How Vaccination Works — And Why We Need It

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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So far this year, the number of reported cases of measles is at an all-time high since the United States declared the disease eradicated in 2000. Since this past fall, there have been a confirmed 285 cases of measles in New York City alone, according to The New York Times, and Mayor Bill de Blasio declared a “public health emergency” in the city on April 9, 2019. Last year, we only experienced 372 cases — from January through December. The number of measles cases is on the rise, and much of that is because of vaccination fears and, as The New York Times says, the anti-vaccination movement spreading.

Measles is scary AF. One person can infect up to 90% of unvaccinated individuals exposed to the virus, says the George Washington University’s online MPH program. But two doses of the vaccine, generally given as part of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) shot, are 97% effective in preventing the spread of the disease. The vaccine was licensed in 1963, with outbreaks drastically limited by the 1980s, but it wasn’t declared eliminated until 2000.

So how did we get here? How did we go from eliminating a disease to experiencing another outbreak?

George Washington University’s online MPH program has created this super helpful graphic that explains the complicated history, but basically the answer is relatively simple: anti-vaxxers.

MPH@GW Staff

We like to talk about immunization and vaccination like they’re the same, but they aren’t. Immunization happens when, for whatever reason (including infection), we become resistant to a disease. A vaccine is a substance that contains “an inactive or weakened version of the very bacterial or viral infection it has been created to prevent.” These make the body produce the same antibodies it would need to fight the full-blown virus. Therefore, if or when we come in contact with that bacteria or virus, our bodies are prepared to fight it.

MPH@GW Staff

Anti-vaxxers tend to blame Big Pharma or the government for, what they consider to be, unsafe drugs. But the entire process is actually quite complicated and extremely thorough.

“We cannot state strongly enough – the overwhelming scientific evidence shows that vaccines are among the most effective and safest interventions to both prevent individual illness and protect public health,” Dr. Peter Marks of the FDA wrote in a recent public statement. “Vaccinating against measles, mumps and rubella not only protects us and our children, it protects people who can’t be vaccinated, including children with compromised immune systems due to illness and its treatment, such as cancer.”

Dr. Marks went on to remind folks of just how thorough the process is. “We do not take lightly our responsibility to ensure the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, and work diligently to assess safety and effectiveness of all licensed vaccines for their intended uses,” he wrote. “The MMR vaccine is very effective at protecting people against measles, mumps, and rubella. It also prevents complications caused by these diseases. And we have nearly 50 years of experience and evidence supporting that fact.”

So what does all those processes consist of?

Well, vaccine production itself is a multi-step process. First, someone has to actually isolate “natural or synthetic antigens [or proteins] that might help prevent or treat a disease.” These could “include weakened strains of a particular virus.” Then people have to test to see if those antigens they’ve isolated actually work. Many vaccine candidates don’t move on from here. They either end up not working — i.e., they don’t produce immunity — or they’re harmful.

If it passes that phrase, then the vaccine goes into clinical development. This is where things gets really complicated. A company submits a proposal to the FDA summarizing findings to date about the proposed vaccine and describes how the drug will be tested and created. There are three separate phases of human testing, each more rigorous than the last. If it passes all these tests, the company applies for licensing. Only then can the drug be manufactured — and only after the company bears that much expense can they begin to reap any kind of profit from the vaccine.

MPH@GW Staff

Afterwards, it’s far from over: the manufacturers have to adhere to quality control standards to make sure the vaccines continue to perform the way they’re supposed to and there are optional drug trials that can be performed after the release of the vaccine. There’s the Vaccine Adverse Effects Reporting System and the Vaccine Safety Datalink to monitor the performance, safety and efficacy of an approved vaccine. It is important to note that the number of actual vaccine injuries is exceedingly low.

Contrary to what the anti-vaccination movement claims, vaccines are safe and effective. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “most vaccine reactions are usually minor and temporary, such as a sore arm or mild fever. In the rare event a serious side effect is reported, it is immediately investigated.” In fact, across the world, it’s far more likely that you’ll be injured by a vaccine-preventable illness than a vaccine.

But with the advent of the internet and the spread of false information about vaccinations, the anti-vaccination movement has spread. The George Washington University’s online MPH program says, “In recent years, there have been measles cases reported in states where parents have the option not to immunize their children.” These include Washington, where parents are allowed personal, moral, or other exceptions, including a “philosophical exemption,” and Minnesota, which “also allows parents to refuse immunization for their children.” Kim Nelson, founder of South Carolina Parents for Vaccines, told Scary Mommy that South Carolina’s recent outbreak happened in communities who claimed a religious objection to vaccinations.

So the more the anti-vaccine movement spreads, the more cases we have of diseases like the measles — diseases we thought long-eradicated from our country. The reasons people refuse to vaccinate are myriad: a fear of too many shots too soon; a fear that the vaccine contain “chemicals” (newsflash: everything is made of chemicals); a confusion about the nature of those chemicals (an aluminum-containing compound, for example, doesn’t behave the same way as pure aluminum — the same way table salt, or sodium chloride, doesn’t explode in water, like pure sodium). The fear that vaccines “shed” the disease. The fear that the vaccines “give you” the disease. And on and on.

All the hard work that’s gone into making these vaccines becomes useless. And we end up with outbreaks like the one in New York, with the mayor declaring a public health state of emergency. There were also outbreaks in Washington state that spread into neighboring counties in Oregon.

Measles is no longer eradicated from the United States. That’s a (scary) fact.

It’s here, friends.

Vaccinate your kids.

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