John Salamone approved giving his infant son, David, the live-virus Sabin oral polio vaccine. Within a short period, David became weak and couldn’t crawl. After two years of physical and other therapies, it became clear that the vaccine had given David polio.

In that same period, 2.5 million other children were given the same vaccine and were protected from polio.

This column is about what is currently a political hot topic: Do we or don’t we, should we or shouldn’t we, vaccinate our children? My position is neither for nor against vaccination; I wish only to put the risks of vaccination in perspective. I am somewhat concerned, however, about being required to vaccinate, legally or otherwise. For example, I am personally required to receive the flu vaccine before being allowed to do patient visitations at the hospital.

What vaccine does

Vaccination is all about your immune system, the system that detects foreign invaders to your body and coordinates their control and destruction. Alas, your immune system doesn’t know everything ahead of time and builds up immunity only when faced with a threat. That is, while you’re getting sick, from measles, for example, your body is creating a defense against that disease.

Once the measles virus infects a cell in your body, it uses that cell’s membrane to wrap itself in a uniquely shaped protein envelope. When your immune system detects this invader, the first thing it does is recruit an immature immune cell. The job of this immune cell is to create a protein antibody that has the same shape as the measles’ wrapper.

In the genes of your immune cell’s nucleus are bits and pieces of DNA that encode uniquely shaped snippets of proteins. The cell, apparently randomly, assembles and recombines these DNA segments to create a vast array of different genes, each one providing for a uniquely shaped antibody protein. When it finds one that is close to the shape of the measles protein, that cell is activated. So far, so good, but we need a perfect match.

The activated cells then go into overdrive using a process called somatic hypermutation to make hundreds of copies of their original antibody gene, each one slightly mutated so that it will encode a slightly different-shaped protein. The cell then selects the best-fitting mutation and puts it through repeated rounds of hypermutation to sculpt it to become a “perfect” physical complement of the measles virus.

Once locked onto the virus, this sculpted antibody deactivates it and marks it for destruction, thus short-circuiting the ravage of measles. If the measles virus dares to show up again, your system immediately launches a full-scale immune response, defeating the measles enemy before it gets a foothold.

Virtually no one gets measles or mumps or other childhood diseases anymore. The reason is that during the last century, vaccines were discovered to provide immunity without your having to suffer the disease.

That is, a vaccine is a compound that contains a small amount of the troublesome virus that is either weak or dead. When the vaccine is injected, your immune system does exactly what it does when the real infection invades: It creates an effective antibody and remembers this so that if the real infection starts, your body is ready to mount that full-scale defense on your behalf.

A bit of history

We think of vaccines as being a product of modern medicine. In fact, the basic principle of vaccination has been practiced for a very long time; it’s called the law of similars, like cures like.

Way long ago, for example, Buddhist monks would drink snake venom to head off danger from a snake bite. In 17th-century China, smearing a tear in the skin with cowpox was used to confer immunity to smallpox.

Today’s homeopathy is an outstanding example that makes full use of the law of similars. That is, a homeopathic remedy is developed by observing what symptoms are caused by a toxic dose of a particular substance and preparing a highly diluted version of that same substance. While a toxic dose of a substance makes you sick, a nanodose of the same substance engages your immune system to effect protection.

The founding of modern vaccinology is attributed to an English country doctor from Gloucestershire, Edward Jenner. He observed that milkmaids who had milked cows infected with cowpox seemed immune to the more deadly smallpox virus.

In 1796, Jenner tested this possibility, as the Chinese had done before, by inoculating a 13-year-old boy with cowpox virus; he scratched it into the boy’s skin. He then exposed the boy to the more deadly smallpox virus and demonstrated the boy’s immunity to the disease. By 1798, the first real smallpox vaccination was created.

Interestingly, our word “vaccine” was coined by Jenner and is derived from the Latin word meaning “from a cow.”

Are vaccines safe?

Research and experience have shown repeatedly that vaccination can be safe and effective. Smallpox, polio and other dread diseases have been virtually eliminated worldwide through vaccination.

All vaccines have the potential for mild side effects. These may include soreness where the injection was done, a low-grade fever or perhaps some fussiness. In some cases, there may be temporary headaches or possibly fatigue and low appetite.

There are also cases, like David Salamone, for whom vaccination has been a calamity. For completeness, I should mention that at the time of David’s inoculation, there was a safer, but more expensive and difficult to administer, killed-virus polio vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk. Subsequently, David’s father and other parents worked tirelessly to shift the United States to exclusive use of the Salk vaccine.

Other serious side effects are possible, but rare. Although it was once claimed that vaccination could lead to autism, research has established no such link. In fact, the one study that showed such a link years ago has been retracted.

Research has also shown the real, however unlikely, risk of serious problems. For example, observations show the risk of undesirable side effects of the tuberculosis vaccine to be between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 50,000. Oral polio vaccine is 1 in 750,000 for the first dose. Measles is 1 in 1 million doses. Diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis is 1 in 750,000 doses. Other vaccines have similar rates. These seem like very small risks, but for those affected, the risk is 100%.

Who is at risk?

Although no guarantee of safety, we do have some guidelines to know who is at risk for the downsides of vaccines. For example, anyone with a weakened immune system should not be vaccinated, whether the compromise is from disease, from medication or from another source. Similarly, those with diabetes or chronic afflictions to lung, heart, liver or kidney should avoid vaccination. Vaccination should be withheld from newborn babies and from elderly who may be at higher risk of complications from other diseases. One must be aware also of allergies the vaccine recipient may have, not to the virus, but to the medium in which it is delivered; this may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.

What should you do?

Many millions have been protected from the dire effects of diseases like measles (brain damage or death), mumps (deafness), meningitis (deafness and brain damage), polio (paralysis), tetanus (swallowing and breathing spasms), and more.

If you do not vaccinate, you leave your child at risk for these and other potentially catastrophic diseases. If you do vaccinate your child, there is a very small risk of equally devastating side effects.

I wish I could say with confidence that you should or should not vaccinate. This is a decision to be made in consultation with your doctor, and with an awareness of the risks on either side.

Bob Keller maintains a holistic practice in Newburyport. He offers medical massage therapy for pain relief, as well as psychological counseling, dream work and spiritual direction. Many patients call him Dr. Bob and accuse him of doing miracles, but he is not a medical doctor nor a divinity. His expertise is medical massage therapy, understanding this miracle we call the human being. He can be reached at 978-465-5111 or rk2name@gmail.com.

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