in vaccines? This is where the controversy for a lot of parents heats up. For the vaccines to do their job effectively, the immune system needs to react to them. To help the immune system “recognize” the vaccines better, certain adjuvants are added, such as aluminum. Aluminum is considered harmless if swallowed, but when injected into the bloodstream it has been shown to build up to toxic amounts in the bloodstream, bone, and brain. It is a known neurotoxin at high concentrations in the brain. The FDA recommends a minimum amount of 5 micrograms per kilogram as a measure for what a healthy, infant’s kidneys can clear in one day (no maximum dose was given). So, as an example, a 12-pound infant could easily clear 30 micrograms, a 22-pound infant could clear 50 micrograms of aluminum per day3. The average amount of aluminum in vaccines varies from 125–850 micrograms per vaccine (average of about 250 micrograms). You can multiply those numbers by the number of vaccines given at each appointment and the number is huge! What’s even more concerning is the lack of testing and research in this area. No studies have been done to show how quickly the aluminum would perfuse from the muscle tissue into the bloodstream after the vaccine is given or the excretion of aluminum in the urine in the days after the vaccine is given. What also isn’t known are the effects of aluminum on an infant’s brain. Animal studies show damage similar to Alzheimer’s disease, but we don’t know exactly what that looks like in humans3.

Other additives to watch out for in vaccines include3:

  1. Thimerosal (or mercury)—this known neurotoxin was used as a preservative in vaccines. Vaccines in the early 1990s contained upward to 87% more mercury than what was considered safe in infants. Thankfully it has been reduced or removed from most vaccines. However, some brands still contain the full 25 microgram dose.
  2. Formaldehyde (or formalin)—used in the production of vaccines as well as used as a preservative, this chemical is listed by the EPA and Consumer Protection Agency as a carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) as well as warning that it could cause kidney disease or genetic damage.
  3. MSG (monosodium glutamate)—a toxic chemical that has an excitatory effect on the brain. Yes, this is the same chemical used as a flavor enhancer in fast food.
  4. EDTA—a chemical used for many things including: dissolving limescale, chelating mercury and lead, and as a stabilizing agent in certain cosmetics. Some studies suggest that it is cytotoxic and minimally genotoxic in animals.
  5. 2-Phenoxyethanol—chemical preservative that may cause reproductive defects.
  6. Sodium Borate (otherwise known as Borax)—an agent used in vaccines as a buffering agent. It is used commercially in detergents, cosmetics, and household cleaners. It has been banned in the United States as a food additive.
  7. Octoxynol—used as a spermicide in other products. It is also a potential endocrine disruptor.
  8. Sodium Deoxycholate—irritating to the eyes, skin and lungs if inhaled or absorbed by the skin.

The chemical agents in the list above are all in very small doses in vaccines and well below acceptable levels. Though, the biggest concern with each of them is that research has not been done to measure their cumulative effect in the bodies of infants. I am of the opinion that the utmost care and concern needs to be taken when dealing with the fragile constitutions of babies. Caution must be used when injecting substances directly into their bloodstream. The field of homeopathy uses dilutions of substances in miniscule amounts and profound effects can be seen on the body. The same care needs to be considered when using the agents in vaccines.

One question to ponder with this discussion is, “Where do we stop?” We could, theoretically, develop a vaccine for every virus or bacterial strain out there. Where do we draw the line and say that it’s enough? What is that threshold? I am of the opinion that instead of putting all of our efforts toward finding ways to artificially stimulate a child’s immune system we should constantly be finding ways to build up their immune system so that it can fight whatever it encounters. This doesn’t mean that kids don’t get sick, but just that we believe enough in their immune system to be able to fight. Natural immunity is much more potent than artificial immunity. Some of the best ways to build a child’s immune system are to: breastfeed, avoid antibiotics for minor colds, train children to eat healthy from the beginning, avoid sugar, and supplement with proper vitamins during periods of sickness.

When broaching the subject of vaccines, I encourage every parent to make the decision that is best for them and for their families. Lead Article Vaccines 9-web resizeThough I do believe a topic like this should not be taken lightly. We are talking about the future generation and the early years are some of the most formative neurologically, emotionally, and physically of a child’s life. We have to be sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that what we are doing is in our children’s best interest and continually asking if there is a better/safer way to do things. Education is the most powerful tool we have. It empowers us to make the decisions that are right for us and our families. I hope this article is just the beginning in learning about this topic.

I suggest reading Dr. Robert Sear’s book, The Vaccine Book, for resources and alternatives to the traditional schedule.

3. Sears, R. (2007). The Vaccine Book. New York: Little, Brown and Company.