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On life. One learning curve at a time on the path to becoming a renaissance man.

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Vaccine Risks: Are Vaccines Safe? Should That Information Be Available?
Are vaccines safe? An over-whelming consensus in the scientific community says they are, and yet many people claim that they aren't.

For example, in direct opposition to many scientific studies, there was an unsubstantiated claim made that mercury (Thimerosal, used in vaccines as a preservative) somehow causes neurological damage leading to Autism. It was removed from some vaccines due to the public scare and no change in Autism rates was ever noted.

While these claims of mercury and Autism are in all likelihood ridiculous, and in the vast majority of cases vaccines are in fact safe, the blind trust in vaccines is problematic. Let me explain.

It is clear that vaccinations are an essential part of today's health-care system and our defense against disease. Just check out H1N1 or Swine Flu if you like, or Google how Small Pox has killed hundreds of millions until it was eradicated by use of vaccinations.

Due to personal experience which is irrelevant to this post, I was a bit weary. I did what many of us would have done, and researched the subject online. Almost every website I found which spoke to the risk of vaccinations belonged to kooks, or to people who spoke big, but didn't bring any hard information for me to process. Scare-mongers.

Some of the scare-data I found claimed:
1. That vaccines are created by using samples from animals, and that these samples may, and in fact have been in the past, contaminated with other diseases.
2. Other parts in the vaccine creation process weren't very sterile, either.
3. The vaccine can cause issues in the patient's body.
4. [most popular] the vaccine may give the patient the disease itself.

I certainly believe any of the above is possible, but I can't speak to that as I don't have direct knowledge nor do I know what the actual policies are in the creation process. I believe the real risks may even be completely different. I simply do not know.

On the other end of the spectrum, I found many websites from the health-care world that gave complete "thumbs-up" to vaccination. Absolute faith. I found that a bit disturbing, but that's just a feeling, not any actual data.

My current opinion on the subject was formed by meeting people who do this for a living -- airplanes are always great for socializing. A scientist who develops vaccines in North America and a scientist who tries to develop a cure for Malaria in Europe.

The vaccine developer assured me that the process is well thought-out and that while issues sometimes occur with patients, that is to be expected. Vaccines are good for us and good for humanity.

The Malaria cure developer admitted vaccines are not his immediate field of expertise, but he also admitted that, regardless of motive: be it professional pride, practicality so people get vaccinated, or even financial. While people SHOULD definitely get vaccinated, vaccines are not perfect and such issues do happen.

While I understand that supporting vaccinations is critical and it saves millions, if not billions, of lives annually, I am still highly disturbed, although not surprised, by the social solidarity of the experts behind the vaccines, and by the lack of actual data EASILY available as to risks.

Does the vaccines industry fear that open discussion will increase the death-toll from these diseases, and in fact would increase infections by those who did not get vaccinated, potentially causing epidemics? That is possible, and I encounter similar ethical dilemmas in the information security field. But then they shouldn't be surprised by skepticism. Nor that many hits on Google belong to kooks. Information should be public when at all possible.

Another similarity to the information security field is that disease is globally monitored by the World Health Organization (WHO). Much like they detect new epidemics starting by this global monitoring, they can monitor the success of vaccines over time, and update them if necessary. So it is safe to assume that older vaccinations have been field-tested to a higher degree or certainty.

One semi-related note is on global risk analysis. Vaccines are one of the few cases where the government finds that civil liberties don't outweigh the public good, and programs exist world-wide to vaccinate new-born babies. Some people question whether these are still needed. It seems they are indeed still needed, but I couldn't easily find information to back my assumption. However, I very much doubt that society would easily change in this regard once the measure was proven successful once, much like I am sure it was difficult to initiate originally.

While I don't see such regulation, or global risk analysis, happening in information security any time soon, having an organized professional stance such as vaccine developers and medical doctors have on emerging threats, could be highly beneficial to our field and in getting our message across to the public.

I discuss more about the analogy to information security in my blog post here.

To conclude, while I support that vaccination is critical for our world, for fighting disease, and does great things for humanity, and is in the vast majority of cases safe; I find it scary. I don't have information to dispel my fear due to this blind trust in the professional sources easily available to me, which leaves the scare-monger sources for me to gather information from, and that my friends, annoys me to no end.

It seems like Swine Flu vaccines brought more information as to risks to the public, and Google is more helpful. But that does not change the issue discussed.

One web page which was brought to my attention, dispelling some misconceptions on vaccines, is from the Center of Disease Control or CDC, Some Common Misconceptions about vaccination and how to respond to them:
Following are six misconceptions that appear in literature about vaccination, along with explanations of why they are misconceptions.

1. Diseases had already begun to disappear before vaccines were introduced, because of better hygiene and sanitation.
2. The majority of people who get a disease have been vaccinated.
3. There are "hot lots" of vaccine that have been associated with more adverse events and deaths than others.
4. Vaccines cause many harmful side effects, illnesses, and even death.
5. Vaccine-preventable diseases have been virtually eliminated from the United States.
6. Giving a child multiple vaccinations for different diseases at the same time increases the risk of harmful side effects and can overload the immune system.
Note, do not be confused due to me taking the text out of context, the above are in fact misconceptions, but I'd still like for more data to be available as to risks, rather than just to dispel misconceptions.

Update 2:
I received some more interesting URLs. While these provide good information, their agenda (not bias) is still clearly to convince people vaccines are good for you. That is not the data I am looking for.

Vaccine Safety and Adverse Events:

Science-Based Medicine blog:

Gadi Evron,

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"the vaccine industry"

In the US, at least, vaccines are a very unprofitable business, in no small part because of the legal troubles that follow the hysteria you describe. In recent years the government has had to sweeten the pot in order to create incentives for companies to produce vaccines. IIRC, half our flu vaccines are produced in the UK.

If the data is not easily available I would be as likely to suspect government responsibility as industry. Surely such data should come from the CDC.

All a question of relative risks...

As with any complex technical/scientific issue, there are places where the data legitimately lead people to differing conclusions, and then there are places where people just spout things from pure lack of understanding.

The most likely complication from a vaccine is an immune over-response like Guillain-Barre Syndrome or anaphylaxis, rather than something related to the vaccine's production.

Vaccine production is one of the most heavily inspected industries around the world. The process is very standardized (all the way up to the United Nations level by the WHO) and new production processes are heavily scrutinized before they're approved by national health regulators. You're many times more likely to die from bacterial food poisoning, for example, than a bad lot of vaccine. The virus/bacteria used in most injectable vaccines (including the flu vaccine) is inactivated (killed) before it's delivered, so there should be no risk of getting the disease. Catastrophes can and do happen, however.

That being said, vaccines are generally produced because the hazards of mass vaccination are outweighed by the risk of having a population largely susceptible to the disease being vaccinated against.

Re: All a question of relative risks...

I agree, and yet, for risk analysis information is required.

The experts may have it, but I don't. So, I need to take what I can get which is mostly from kooks on Google.

the science-based skinny on vaccines

See Mark Crislip's podcasts on this: I think he hit the subject right on the mark. Flu vaccine discussion is quackcast 35: http://www.quackcast.com/spodcasts/files/2d14fdcc67727023a2b954fbf9eb28c4-33.html

Number 30 is more general. I also highly recommend puscast and his other emissions.


vaccine risks

All the information on any serious, unexpected or severe reactions can be found either on the FDA or the EMEA websites for any brand of vaccine. Could it be that the uniformity of response from the medical profession with regards to vaccines *might* be because they are +ve procedures
cf smallpox, almost got rid of ruebella, no deaths from measles since advent of MMR vaccine up until the scare campaign from a now totally discredited ex-doctor found to be in the pay of various legal firms etc

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