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By Genefer Baxter, IMRSV Arts
If you haven’t seen Osmosis Jones yet, go have a look. It’s a cute story about a white blood cell in the “police force”, whose job it is to protect the human body he resides in. Although the cartoon is not entirely accurate, if we imagine that our immune systems work like the police force in our bodies, keeping our health in check, we can imagine vaccinations to be like their sparring partners.
A vaccine consists of either a weakened version of a real virus or just pieces of it. This weakened version is introduced into your bloodstream usually via an injection. Once your immune system senses the invader (antigen) in your blood, it begins releasing antibodies which fight against them, easily picking the viruses off in their weakened state.
This entire process trains the immune system to fight infectious disease, leading to “immunity”. Immunity is when a person’s immune system has successfully learned to fight an infection and can recognize the live virus if it were to enter the body at a later time in the person’s life.
In other words, your “police officers” have graduated from their training.
In the state of Pennsylvania, children are not required to be immunized if the parent objects on religious grounds or on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction.
Otherwise, children must be vaccinated against certain diseases such as measles, polio and chicken pox in order to attend school. Here’s a complete list:
Medical exemptions are also allowed, as some children are unable to be vaccinated due to medical complications. This can be dangerous for the child, but thanks to something called “herd immunity”, if an entire population has been vaccinated, the germ responsible for infection can no longer be transmitted between people. In short, even children who are unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons still gain protection from deadly diseases so long as most are immunized.
The more contagious a disease is however, the more people need to be vaccinated for herd immunity to actually work. For example, to achieve herd immunity for measles, at least 90% of the population needs to be vaccinated against it.
We saw this process falter with the Mumps outbreak at Temple University in 2019. In response, Temple updated its immunization policy, including requiring two doses of the MMR vaccine before students enroll at the school.
It appears as though it is important for most of the population to be vaccinated to protect those who are not able. But if vaccines help our bodies to train for the real fight, why all the controversy?
In the past few years, the “vaccine debate” has gained attention. Although the consensus view of health professionals is that vaccines are not harmful, citizens frequently see news reports that question vaccine safety.
1) Vaccination repercussions
One major concern involves the side effects of vaccination later in the child’s life.
Certain ingredients including preservatives, may be added to increase shelf life and to prevent contamination. Thimerosal, a compound that is approximately 50% mercury, has produced particular concern, as repeated exposure was claimed to be linked to autism by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the US Public Health Service in 1999.
The recommended amount of mercury exposure, it was argued, might be surpassed due to repeated thimerosal-containing vaccinations in the first 6 months of life. This link has been discounted in several studies however, and other sources of mercury may even be more concerning; the recommended exposure of 0.1 mcg of mercury per day by the EPA corresponds with an adult’s weekly consumption of a (7-oz) can of tuna, for example.
In response to the 1999 statement, manufacturers worked with the FDA to produce thimerosal-free formulations of childhood vaccines, and any remaining vaccines containing high concentrations of thimerosal expired in 2002.
2) A not-so-nice history
Our history with the medical community and the big institutions surrounding them also make room for mistrust and skepticism, not just from parents, but the general population as well.
Take the Tuskegee Experiment for example. This experiment conducted by the CDC took place in a poor community ridden with Syphilis, and was aimed at studying the effects of how the disease progressed in African-American males. Proposed initially for 6-9 months, the study continued unnecessarily for 40 years, and was conducted without the patients’ informed consent.
Although told that they were being treated for “bad blood”, subjects did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. Only when the ability to be drafted in war was hindered for African-American males and news reports shunning the project were released, did the United States intervene. This betrayal has left a very bitter taste in the mouths of American citizens, especially African-Americans’.
There have also been historical methods for disease control which are known to consist of unethical practices on an even bigger scale: Eugenics. In the past, Eugenics has been used as an attempt to “breed out” disease and “undesirable” characteristics from the human population. Eugenics was popular in America during much of the first half of the twentieth century, but earned its negative association mainly from Adolf Hitler’s attempts to create a superior race.
Although we humans have had a more than questionable past in terms of methods for resisting illness, it is worth questioning whether or not it is constructive for us to allow a mistrust for big institutions to muddy our trust in the overall science world and the Scientific Method. Perhaps there are ways for facilitating a dialogue between scientist and civilian.
IMRSV Arts is interested in a more direct way for researchers and the public affected by their research to communicate, in hopes of setting the record straight. In fact, we’ve signed up to learn about biotech company Integral Molecular to do just that! Organizations like Integral are passionate about aiding in research surrounding viruses and are interested in increasing immunization, or the ability of our bodies to fend off diseases.
During our artist residency at the company, we’re exploring methods to better bridge both parties. We wonder, if research projects were to be decentralized and included more of the public, if trust in science could be reignited and less misinformation spread.
Moreover, if the public were to be genuinely included in scientific processes (and potentially be compensated for their contributions), we hypothesize that people would gain a better understanding of the value that their bodies and biological information hold.
It is true that because there is not enough long term research on vaccinating the population, we cannot truly understand all of the potential repercussions.
Although we cannot predict the future, I would argue that the potential repercussions of vaccinations may be less dangerous and painful than getting the real virus.
Thanks for Reading!