twisting the truth on vaccination

By Alison Campbell 25/05/2011


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.


0 Responses to “twisting the truth on vaccination”

  • I laughed at this line:
    “She is now an adult who has not married and is only capable of holding a mundane job.”

    oh noes! I presume this is supposed to be some sort of euphemism for mentally challenged but taken as read it describes a large portion of developmentally normal people. And if she is now an adult that mean’s we a relying on a pretty old recollection for the “baby vaccine became dull-eyed..”etc, etc anecdote. Well we all know memory is infallible right?

    No post hoc ergo prompter hoc rationalization going on here either.
    Golly how much faulty reasoning can one person cram into such a short letter?

  • Darcy, I laughed at that line too. Not married! Quelle horreur!
    The Waikato Times seems to get more than its share of bad science letters ..

  • democratic right to choose whether to immunize or not.nInteresting thought. In a democracy everyone has an opportunity to have a _say_ not have their own way.
    Hence we elect our politicians (say), but we have to accept the outcomes (laws) even if the particular law does not agree with us individually because it benefits society as a whole. (Ideally of course)
    We have no democratic right to choose to immunize _per se_, the democratic right is in the discussion, not in the choice.
    If we all immunized according to our own belief we would have anarchy not democracy.
    Democracy is about the majority not the minority, and this is where immunization statistics are the core of the matter. Better to have the majority of the population immune and a very few suffer, than no immunity and many suffer. That is democracy.

  • I don’t know why democracy is even an issue. In New Zealand there’s no compulsion to use vaccines. There’s plenty of (entirely justified, IMHO) social and medical pressure, but that’s not the same as legal obligation. Nobody’s democratic rights are being trampled on by being called irresponsible.

    The rubella/abortion thing is poor logic. Rubella epidemics were responsible for vast numbers of spontaneous abortions (ie miscarriages) before widespread vaccination of girls. Before boys were also vaccinated in the MMR shot, it still had a population reservoir to spread in and occasionally infect pregnant women who somehow hadn’t been vaccinated.

    • I don’t know why democracy is even an issue.
      It’s not. of course – but I suspect saying ‘they are trampling on our democratic rights’ is perceived as a good rallying call by people like our writer.
      Rubella epidemics were responsible for vast numbers of spontaneous abortions
      Yes, but they were natural /snark off

  • Well, I have cut that post down & sent it off to the WT editor. Will be interesting to see the response – no doubt the original writer will get indignant all over again :-)

  • Trouble,

    Rubella epidemics were responsible for vast numbers of spontaneous abortions (ie miscarriages) before widespread vaccination of girls. Before boys were also vaccinated in the MMR shot, it still had a population reservoir to spread in and occasionally infect pregnant women who somehow hadn’t been vaccinated.

    As you infer vaccination of children is needed to protect the mothers and as Alison mentioned there’s more than just abortions at stake for infected foetuses. The rubella epidemics coincide with deafness ‘epidemics’ (there’s a little on this in an old article of mine on congenital rubella. I would like to have revisited this topic it to tie in with Alison’s article, but I’m too busy unfortunately. (I have a personal interest in it, being a ‘rubella kid’ myself.)

  • “…human diploid cells…”?

    As far as I am aware all human cells are diploid apart from spermatozoa and ova. Diploid means that the cell nucleus contains two of each chromosone (before anyone comments, males with a Y pairing an X are a special case).

    Haploid cells only have one of each chromosone and are limited to the reproductive cells. I am unaware of any polyploid human cells although some may consider multinucleate giant cells to be polyploid.

    By using the term diploid, all the writer seems to be saying is that the cells used for virus culture aren’t spermatozoa or ova! I think that it’s fair to say that would be an assumption made by anyone reading the term “cell culture.”

    Appropriately, Recaptcha has brought up “genotypic” as one of its words today. lol

  • My feeling was that she was using it in a sort of ‘scare’ way, using a science-y sounding tag to emphasise the fact that it’s human cells we’re talking about here. (I might be doing the writer a disservice but on the other hand, I suspect there’s a proportion of the population that has no idea what haploid & diploid mean, just on hearing the words.)

  • Cross-posting a comment from Bioblog…

    I was not previously aware that diploid cells were scarier than haploid ones. Perhaps the idea is that haploid cell-lines (derived from spermatozoa or ova or polar bodies) would be more acceptable to Catholics, because the Holy Ghost only extends his impalpable ovipositor down from Heaven and injects a soul into the ovum at the stage of fertilisation when sperm-nuclear and ovum-nuclear chromosomes commingle.

    Thus with diploid cell-lines there is the danger of soul contamination in the resultant vaccine.

    I am not up-to-date with these issues of doctrine.

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