Vaccine controversy exposes debate over scientific integrity

Violet Guzman-Robles and Noah Walch

No longer plagued by diseases that are faulted with countless deaths throughout mankind’s history, the world has become a safer place from sickness due to the near elimination of certain diseases according to Christopher Hilvert, AP Biology teacher. This is largely due to vaccines, but recently some have chosen to opt out.

Jessica Pritzker, medical technology teacher, states that vaccines are essentially a weakened form of a virus that is injected into a person, allowing the immune system to recognize the virus as a potential threat. The immune system then responds by producing antibodies that can combat the virus if anybody were to encounter it. Vaccinations are derived from a virus and are not physically able to get recipients of vaccines sick because the genetic material that causes sickness is removed before it is injected. According to Pritzker, the herd immunity effect–a phenomenon in which those who are vaccinated prevent transmission of the disease–is only effective if people in a society who are able to be vaccinated do so to prevent the unvaccinated from being exposed to diseases.

“We have kids in this school that are fighting cancer, going through chemotherapy, or for other reasons cannot be immune and so if we allow students that [are susceptible to] those [preventable] diseases come in, we’re actually in a way endangering those students that cannot be vaccinated,” Pritzker said.

Hilvert credits herd immunity for allowing those unable to receive vaccinations to be protected from contracting diseases. Because a large amount of people within a population are already vaccinated and immune to a disease, the unvaccinated population is too. According to Hilvert, 89 to 94 percent of a population has to be vaccinated in order for unprotected people within a population to be safe.

The Illinois Board of Education reports that for the 2017-2018 school year, 24 GBS students submitted a religious objection to the Tdap vaccine, which provides immunization for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, also known as whooping cough. The same report says that 17 students that year were exempt from immunization against measles, mumps, and rubella. Sophomore Thomas Bytnar* says he is one of these students, and he believes that vaccines interrupt the process of natural selection.

“I think that, rather than injecting kids with these diseases and everything and saying that they’re gonna build up their T-cells…over time [we should] just let the environment take its course,” Bytnar said.

While Bytnar’s premise of natural selection assumes that only the weakest individuals would contract and die from these diseases, according to Dr. Mona Hirani, pediatric allergist and pulmonologist, if we don’t prevent infectious diseases, global epidemics could result.

“We already saw how conditions like measles are spreading because a lot of people have chosen to not vaccinate themselves and these unvaccinated people are the ones who catch the disease and then they are responsible for spreading it to other people,” Hirani said. “So if we let this go it’s going to have a ripple effect where everybody is going to get sick. It’s certainly not a good idea and that’s something that would be never recommended by the medical academy of pediatrics.”

Vaccinations of all eligible students would allow immunocompromised students at South to be safe from contracting illnesses they cannot defend themselves from, according to Pritzker. The National Cancer Institute defines immunocompromised as a weakened ability to fight off infections and diseases caused by immunosuppressants such as anticancer drugs, radiation therapy, or organ transplants, as well as some conditions such as AIDS, diabetes, genetic disorders and certain cancers. Hilvert states that these people are unable to get vaccinated due to their weakened immune system as vaccinations pose a risk to their health.

“If you are an individual who has had an organ transplant of some sort, you are on immunosuppressant drugs so that your body doesn’t reject the organ as a foreign invader, so as a result of that you have a very strict protocol in terms of the vaccines that you can take because that [interaction] between the vaccine and your immune system and all the drugs that you’re taking can have a negative affect,” Hilvert said. “But, in terms of biology, those are the only people really who should not be having a vaccine.”

Teruel does not believe that she could contract any serious disease that is on the recommended immunization schedule. She says that those around her who are vaccinated and thus cannot transmit the disease will prevent her from getting sick.

“I don’t think I would ever come in contact with a disease unless it was something that everyone else would able to come in contact in with, like the common cold or something like that,” Teruel said. “I could [catch] a cold but I don’t think I’d ever catch measles.”

According to the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), measles is a highly contagious disease that can be spread through physical contact or by airborne spread (coughing, sneezing, etc.). Also, an area can remain infected and actively contagious up to 2 hours after an infected person leaves.

Teruel’s Mother Karla Funes, does not think that leaving her children unvaccinated threatens the herd immunity that their health, and the health of immunocompromised people, depends on.

“I don’t believe that [my unvaccinated children] could potentially harm anyone else at all,” Funes said. “Human beings have survived since the beginning of time without vaccines…I don’t think my kids are a threat to anyone and they’ll just get the normal childhood stuff. They’ve never gotten sick. They’re fine.”

However, Pritzker says that the survival rate for human beings before vaccines is not as high as people might assume, as families would have more children in hopes of only a couple surviving.

“Before vaccines existed, people used to have more children than they needed because they would count on their children not making it,” Pritzker said. “It would be normal for a family to have 5 or 6 children and only 2 or 3 to survive.”

Hilvert says that he has noticed a recent trend of people refusing to get vaccinated as evident through the many outbreaks of measles, declared eradicated in the U.S. in 2000. Cases of measles have been confirmed in Cook County, most recently on March 20, 2019 according to a Health Alert by the IDPH. The IDPH explains that measles typically starts with a fever, cough, red eyes, sore throat, and is followed by a rash that spreads throughout the body. One is contagious between four days before and four days after the rash appears.

According to the Health Alert, there were locations of potential measles exposure in Glenview, Deerfield, Glencoe, Chicago, Niles,  Northbrook, and Evanston.

According to American Academy of Family Physicians, SB 277 was signed into California State law in 2016, eliminating religious or personal belief-based exemptions from vaccines for all children enrolled in public or private daycare, preschool, elementary school, junior high, and high school. Because exemptions were no longer allowed, SB 277 also required kids to be vaccinated against 10 specific diseases including measles, mumps, and pertussis. The law was triggered by a measles outbreak at Disneyland, in which The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says 125 cases were reported and linked to two Disney theme parks in California. SB 277 is a common topic of conversation at many anti-vaccine protests.

Within 2018 alone, 17 measles outbreaks occurred in the United States of America. Outbreaks in New York State, New York City, and New Jersey were primarily linked to Orthodox Jewish communities. According to The New York Times, the most recent example in Williamsburg, New York has now affected close to 300 people. Bill de Blasio, Mayor of New York, has now declared a public health emergency, forcing unvaccinated  individuals to receive the vaccination or face a fine.

Hilvert credits a lack of vaccination that counters the effectiveness of herd immunity to uncertainty around components within vaccines.

“In the preliminary stages of vaccines back in the ‘50s, which was a long time ago, a mercury derivative was used within vaccines,” Hilvert said. “That is no longer the case. When they didn’t really know what they were doing, they needed that substance to make the vaccine more effective but that has not happened in decades.”

The CDC confirms that there is no mercury in approved vaccines, but some immunizations contain thimerosal, which is a mercury-based preservative. According to the CDC, thimerosal is used in multi-dose vials of vaccinations to prevent bacterial and fungal growth, and is harmless in low doses.

“There is no evidence of harm caused by the low doses of thimerosal in vaccines, except for minor reactions like redness and swelling at the injection site,” the CDC said.  “However, in July 1999, the Public Health Service agencies, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and vaccine manufacturers agreed that thimerosal should be reduced or eliminated in vaccines as a precautionary measure.”

Despite a surge in fear surrounding vaccines, freshman Kate Ostrowski believes them to be completely effective and sees no downside to being vaccinated. Ostrowski blames the media for spreading false information that creates distrust in the safety of vaccines. This distrust saddens her, not only because her health is at risk, but the health of her classmates as well.

“Not only should you be taking better care of yourself because you matter and deserve to be safe and not get smallpox or something like that, but that’s also not really fair to the others around you,” Ostrowski said.

Teruel has doubts about the contents of the vaccines. She says that dangerous substances, including mercury, have been used in vaccines in the past, and is skeptical that ingredients in vaccines are unsafe to be injected in the bloodstream.

“Some people out there…really doubt the ingredients [in the vaccines] because [the manufacturers] used to use mercury in them, so what are they putting in them now to replace that?” Teruel said. “There’s no way for them to get their questions answered so that’s why they’re fearful of it.”

Hirani states that pharmaceutical companies may profit from vaccine distribution, but their ultimate goal is to provide healthcare.

“Whether the government has any stake in it or not, that’s not for us to say,” Hirani said. “Legislatures are going to make their laws but we, as healthcare providers, have to ensure that patients get the best care, and one of those best practices is prevention of infectious diseases and that’s where vaccines come in.”

Funes says she stopped immunizing her children after she discovered the side effects of vaccines. She cites a doctor she found online who tries to raise awareness about these alleged side effects, including gender dysphoria.

“[The doctor] was speaking out about how some vaccines affect children really young and that’s why some kids don’t know if they’re a boy or a girl,” Funes said. “[The doctor] explained that it affects parts of their brain and how they have to grow physically. I think she explained an imbalance of chemicals. I’m pretty sure she documented the side effects of vaccines.”

The claim that vaccines cause gender dysphoria, according to Hirani, is not supported by any scientific data. She states that research found online is often not backed up by legitimate scientific studies.

“Until we really have any evidence to prove otherwise, the claim about vaccines causing [gender dysphoria] is not true,” Hirani said.

Another belief regarding vaccines is that they can cause autism, according to Hirani. She states that this claim is also not supported by any legitimate studies. Ostrowski, unsure of the validity of this claim states that even if this claim is true, the positives of being vaccinated still far outweigh the negatives.

“I feel like [the possibility that vaccines cause autism is] a big [debate] for most people, but to me the research showing that [vaccines] stop diseases is so much more prominent that, even if they do cause autism, which I personally don’t believe they do, I would still do it anyway,” Ostrowski said. “I think it’s really sad when people deciding not to vaccinate their child would rather have a dead child than an autistic child.”

Pritzker, also aware of the claim that vaccines cause autism, states that this claim was proven false; the doctor that had published this study had his license revoked and no longer practices medicine due to the use of falsified information. Hilvert states that this study is another big reason as to why people choose to not receive recommended vaccines.

“A really bad thing happened in science a number of years ago when [a study] was published in a very prestigious journal that vaccines cause autism which has been debunked and retracted by that journal,” Hilvert said. “Everything that science could do to take that back happened but it was out there and so people read that and don’t know about the retraction, they don’t know that science has debunked it and all that kind of stuff so now there’s an element of fear that vaccines can cause you harm.”

Others refrain from vaccinating because of religious reasons. Bytnar, who is Christian, also had to submit a Certificate of Religious Exemption to the district office, as required by Illinois law. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, this certificate requires both the religious grounds for the exemption and the signature of the student’s health care provider.

“[My certification] basically cites a bunch of Bible verses that can be interpreted in different ways but I interpret them as [saying that] I don’t need vaccines and I don’t want vaccines,” Bytnar said.

Teruel is partially immunized, but her parents have submitted an exemption to the district also because of religious reasons. She says that she was raised to believe that God, not vaccines synthesized by humans, should be the deciding factor of life-and-death matters.

“Growing up religious, you’re taught not everything man-made is good,” Teruel said. “In the Bible you’re taught that humans aren’t supposed to play a role in who goes and who stays and giving out vaccines is going against that in the Bible.”

Pritzker says that some decisions pertaining to vaccines are driven by fear. However, to make the best decision for their child, parents must weigh the risks of vaccinating or not vaccinating.

“I think that when you are a parent, you are really worried about everything you do for your kids,” Pritzker said.  “I think that most parents make decisions in what they feel is in the best interest of their child. I don’t think that they’re doing [it] because they want to hurt their children, I think it’s always the opposite. The questions is whether or not they are well educated or well read about vaccines.”

*Name has been changed