6 Vaccine Ingredients that Sound Scary but Aren't
By Cassandra Cyr
Whenever I’m subjected to the latest rambling anti-vaccination crusade I have a very, very hard time listening without voicing my knowledge on the matter. Many of the people that try to convince others against vaccinations are “self-taught” and choose to spread fear and sickness rather than believe legitimate, peer reviewed research (I’m looking at you, Jenny McCarthy). In actuality, vaccines have been around since the 1800’s and many of the ingredients that people are so worried about today have been used safely for over 70 years. Vaccination has ended worldwide epidemics and saved countless lives, while the anti-vaccine movement has spurred outbreaks all over the world and caused the preventable deaths of many children, elderly, immune compromised, and even otherwise completely healthy people.
Now before I go on I would like to point out that I really wouldn't give a shit what anyone else believes if it weren't for two things. First, vaccines are everybody’s business. The choice to vaccinate ceases to become a personal decision when an entire community can be affected. When your precious snowflake comes down with the chicken pox because you didn't vaccinate them they probably won’t die (although this is possible and does happen!), but what about the elderly, newborn, and immune compromised people your kid comes into contact with while they are contagious? Will they survive? Maybe they will, thanks to medicine and/or hospitalizations, or maybe they won’t, but you’ll probably never know either way. There’s never a burden of proof to remind you that you caused someone else’s serious illness, so who cares? When you live in a community that contains newborn children, elderly patients, transplant recipients or immune compromised individuals those people rely on YOU to do the right thing by vaccinating in order to keep EVERYONE safe, plus- bonus time- it also keeps your child safe too.
The second reason I am forced to give a shit about vaccines is that the anti-vaccine movement is loud as hell. They spread misinformation like wildfire and people that typically would know better think that it might just make sense and then start to believe it. The fact that children around the US (not to mention the rest of the world) are getting sick and dying from should-be preventable diseases like the flu (90% of children that died from the flu in the past year were not vaccinated), Hib, polio, and measles are not enough proof for these people to stop shouting their opinions from the proverbial roof tops. I've seen (and cringed) at enough blatantly false anti vaccine info graphics to decide that it’s time to spout some of my own information as an attempt to be as loud as the anti-vaccine movement. Misinformation is dangerous and those of us that believe in the safety of vaccines must therefore be as loud as the other side.
One of my personal favorite and ridiculous anti-vaccine arguments is the listing of scary ingredients. The lay person sees names that sound like chemicals and becomes worried, the anti-vacciner can then swoop in and twist the side effects of said chemicals out of context to make them sound even scarier. It’s a great way to trick people into believing you, and works a hell of a lot of the time. But let’s fix that shall we? I found these 6 ingredients listed on an anti-vaccination website, so let’s go through them one by one and find out why they’re not really so scary after all.
1. Mercury/ Thimerosal
This is easily one of the first arguments against vaccinations I come upon—“they’re injecting you with mercury, which is linked to autism!” While it sure is fun to pretend that big pharma is trying to kill us by secretly hiding thimerosal (this is the mercury containing compound found in a small number of vaccines) in our vaccines, there is actually a functional reason for it. Thimerosal has been used since the 1930’s, that’s right people- it’s been around for 80 years, as a preservative in many drugs, including vaccines. An effective preservative is particularly important when one vial of vaccine is used for multiple doses and there’s a higher likelihood of contamination. Thimerosal effectively kills any incoming microbes, keeping your vaccine safe and healthy. There have been studies demonstrating the safety and efficacy of thimerosal since the 1930’s, long before the autism epidemic of the 90’s. Furthermore, the MMR vaccine that was fraudulently linked to autism, by jackass extraordinaire Andrew Wakefield, doesn’t even contain thimerosal. It is a common misunderstanding that the mercury/autism link was proposed by Wakefield, when in actuality he proposed autism was linked to vaccines via intestinal inflammation; but of course it was all bullshit anyways.
When you hear people complaining that mercury is in vaccines they are glossing over an important fact. Thimerosal breaks down into ethyl mercury in the body, while the mercury you often hear about is methyl mercury (which incidentally is found all around you anyways). These are two different molecules with different toxicity profiles; in fact there have been studies that show ethylmercury is removed from the body faster and easier than methyl mercury. I get that mercury sounds scary, but considering the small dosage administered, the benefit it provides, the difference between the two mercury metabolites, and the safety data- it’s not as bad as you might think.
But here’s the rub, this debate about thimerosal should not even be an issue anymore. Thimerosal has slowly been removed from many vaccines either completely or to only trace amounts. This is not because it will kill you, but due to better manufacturing alternatives and public outcry (not legitimate research findings). In fact, if you’re worried about your child getting sick from a vaccine that contains thimerosal you can still follow the full vaccination schedule for your young child and your kid will never be exposed to the stuff. The few childhood vaccines that still contain small traces of thimerosal have alternative brand names that don’t contain it; all you have to do is request a specific non-thimerosal brand from your doctor and get your kid vaccinated (you can find a brand and ingredient list HERE). It should also be noted that multiple studies have shown that the removal of thimerosal in childhood vaccines has had no impact in rising autism rates over the last decade, suggesting no correlation between autism and thimerosal.
I really hate needles, so you can bet your ass that if I’m going to sit through a vaccine I want the damn thing to work and I want it to work as well as possible so I don’t have to get another vaccine/booster or, worse yet, end up with the illness I was trying to prevent in the first place.
Having a vaccine work efficaciously is not a simple matter, and in the 1920’s it was determined that aluminum helped increase immune response. Aluminum acts as an adjuvant to your vaccine, which means it allows the vaccine to create a larger immune response in your body, increasing how well the vaccine works. This allows you to receive a smaller vaccine dosage and/or fewer booster shots- which even the anti-vaccine people must agree is a good thing. Aluminum and aluminum salts have been present in vaccines since the 1930’s and there is an incredible amount of data showing the safety and efficacy of minute amounts of aluminum. Furthermore, environmental exposure to aluminum is high in comparison to the small amounts in vaccines. For example- a formula fed newborn ingests 40mg of aluminum within 6 months which is over 10 times the amount present in the first 6 months of vaccinations, which totals a mere 4.4mg aluminum. While this type of exposure is different there are studies that show the safety of injected aluminum in vaccines that you can refer to. The majority of any injected aluminum is quickly excreted from the body and has been proven over the last 80 years not to cause harm.
We all remember from our high school anatomy class the noxious fumes of formaldehyde and its role in preserving dead flesh. The anti-vaccine movement is capitalizing on the fact that this is the sole information anyone knows about formaldehyde and, yet again, using it as a scare tactic.
Formaldehyde is used in vaccines for a variety of reasons, one of which is because it is great at deactivating virus. For example, some flu vaccines (but not all) take live flu virus, deactivate it with formaldehyde, and then massively dilute it before the vaccine is completed. This deactivated virus is exposed to your immune system, which can then gain a harmless way to recognize the virus in the future. While the formaldehyde is severely diluted in the final vaccine there is some residual formaldehyde leftover and this is why you might see it on a label.
This residual formaldehyde is perfectly safe because formaldehyde isn’t a harmful man-made chemical compound like many people seem to think it is. Formaldehyde is naturally produced in your body; you currently have approximately 2.5ug of formaldehyde per mL of blood floating around in you right now. The amount of formaldehyde in your average vaccine is 50-70 times LOWER than the amount of formaldehyde naturally floating around in your bloodstream. In addition, there have been safety studies showing that dosages 600 times those found in vaccines can be safely administered to animals. So even if there WAS a lot of formaldehyde in vaccines (there’s not) and it was injected into you (which it’s not) it would most likely be perfectly fine. Formaldehyde is not a frightening idea when you consider the minute amounts and demonstrated safety profile.
4. Egg Proteins
Eggs are used in vaccine manufacture because they can be kept sterile and produce a large yield of virus once infected, typically with influenza. It’s pretty straightforward and I actually never realized residual egg proteins were something most non-allergic people cared about at all until recently when I saw this on an anti-vaccine website: “Vaccines are prepared in eggs (certainly not organic). May contain growth hormones, antibiotics, and salmonella bacteria.”
You must excuse me for a moment while I proceed to laugh my face off. Do these guys have ANY idea how an egg used in vaccine manufacture is produced? ANY idea? Obviously not--from this little blurb from the geniuses over at Nature News they seem to think scientists walk into a grocery store, find the cheapest non-organic and salmonella riddled eggs in the store and then proceed to use them for vaccine manufacturing.
This couldn't be anything further from the truth. SPF (Specific Pathogen Free) Egg manufacture for vaccine usage is a highly regulated and specialized industry. I have personally visited one of the farms where these eggs are produced and you cannot even go into or out of the chicken coop without a full shower and gowning up in clean scrubs and a face mask. The chicken coops are provided filtered air and the chickens and eggs are consistently tested for safety. If you work with these chickens you cannot even PURCHASE store bought eggs at your own home for worry of cross contamination between your home and the chicken coop. Those wonderful organic eggs you love so much are actually a foreign microbe riddled danger to these highly specialized eggs. These are some of the most carefully guarded and tested eggs in the world, yet these assholes think they have salmonella? Come on.
The only people that should be scared of egg proteins in their vaccines are people with egg allergies. That is totally legitimate, however if this is the case there are many companies rolling out egg-less flu vaccines which are manufactured in insect cell lines rather than eggs, so it is now possible to find other non-egg based sources for your vaccines.
5. Human Byproducts
This is one of the more absurd reasons for why vaccines are horrible. “There are aborted fetuses in the vaccine! There is human tissue in the vaccine!” This concept is so ridiculous that no reasonable person could honestly believe it’s true. Unless there is a secret fetus aborting warehouse that is killing unborn children and then shipping them off to vaccine manufacturers that I haven’t stumbled upon yet I’m pretty sure this concept is horse shit.
The reason this point has been over exaggerated is obviously to scare people away from vaccines, which is a despicable goal in itself, but it’s based upon ignorant people taking legitimate scientific procedure out of context. There are not “human byproducts” in vaccines, although some vaccines use human cell lines to manufacture them. This is a HUGE difference, not lost on anyone with half a brain.
Various immortalized human cell lines of different origins are used to make vaccines. The cell type is typically chosen based on how well the virus grows in it, the speed in which the cells reproduce, whether it accepts foreign DNA without dying, and/or its ability to pump out recombinant proteins. Once the cells have done their jobs they are then removed from the desired protein of choice by many different methods, typically column chromatography, and you have the basis for your vaccine. This exact procedure is used in various forms of biological research, not just for vaccines. Many pharmaceutical companies use cell lines to test efficacy of chemical compounds (like that Lipitor or Viagra you take) or to produce a wide variety of biological medicines.
Now the aborted fetus argument is along those lines. In the 1960’s two cell lines were started from cells obtained from two fetuses that had been voluntarily aborted for reasons unrelated to cell line development. These two cell lines have been cultivated and split many, many, many times in large amounts so there has not been any need for any further cell lines of this nature, lest you think they are killing babies to make vaccines. Most importantly, however, is the distinction that a cell that was successfully grown in tissue culture over 50 years ago and subsequently been used to manufacture a vaccine does not an aborted fetus make. The vaccines in which these cell lines are used (Hep A, Rubella, Chicken Pox, etc) do NOT contain any trace of fetus and in fact have helped save millions of babies and adults since their use in vaccine manufacture.
6. Live Virus
The whole principle of vaccination centers on the fact that you are pre exposing your immune system to all or some parts of a virus. Therefore it really should not be thought of as outrageous that some vaccines contain live, attenuated virus. However, many anti vaccine groups leave out the “attenuated” portion and state that vaccines contain “live virus”.
Attenuated live viruses are very different from the live virus. It means they have been weakened in some form, which allows the virus to survive while no longer being a threat to humans. This weakened form of virus elicits a stronger immune response than a completely inactivated virus would, as well as conferring longer protection. Attenuated viruses have been used to help rid the United States of some truly horrific diseases such as measles, mumps, and rubella (at least until recently). While there is a very remote possibility the attenuated virus could mutate into a virulent form again, your chances of contracting the disease by not vaccinating are significantly higher than the latter. The only people that need to worry about attenuated vaccines are those that have damaged or weakened immune systems, such as people undergoing chemotherapy, transplant recipients, etc (in other words, the people you protect by vaccinating yourself and your family).
To conclude I want to remind everyone who sees an “anti-vaccine” info graphic that purports to demonstrate the correlation between autism and vaccines (or whatever other horrible side effects vaccines have theoretically had over time) that correlation does not equal causation. Let’s review this chart from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster as evidence.
Don't let misleading graphs fool you!
Vaccines are created, manufactured, and tested by people that genuinely care about the health of others. I know because I've met them, and I’m also one of them. The entire establishment isn't out to “get” anyone by sneaking horrible chemicals into our vaccines to rake in the cash. It’s also not true that big pharma doesn't care about side effects and is too lazy or complacent to change the vaccines. There have been studies upon studies of each and every vaccine evaluating safety data over long periods of time and there have been many vaccines that never made it to market because the safety data wasn't there. There is nothing to be scared about, except perhaps preventable and deadly diseases making a comeback.
One goal I think we can all agree with is to live in a community that minimizes contagious disease, and we can all do our part to accomplish this by appreciating the hundreds of years of research that went into the safety and efficacy of vaccines and utilizing the amazing concept of vaccination for ourselves and our children.
My Background: I have worked as a researcher and a Quality Control Analyst/Scientist for companies that make life-saving drugs and vaccines- a job I've had in various capacities (including at a vaccine manufacturer)- for 12 years now. I have a bachelor’s in Biology, a minor in Chemistry, and I have attended graduate school for a Masters in Biology; relevant coursework including molecular biology, drug delivery, and virology.