Wednesday, 16 November 2016

More Anti-vax Illiteracy

Here's another piece of nonsense to take apart, a dire warning of the horrible contents of the flu vaccine.

     For the sake of the search engines, the image lists "Thimerosal (mercury), hydrocortisone, cetyltrimethylammonium bromide, polysorbate 20, polysorbate 80, baculovirus, and cellular DNA, beta propiolactone, gelatin, sodium deoxycholate, canine kidney cell proten and DNA, Triton C-100, egg protein, gentamicin sulfate, formaldehyde, neomycin, and more..."

     Before I get to that list of supposedly terrifying ingredients, I just want to address the last line: "If you wouldn't consume it, why inject it?" Because seriously, that's an incredibly stupid argument. There's a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be swallowed, and a whole lot of medicines that are meant to be injected, because they work in various different ways. Some things need to go directly into the blood stream, because your stomach acids and digestive enzymes will destroy them before they can get where they're supposed to go. (And some things, like flu vaccines, aren't even meant to be injected into the bloodstream directly; they're injected intramuscularly, because your immune system is well-adapted to responding to bad stuff that gets just under your skin through a splinter or other injury.)
     There are things you should eat that you shouldn't inject, and things you should inject that you shouldn't eat. This is just a ridiculous argument, and should make you question the wisdom of the author of the whole thing.

     The main argument isn't much better: it boils down to "You don't know what these chemicals are, so you'd better not consume them in anyway!" Which sounds sensible, except that unless you're a biochemist you probably don't know the names of more than two or three of the thousands of chemical compounds that make up even the healthiest food you eat.
     That's not to say that all of these chemicals are perfectly safe. They're not. But every chemical, even water, can be poisonous if the dosage is high enough. And if the dose is small enough, almost every chemical is harmless. (For a relatively few very very dangerous chemicals, a small enough dose means none at all, but that's not the case for the items on the list of ingredients above. They're included in the flu vaccine for very good reasons, and in tiny enough quantities that you're still probably better off getting the shot and being protected from the virus.)

     Anyway, the meme assumes you probably won't look up most of these chemicals, and will just assume they must be really bad. So let's look at each of them.

Thimerosal, also known as thiomersol and Merthiolate, is used to kill bacteria and fungus that might get into the vaccine. This is really important, because accidentally injecting live Staphylococcus bacteria into your arm can kill you. So a small amount of thimerosal used to be added to vaccines to prevent that. Yeah, there's mercury in it, but it's in a relatively inert form, and in any event is in such tiny quantities as not to pose a realistic danger. In any event, they've phased it out in favour of other equally scary disinfectants, because people were so scared of mercury.

Hydrocortisone is what they call cortisol when it's used as a medicine, and is on the WHO's list of the most important medicines needed in a basic health system. What's cortisol? It's a hormone which is naturally produced in the human body by the adrenal gland. So don't think that by avoiding the flu vaccine, you're able to avoid this chemical because there's already some in you right now!

Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is a surfactant used in isolating nanoparticles, like for instance virus components. My guess is it's used in making the vaccine, and isn't actually an ingredient in the final product, but even if any remains, it's again in such a tiny quantity as to be essentially harmless.

Polysorbate 20 and Polysorbate 80 are also surfactants, widely used in many food and cosmetic products. So yeah, you would consume it, because you probably already do.

Baculoviruses do not infect mammals, which is why they're useful in research. I don't know what role they play in flu vaccines, but it seems to me likely whoever created this meme just included anything scary-sounding that might have been used at any point during the development of a vaccine. By the way, you are a mammal.

Cellular DNA? Like, how is this even scary? There are no foods we eat that don't contain DNA!

Beta-propiolactone has been used to sterilize vaccines, but appears to have been phased out for this use. It's mainly used now in the synthesis of other compounds.

Gelatin. Uh, yeah, that's something I'd consume, actually. Gelatin is the protein that makes Jell-o gel, and is used in lots of other delicious edibles. Didn't know it was in vaccines, but I am not in the least bit concerned to learn that it might be.

Sodium deoxycholate is a product of intestinal bacteria. I don't know exactly why it would be used in making vaccines (probably they have a reason, and don't just toss it in for fun), and I probably wouldn't go out of my way to deliberately consume it myself, but I figure if my body can't deal with it, I'm already dead.

Canine kidney cell protein and DNA. Oh. More DNA. Not sure how exactly this got into a vaccine, but okay. Possibly they use cultured dog kidney cells to grow the flu virus particles they use to make the vaccine. In any event, kidneys of various animals are commonly used in cooking various dishes which are cheerfully eaten by people who don't get sick as a result. Might sound gross, but so is anything biological if you look closely enough. Fear not.

Triton X-100: Another surfactant. My guess is that it helps the vaccine get through cell membranes to where it can trigger the immune response against the influenza virus.

Egg protein: Egg protein? Egg protein?! Look, I get that some people are allergic to eggs, and some people just don't like omelets, but seriously, you took the time to list "egg protein" as a scary ingredient that "you wouldn't consume" and a reason not to get vaccinated? This single item should be more than enough to convince any reader that the author of this meme is too breathtakingly ignorant of basic facts of human existence to be taken seriously.

Gentamicin sulfate: Gentamicin is an antibiotic, or if you don't know what that means, it's a chemical that is poisonous to some kinds of bacteria. As I mentioned with the first entry for thimerosal, it's pretty important to ensure that there aren't any infectious bacteria in your vaccines.

Formaldehyde: This is a pretty nasty chemical, I'll admit. You've probably heard of it in the context of dead animals or body parts being preserved in jars of it. But here's the thing: it's a really simple molecule, CH2O. It's what you get when an oxygen atom replaces two of the hydrogen atoms in a molecule of methane. And so, it's everywhere. Astronomers have detected it in clouds of interstellar gas. It's not good for you, but it's also a byproduct of some of your own bodily functions, and your body has ways to metabolize it in ordinary quantities. Obviously you wouldn't want to drink a glass of it, but the microscopically tiny amount in a flu vaccine is less than the amount you'd get eating an apple.

Neomycin: Another antibiotic. In researching this post, I read that it is used topically (rubbed onto the skin) rather than injected, because it's really bad for your kidneys. But it is still used as a preservative in vaccines, probably because the dose is so small. Also, because vaccines are injected intramuscularly instead of into a vein, they stay in the muscle tissue for a while and diffuse out slowly, so the neomycin may be largely broken down before it even gets to the kidneys.

     Look. Medicines aren't magic healing potions. They're complicated mixtures of different chemicals, carefully included to perform all the functions necessary to produce the desired therapeutic effect. They get into your system and press buttons and flip switches and adjust dials and tinker with various settings to try to fix whatever it is that's wrong with you. Most of the time, if you're healthy, you don't want to tinker with any of these settings, so as a general rule the stuff you'll find in any medicine is probably not very good for you. That's to be expected.
     But pharmacologists include these ingredients for a reason, and while they're not perfect, they know more about what they're doing than ignorant meme-makers who want you to be scared of eating eggs. Vaccines are one of the most successful healthcare innovations ever developed. They're why so few people die of infectious disease anymore.
     You may have legitimate doubts about how important it is to have this or that vaccination, based on the risks of actual infection and so on, and you might reasonably decide against the flu shot. (I think that's a mistake, because influenza has killed millions in the past and is not much less dangerous today, and also I think you have a moral responsibility to help with herd immunity so you don't infect more vulnerable people when you decide to brave your way through a minor inconvenience.)
     But do not let this kind of inane nonsense scare you out of taking good, safe medicine that does much more good than harm. Make an informed rational choice, and if you don't know what Cetyl trymethylammonium bromide is, admit that you are not informed about it instead of just blindly assuming your family doctor is trying to poison you with it.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On Speaking Up and Being a Jerk

     In my last year of high school, I was taking a social studies quiz when the teacher happened to leave the room. Across the classroom from me, a fellow got up and stole over to the teacher’s desk, and copied down the answers from the answer key left right there in the open. Disgusted, I rolled my eyes and kept working on the test, as several other students followed the first guy’s lead, and got up to copy the answers. Pathetic, I thought, because the questions were not actually very hard. In fact, I was pretty sure I knew all of them. But none of my business if those guys wanted to cheat, right?
     As it happened, the next time the class met, the teacher had got wind of what had happened, and angrily lectured the entire class, singling out each of us who had got 100%, which in fact I had, though I had done so honestly. (I do not remember for certain if the first guy was ever singled out, though I vaguely recall thinking he had not. I later heard a rumour that he himself had told the teacher on the other students, but I have no way of knowing if this is true.)
     I was young and naive and had not yet sorted out in my head the moral question of snitching, so I kept my mouth shut, as furious as I was about the insult to my integrity and my intelligence. It was bad enough to be accused of cheating, but if I had cheated, I would not have been so foolish as to copy all of the answers; I’d have deliberately missed one, just to allay suspicion. (Indeed, had I been craftier, even not cheating but knowing that others were, I should have deliberately missed one question anyway. And now, thinking back on it, it seems plausible to me that’s exactly what the first cheater did, deliberately missing a question and then turning in everyone else.)
     Of course, the teacher had no way to prove who had cheated and who hadn’t, and the ridiculous omertá of the student body ensured he’d get no help from us, so he just canceled the entire test. 

     I have thought back on this many times, rehearsing in my head what I should have said when the teacher levelled his accusatory gaze at me. I have imagined a dozen different ways I could have redeemed my honour with and without directly naming names. But I now realize that my real should-have-spoken-up moment was when that first cheater started. I should have called him out at that moment, and warned him that he should not rely on the rest of us keeping quiet to protect him from cheating us.
     But I didn’t. I didn’t want to look like the jerk. And so I let him, and the others, get away with it. Very much at my own expense. It still makes me angry when I think of that. 

     The lessons I learned, and have to keep learning, are that there's a big difference between looking like the jerk and being the jerk. And that it's very, very important to speak up earlier, rather than later, when someone else is being a jerk. Too often, we keep quiet just to keep the peace, to be "polite", or because we figure something is just not our problem. 

     I often feel like a mansplaining jerk, piping up with "Well, actually..." when some harmfully wrong post comes across my feed. But I feel obliged to do it, because when these things go unanswered, it's like a tacit endorsement that they're okay. And there's a lot of harmfully wrong nonsense circulating around now, becoming the common wisdom because gosh, everyone says so. 
    I don't pipe up because I want to be taken as an authority, correcting falsehoods and dispensing The Truth. I try to get the facts right as best I can, but I know I can be mistaken, and I try to accept it graciously when someone corrects me. No, the reason I try to speak up is much smaller than that. I don't care if people are convinced by what I say; I just want them to know it's okay to disagree. I know it's scary to be the first to speak up when no one else is. 

     But it's scarier when no one speaks up at all.