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Real Science

Vaccines are important

Michael Rosenthal

(6/2015) When I was growing up, we lived in daily fear of my contracting polio (infantile paralysis). I have images in my head of photographs of children in iron lungs, walking on crutches, reports of childhood death, and the fact of President Franklin Roosevelt being paralyzed by polio from the waist down. (Recent publications in 2012 suggest that Roosevelt may have not had polio at all, but was afflicted with Guillain-Barre Syndrome). The low point for me was the day that the phone rang, and my mother announced that the older brother of my best friend, who was the son of our physician as well, had contracted polio.

Pakistan is the now the only country in the world where polio still is poorly controlled. Taliban violence has been a major contributor to the countryís inability to follow other African and Middle Eastern countries in eliminating the disease Ė 306 cases were recorded last year. The near elimination of such a terrible disease such as polio, due to the vaccine development of Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk, is indicative of the importance and value of vaccination.

Other common childhood diseases from my youth have also been eliminated in the United States. I contracted chicken pox, and I was quarantined in my home with a red sign on the door of my house warning others away. I recovered nicely with just a small crease on my forehead. I also had measles immediately after (but they didnít update the quarantine sign).

Another disease prevalent during my youth, though I did not contract it, was what we called German Measles, or rubella. In a 1964-65 outbreak in the United States, 11,000 fetal deaths occurred due to this disease and 20,000 babies were born with birth defects. Global health authorities recently announced that "Rubella has been eliminated from the Americas." This result is due to a very effective vaccine, developed in 1969. Prevention is especially important, because the disease has no cure. Among the birth defects caused by rubella are deafness, blindness, and mental disabilities. Rubella sometimes causes childhood death.

Vaccine development for other diseases continues. The first-ever vaccine for malaria is expected to be available in Africa in the next year or so. Malaria is caused by a parasite and is spread by the bites of infected mosquitoes. In 2013, 198 million people were infected with malaria, and 500.000 people died, so a vaccine for malaria can make a huge difference in world health.

Like all scientific advances, vaccine development moves slowly and requires caution. The recent scare over vaccination and the reluctance of some parents to vaccinate reflects the complexity of the issues, both social and scientific, and the need to have clear scientific and medical guidelines. The scare that the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps, and rubella) causes autism garnered a great deal of media attention recently. The article from 1998 that suggested that this was true was proven to be fraudulent and was retracted in 2011 from the prestigious journal, The Lancet, in which it was published. There is absolutely no scientific evidence that the MMR vaccine produces autism.

There has been some question whether aluminum compounds, once used to increase the effectiveness of vaccines, are dangerous. Though sometimes an irritant, there is no evidence aluminum-containing vaccines are a serious health risk or justify changes to immunization practices. On the other hand, it is also controversial whether thiomersal, an organomercury compound used as a preservative, was dangerous and should be removed from vaccines. Though as a precaution thiomersal has been removed from most vaccines in the United States and Europe, no accepted scientific evidence exists that thiomersal caused autism, as claimed. I believe that all compounds containing mercury, a very toxic metal to humans, should be avoided. Remember mercury thermometers? We donít see them anymore either, and thatís a good thing.

Should people be allowed to reject vaccines due to claims of individual liberty or religious freedom? One aspect of this controversy is that unvaccinated children present a threat to children too young to yet be vaccinated or to those who have medical problems that postpone their vaccinations. This debate continues.

One thing seems clear to me. We need to continue to perform research, look at the scientific data and the results of ongoing vaccination studies from respectable sources that have no financial or emotional interests in the results. Scientific knowledge is an evolving thing, and we should always be alert for new developments.

Astrology Ė we see it everywhere. You canít take a drive without seeing store-front astrologers and psychics who offer (for a fee!) to predict your future. Newspapers and magazines have astrology columns. I recently saw a service that will use astrology to find you a mate! Letís not mix astrology up with astronomy. This newspaper has a regular astronomy column!

Astronomy is a natural science which is the study of celestial objects, such as stars, galaxies, planets, moons, asteroids, comets and nebulae, the physics, chemistry, and evolution of such objects, and phenomena that originate outside the atmosphere of Earth, including supernovae explosions, gamma ray bursts, and cosmic microwave background radiation. A related but distinct subject, physical cosmology, is concerned with studying the universe as a whole.

Astrology is based on the premise that there is a relationship between astronomical phenomena and events in the human world, often through use of personal horoscopes provided by these practitioners. Astrology, once believed in by almost everyone, lost its credibility by scientists at the end of the 17th centuryÖbut itís still very definitely around us! Take a look at astrology.com! One way to remember the difference between astronomy and astrology is that astrology contains an l, which stands for lies!

A 2005 Gallup poll and a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center reported that 25% of U.S. adults believe in astrology. According to data released in the National Science Foundation's 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, "Fewer Americans rejected astrology in 2012 than in recent years. The NSF study noted that in 2012, "slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was 'not at all scientific,' whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983.

As long as you see it as fun, itís OK to play with it. Scientific testing of astrology has found no evidence to support any of the premises or purported effects outlined in astrological traditions. But if you are paying money and making life decisions based on astrological predictions and advice, youíre looking for trouble. Astrology remains popular on television, and is especially popular in India and China.

Michael is former chemistry professor at Mount. St. Marys

Read other articles by Michael Rosenthal