Surviving Medicine Part 7: The Real Science of Vaccination

The advent of the scientific method has produced great human triumphs over the vagaries of nature, especially when it comes to healing sick bodies. Modern ‘healthcare’ is a miracle of human ingenuity and business innovation. However, many of the medical treatments on offer today and in the past are not based on any an ethical framework. Much of what the health industry and health authorities both advise and mandate does more harm than good. Money is a factor in the healthcare industry even if it’s offered by the government. In this series, I’m seeking to tell the stories of treatments that are miracle cures, incredible advances, and spectacular disasters. Negotiating the world of doctors, medicines, treatments, and bureaucracies is necessary if one wants to reap the benefits and avoid the disasters.

The ugly Covid disaster continues to discredit real science, including the real science and miracle breakthroughs of vaccinations. Vaccines are a major medical breakthrough and a life saver. With the exception of Covid vaccines, I am up on my vaccinations and so are my children. I am not a doctor, and certainly not a specialist in vaccines, but I’m a guy interested in science and medicine, and I can read, so what is presented here is a bit about the history of vaccines and a framework for making decisions about vaccines.

It is useful to bear in mind that while humans have won the long war with other animals and vanquished the predators that once hunted humans for food, we have, in no way, won the war with microbes, bacteria, or viruses. This might be because we are a stack of microbes and viruses ourselves, a subject I’ve covered previously in a post about the bacterial stack that makes us. The entire human, to work properly, must have other organisms present, including millions of species in our intestinal tracts. We don’t know how many bacteria and viruses were absorbed into our DNA over the many millions of years, but we can be sure that humans keep adding to our complexity and combining with other living things to emerge as the mobile, thinking beings we are. The viruses were always there, and they are in a continued war with us. The vaccines were and are incredible weapon to help us win this terrible war. Viruses will kill children, bear in mind. In fact, many viruses prey exclusively on children. All tools are useful in this war.

So, what is a vaccine? From the CDC we find:

Vaccine: A preparation that is used to stimulate the body’s immune response against diseases. Vaccines are usually administered through needle injections, but some can be administered by mouth or sprayed into the nose.

Once there is a vaccine, people are vaccinated:

Vaccination: The act of introducing a vaccine into the body to produce protection from a specific disease.

This process is also known as immunization:

Immunization: A process by which a person becomes protected against a disease through vaccination. This term is often used interchangeably with vaccination or inoculation.

And why do this?

Immunity: Protection from an infectious disease. If you are immune to a disease, you can be exposed to it without becoming infected.

So, the miracle of vaccines is a sort of preventative medicine with a payoff of the highest order. In the world, there are pathogens that enter the body and wreck the function in evil and highly effective ways.

What is a pathogen? From the NIH:

A pathogen is defined as an organism causing disease to its host, with the severity of the disease symptoms referred to as virulence. Pathogens are taxonomically widely diverse and comprise viruses and bacteria as well as unicellular and multicellular eukaryotes. Every living organism is affected by pathogens, including bacteria, which are targeted by specialized viruses called phages.

Vaccines are a defense network, built ahead of time, that allows the human body to be prepared when invaded by a specific pathogen. Getting a vaccine is like training for a race you know you will have to run. It’s a training system for a body that will be attacked by common viruses and the race can exhaust and kill you, or you can build up your skills and defenses ahead of time. The easy explanation for what a vaccine is can be stated this way: a weak or dead piece of the virus is injected into the host, and the host develops antibodies for that virus. When they are exposed again, for real, their body has the resistance needed to destroy the virus. Lacking the vaccine, they body has far fewer defenses and must fight the virus for the first time. Sometimes humans lose the fight. Sometimes, kids are disabled for life as a result of the viral attack. Polio crippled millions of kids. Rubella left many millions more deaf. Measles blinded those kids it didn’t kill. Various flu viruses still kill millions of weak and elderly people everywhere, around the world.

The story of how vaccines was developed is different for each virus, but overall, it is a heroic tale of scientists isolating a virus, learning how to grow it in a lab, and then weakening it enough to inject into the patient without actually giving them the virus in it’s deadly form. Lots of things went wrong, and the testing of the vaccinations is a harrowing story of medical ethics that is not for the faint of heart. Vaccines were tested on disabled children, and aborted babies were used to incubate the viruses. The path from deadly disease to a sickness from the past was full of ethical shortcuts that, at the time, were considered to be worthwhile.

I was vaccinated as a child and suffered no ill effects, neither from the vaccine or from the diseases that the vaccines were meant to prevent. We think of measles as something kids used to get that was inconvenient, but it was far more than that. As noted, kids could go blind or deaf, or die, from measles. Same with the mumps and a host of other viruses; they targeted children and made childhood a perilous time of life.

Humans have eradicated tuberculosis, a horrible scourge, from most of the world. Polio was a killer and crippler, and now, it too, is mostly gone. How many millions died of smallpox over the hundreds of years of humans migrating to the New World, we can never know. If the natives of north, central, and south America could have been vaccinated for smallpox, all of human history would be different.

Vaccines are a gift from the science and a mandatory part of a health regime. I get them, and am likely to continue, except for the Covid vaccine, which I’ll discuss at another time.

A great book about the development of vaccines in the 20th Century can be found here:

Vaccinated: One Man’s Quest to Defeat the World’s Deadliest Diseases

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