Category Archives: Vaccines

The Measles Outbreak

Like many people, this measles outbreak is really pissing me off.

15 years ago, measles was declared eradicated in the US (1).  In the first month of 2015, there were over 100 cases of measles (2).

So much for eradication.

We all know what happened.  Thanks to a fraudulent paper and idiotic celebrities, many American parents  became duped into thinking that vaccines are dangerous.  The anti-vax movement has some of the hallmarks of a great conspiracy.  For example, every time a point that anti-vaxers bring up regarding vaccines being more dangerous than the diseases they prevent, and that argument is proven wrong, they change to a new argument.

First, it was that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) combined vaccine causes autism.  That’s been proven wrong (3).  Repeatedly.  Also, the study that started this was considered completely fraudulent on a variety of counts.  So, the anti-vaxers started to blame thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative found in vaccines.  Besides the fact that thimerosal is made of the relatively harmless ethylmercury (4, as opposed to the bad methylmercury you eat when scarfing down your tuna sushi), the government caved in and removed thimerosal from vaccines. Autism rates continued to rise, proving this wasn’t an issue. But hey, great work, anti-vax conspiracy theorists- you have succeed in making life-saving vaccines exponentially more expensive and more difficult to get to impoverished areas worldwide where they are desperately needed.  Congrats!

Instead of saying, “Okay, maybe vaccines aren’t that super evil,” the anti-vaxers began attacking something new.  Vaccines have aluminum.  Vaccines cause allergies.  They’re made from aborted fetuses that are going to return from the dead as zombies and will jump out from our precious babies and eat our brains!

Just kidding on the last part.  NO ONE wants the brain of someone that doesn’t even understand the value of vaccinations.

There are plenty of other arguments that can all easily be refuted with a basic scientific understanding, backed up by decades of research and thousands of peer-reviewed, scientific papers (as opposed to the, like, three, that agree with the anti-vaxers).

What compelled me to write this is how close the outbreak is getting to my family.  I have to admit, my children are NOT fully vaccinated against measles.  Why?  Because they’re no old enough yet (although Roz will get her booster in April).

A daycare center in a Chicago suburb had 6 measles cases so far (5).  5 of the cases are in babies under 1 year of age, who simply aren’t old enough to get vaccinated yet.  Measles is highly contagious (6), so it’s likely this daycare center may have more of its infants getting infected.

What likely happened is that someone who wasn’t vaccinated spread the virus to at least one of the infants, who then passed it along to the rest.  This is why I’m angry.

The infants, little cute snuggly babies, were at risk because they are too young to be vaccinated.  Some other selfish person who is unwilling to actually understand the biology behind vaccinations decided to get them sick by refusing this protection.

Herd immunity is important.  It protects those who legitimately can’t get vaccinated because of age, allergies, or other actual health concerns.  Because the herd immunity wasn’t strong enough, these poor babies now have to suffer.

And that, to me, is just unacceptable.  Young babies should not be the ones having to deal with an eradicated disease.  Not when we have such powerful tools to protect ourselves and others.


It’s World Immunization Week

It’s World Immunization Week!  This is a great time to spread the word that vaccines are GOOD and save lives!  So remember, vaccines are good and save lives!


As a Science Momma, I get pretty annoyed by all the anti-vaccination rhetoric.  I’m guessing I won’t change anyone’s mind either way, but it’s still annoying.  People are graduates of the University of Google, and assume that because* says vaccines are bad, they’re clearly bad.  All those doctors and scientists and public health officials are clearly collaborating with the pharmaceutical companies to prevent people from getting debilitating diseases and need lifelong care whose cost would easily outweigh that of the vaccine itself.  Those kids dying in third world countries from diseases that are easily prevented by vaccines here in the US are probably in on it too, right?

That’s just one of the many, many things that bug me.  In general, I don’t like judging people, and I think child-rearing involves a lot of personal decisions.  But ignoring the advice of medical professionals and decades of research based on the opinions of vocal idiots doesn’t just hurt your kid- you can expose a bunch of other people to sickness, too.



* I’m not sure if there actually is a anywhere.  I don’t want to offend hippies, crazy or other wise.  I myself, as a cloth diapering momma, could be considered a crazy hippy, so please don’t be offended hippy mommas!

Dogs May Protect Babies From Allergies and Asthma


dog (Photo credit: davidyuweb)

I think one of my favorite blog posts I’ve written was about why dogs and kids are so great together.  In this post, I mention the hygiene hypothesis, which suggests that the increasing prevalence of allergies in our society might be due to us being too clean.


There have been a few studies coming out recently that support this theory, that pet-owning households may have less-sick children than households without pets.  One study saw that infants who had contact with dogs had a lower incidence of becoming sick or were sick for a shorter period of time, compared to children who did not have contact with dogs (and this includes children who had contact with cats.  Take that, Some-Famous-Random-Cat!).


While this study in and of itself doesn’t definitively say that dogs keep babies healthy, it is supported by another recent study.  In this set of experiments, researchers fed mice some dust from homes with dogs.  These mice were infected with Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), a common childhood pathogen that causes respiratory infection.  Mice exposed to the dust did not have symptoms of RSV disease that were prevalent in the non-dust-eating mice.   In addition, the microbial flora (that is, all the little single-celled critters that live in or on us) in the guts of the dust-eating mice were different than the normal-food mice (note: all the mice ate regular food too, I’m just looking for cute/clever ways to differentiate the two groups).  This could be a mechanism to explain the protection found in the dog-dust mice: a different microbiome may result in changes to the immune system that help provide protection.


Even taken together, these studies don’t conclusively say that dogs protect babies from respiratory problems, such as allergies and asthma.  The results in the first study might be due to differences in care between the study subjects, or other variables in the study besides dog ownership.  In the second study, the researchers omitted a control group of mice eating dust from a dog-free home.  This makes it difficult to pin any improved immune responses against RSV directly on dog dander.   This is similar to how vaccines work: we prime the immune response to react a specific way, so when it sees a foreign invader for real, it knows what to do and can act before disease develops.


Moral of the story: while it’s possible that dogs (and to a lesser extent, cats) can cause changes in the immune system that may prevent allergies or certain respiratory infections, there still isn’t any conclusive data.  However, having a dog around a home with a familial history of allergies isn’t necessarily going to doom a baby to a lifetime of runny noses and itchy eyes.


And in our home, that’s reason enough to celebrate.

Happy Mother’s Day!

This year marks my second Mother’s Day. Last year’s came upon my very quickly- my daughter was exactly one month old on Mother’s Day. My husband gave me the sweetest card, which brought tears to my eyes. It may have actually just been hormones, and not the card, that caused the tears, but we’ll still give him credit for it. He deserves it.

This Mother’s Day, I’ve had a lot more time to think. I’ve been able to think about how incredibly, insanely lucky I am. I have the most amazing daughter. Everything about her is perfect. She’s sweet, loving, smart, beautiful, an amazing snuggler, and independent. But that’s not what makes me consider myself lucky. I’m lucky because I live in this era. I live in a time with vaccines and antibiotics and a strong (albeit imperfect) understanding of the human body. These make me happy.  While preparing for my new job teaching microbiology to nursing students, I stumbled across a terrifying fact: in the early 1900s, 1 out 3 children died from infectious disease by the age of 5.

One. Out of three. From infectious disease. There are three people in my home, currently. That statistic implies that one of us would not have survived to our 5th birthday, barring any other potential cause of death, like impalement on a tractor. Very not cool. After meeting my daughter, I couldn’t imagine the horror of losing a child. I know some very amazing women who had to go through that heartbreak. Watching them bury their sons was hell enough; I couldn’t stand burying my own.

One out of fuckin’ three. It still hits me like a sack of bricks coated in lead surrounding a black hole. You know what, though? That’s not a problem anymore. We have vaccines that save lives by the millions. We have antibiotics and other medical technology. I am, without a doubt, the luckiest Mother to ever live.


So thank you, Louis Pasteur.  Thank you, Drs. Sabin and Saulk.  Thank you every scientist who has contributed to protecting my daughter from these tiny pests.


Thank you.

It’s Hib to be Square

With Rosalyn’s six-month check-up coming, and my thesis defense behind me (that’s right- it’s Dr. Science Momma now!), I want to explore a bit about the vaccines she has gotten or will be getting.  I already mentioned the flu vaccine, and why it’s so important, especially for a young baby.  Today, I want to talk about a less-well-known vaccine- Haemophilus influenzae, or Hib.

Haemophilus influenzae is a bacterium that normally infects children under 5 years old.  It had been a big cause of meningitis, until the vaccine was developed.  Incidence of Haemophilus influenzae infections have decreased 30-75-fold since the introduction of the Hib vaccine.

Meningitis, the inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain, is a scary word to me.  While viral meningitis can go away on its own in a few weeks, bacterial meningitis is very dangerous.  It can cause severe damage, including blindness, deafness, and even death.

We don’t hear many stories of Haemophilus influenzae infections, and we should be grateful for that.  Haemophilus influenzae infections can be very serious, as indicated by the following two stories.

In early 2009, 5 children were infected with Haemophilus influenzae.  Three of the five were not vaccinated, and one died.  Also around this time, 7 cases of Haemophilus influenzae were reported in Pennsylvania.  Three of the seven died; only one was vaccinated.  There were also cases reported in Oklahoma and New Jersey.

You might notice that some of the children had received the Hib vaccine, and wonder why they got sick too.  Clearly, the vaccine doesn’t work if vaccinated children are getting sick, right?  Not quite.  In Minnesota, one infant had not completed the series yet and was still developing its immune response.  The other vaccinated child was found to have an immune deficiency.  Children like this are the reason herd immunity is so important.  If 99% of the population is vaccinated and protected, they’re not likely to spread the disease to the remained 1% who aren’t protected for whatever reason.  Not only did those parents who declined to have their children vaccinated have to watch their children suffer needlessly, they may have indirectly exposed non-immune patients.

No parent wants to hurt his or her child.  With all the negative rumors circulating regarding vaccines, it’s common for parents to have concern about the effects of vaccination.  We have to be reminded of all the good vaccines actually do.  Years of scientific studies have shown we can save lives, one shot at a time.

Polio: Past, Present, and Future

It took a lot of will power not to title this article “Marco! Polio!” I’d hate to make light of such a devastating infection, but I think it’s one of those overlooked topics that could really use a good attention-getter.

There are only a few areas where wild polio virus lives. This is a problem, because it can still be transmitted into other areas. Case-in-point: a recent outbreak in China, imported from Pakistan. Cases of polio have nearly doubled in Pakistan this year, and there have been some cases in China, too. 10 people in China have been infected, and one has already died. With international travel, the virus could easily end up in almost any country.

Poliomyelitis, or polio, for short, is a disease affecting the central nervous system, resulting in symptoms from fever and fatigue, to painful limbs. About 1 in 200 cases of polio results in paralysis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Polio is transmitted by the oral-fecal route. Even for that small fraction of Americans who don’t regularly ingest their neighbors’ poo, it can still be transmitted easily. In its heyday, before the development of a vaccine, there were nearly 60,000 cases of polio annually in the United States. Some of these outbreaks were connected to public swimming pools. It makes sense- right? You normally don’t completely sanitize your bottom after every BM. You go into the pool with some virus attached to you. It floats off happily. A young child jumps in, his or her mouth open. And presto, the virus has found a new host.

Nowadays, there are only about 10 cases of polio per year in the US, none of which are from indigenous virus. These cases are either imported from areas where polio has not been eradicated, or are vaccine related. Because the vaccine is a live, attenuated virus given orally, live virus particles can be passed out from some individuals. Vaccine related cases are caused when the vaccine virus, a live, attenuated strain, reverts back to wild-type virus. This normally occurs only when wild type virus is around- the two strains recombine. This also makes it extremely important to vaccinate everyone.

Another valuable reason to vaccinate everyone? Like smallpox, polio could easily become a disease of the past.

To Flu, or Not to Flu

Like it or not, summer is ending, and flu season is beginning.  Based on the CDC’s recommendation, my little girl will probably be getting her flu shot at her 6 month check up in October.  An immunologist by training, I definitely understand and appreciate the importance of vaccines.  But it’s still not something I’m just going to blindly obey.

Let’s start by getting a few facts straight: I am very, very pro-vaccine.  Vaccines are lifesavers, pure and simple.  Without getting into anything negative, let me just say this: sometimes, as a culture, we don’t seem to appreciate how lucky we are that things like measles, polio, and diphtheria aren’t problems we need to concern ourselves with.

Rosalyn will absolutely be getting a flu shot.  She’ll be six months old when she gets it, and hasn’t had a chance yet to develop a strong immune system.  The shot will protect her from flu, and all the possible complications that can happen in someone with an immature immune system.  But there are just so many immunizations! For every one of them, I ask, “What do I think about giving this to my child?”

How do they even work, anyway?  An immunization introduces a foreign particle, called an antigen, into your immune system.  B cells, which produce antibody, and T cells, which help B cells work better and/or directly kill infected cells, recognize this antigen, and multiply to destroy it.  Most of these T and B cells will die, but a few, called memory cells, will live.  Because these memory cells have been previously activated, they are able to respond very quickly the next time they see their antigen.    The memory cells can multiply and fight the infection much more rapidly than a naïve cell.

Like pretty much all parents, I hate watching my baby in pain.  She doesn’t like getting shots.  And she has perfected the pathetic, “How could you?” look when something she doesn’t like happens.  I just tell myself it’s for the best.  She may not remember the shots for long, but I think we’ll both be happy that she doesn’t get tetanus or meningitis.  Of course the best case scenario would be that like smallpox, childhood ailments like Polio are eradicated and blogs like this are a thing of the past.