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This ‘bad science’ letter popped up in the Waikato Times a couple of days ago. It was actually entitled “Democratic right”…

[A previous writer] condoned governmental blackmail in his letter in which he accused me of irresponsibility for defending the democratic right to choose whether to immunize or not. Does [he] know the MMR vaccine that is used in New Zealand is manufactured from aborted foetal tissue?

There are many parents who choose to avoid some vaccines for religious or philosophical reasons (for example, Catholics who oppose abortion) because the rubella virus in the vaccine is cultured on human diploid cells derived from human foetal tissue. I personally think that if more parents realized where the vaccine came from, they would not allow their child to be immunized.

Further, if [the previous writer], like me, had a sister who had a bad reaction to vaccination and who has suffered the effects of it all her life, he might think again. Also, a neighbour’s child who was a bright, alert baby, but after the second baby vaccine became dull-eyed, drooled at the mouth and hung her tongue. She is now an adult who has not married and is only capable of holding a mundane job.

Before labeling people irresponsible and denying them the rights of society, [the previous writer] should think again and see how he would feel if he were faced with any of the above.

First up, the MMR vaccine used here is NOT ‘manufactured from aborted foetal tissue’. No ‘foetal tissues’ are used in making this or any other vaccine. The writer does go on to say that  cells derived from foetal tissue are used – but these are cell lines that date back to the 1960s and 70s and have been grown in culture ever since then. They came from legal abortions, which were not performed for the purpose of obtaining these cells, and the use of these immortal cell lines hardly encourages abortion. (Those cells are like the HeLa cells used in cancer research and derived from tissue samples taken from Henrietta Lacks back in the 1950s during a biopsy for a cervical tumour. Henrietta’s story is told in The immortal cells life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot – another one to add to my must-read list.)

While individuals may have personal ethical objections to the use of vaccines developed using these cells, it seems that the same is not true for the Catholic church itself if the folliowing statements from the US National Catholic Bioethics Centre are anything to go by:

There would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious disease, for example, rubella, especially in light of the concern that we should all have for the health of our children, public health, and the common good” and “It should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.”

I don’t know why the ‘diploid’ bit is there, unless perhaps to raise the possibility of DNA contamination of the vaccines. If this did exist, and minute amounts of DNA were in the MMR (& I’m speaking hypothetically here) – it’s not going very far from the muscle tissue to which vaccination delivers it.

Doctors are well aware that vaccines are not entirely risk-free. (Before anyone jumps up and down about this statement, they should remember that NOTHING in life can be guaranteed risk-free.) However, these risks can be quantified. For measles, for example, the risk of harm from the vaccine is about 1 in one million; the risk of serious harm, including death, from measles itself is around 1 in one thousand – three orders of magnitude greater.

For rubella, (the focus of our letter), the foetus is most at risk, although adults occasionally suffer complications. For example, 58% of affected individuals have some degree of ‘sensorineural deafness); 43% develop eye abnormalities, including cataracts; 50% develop congenital heart disease. In comparison, the chances of a child having (eg) febrile convulsions following vaccination are between 4 in 10000 and 8 in 10000.

Yes, it’s devastating to have a child suffer genuine harm from a childhood vaccination, but it’s no less so for families whose children are harmed by a vaccine-preventable disease (& I’ve seen the effects in family members from my father’s generation and, indeed, in my own mother).

Our letter writer would seem to be suggesting that she’d prefer to see children exposed to a significant risk of permanent harm from the disease that the vaccine, with its much lower risks, is intended to avoid. Perhaps she would like to reconsider.