All Your Burning Vaccine Questions, Answered! Part 3: All Those “Chemicals” in Vaccines
Welcome back to the last in our series of blog posts covering vaccines. If you missed it, Part 1 discusses most common questions parents ask about vaccines in general, and Part 2 explores into the history of the autism linkage as well as other questionable theories about vaccinations.
Today, I’d like to discuss “all the other stuff” that goes into a vaccine, besides the actual antigen.
Aluminum and mercury are commonly listed as horrifying ingredients in vaccines... but did you know-Aluminum is the third most abundant element in the world? Aluminum is not only present in our fruits and vegetables, but it is also an additive in our vaccines. It serves as an adjuvant or something that “kickstarts” the immune system. You could think of it as the cup of coffee you drink daily to function optimally. It turns out aluminum is a great cup of coffee for the immune system. That means with a smaller amount of whatever the vaccine antigen is, if you add the adjuvant, you can get a much stronger immune response. Again, you may not always need that coffee but for you very busy days, it can help a lot. Adjuvants are not in every vaccine but can really help immune responses for some antigens-just like when you drink that coffee cup in the morning so you can be at the top of your game and function at your best! The adjuvant is very valuable when you're getting exposed to a particular pathogen, for the immune system to be really robust and be able to respond very rapidly to mount a strong immune response to the vaccine antigen, which is why a few certain vaccines contain aluminum. Its use in vaccines is highly regulated, and to date, there's no evidence to suggest that they are causing a problem.
In Part 2, I discussed the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. While the vaccine issue really became a big deal in the UK right away, after the study was published in 1998, it didn't in the US. What happened in the US was a year later in 1999 with the introduction of a law called the FDA Modernization Act which mandated that all federal agencies report on the amount of mercury in their products and report on mercury.
At that time, there was a mercury-based preservative in some pediatric vaccines called thimerosal. The mercury content of the vaccines collectively was approximately what would be in one can of tuna fish if added together, but it was a different type of mercury than what’s found in fish. Bear with me as this can get confusing. Vaccines contained ethyl mercury versus methyl mercury which sounds like it's just essentially the same thing but are very different. Nonetheless, the effects of ethyl mercury on the human body had not been well studied, and the FDA chose to remove or greatly reduce the amount of thimerosal in all childhood vaccines until it could be studied more thoroughly. The important thing that parents need to understand is people get concerned about mercury poisoning, and they have good reason to. High doses of methyl mercury accumulate in the body and can affect neurological function. Thimerosal is ethyl mercury, which can be metabolized by the human body, and therefore, does not accumulate in the body. Actually, there really is no kind of evidence that thimerosal has caused any adverse consequences in any of the children who are immunized. However, it was removed from the vaccines not because of a concern of harm, but that it reduced vaccine acceptance in society. It is still used as a preservative in the flu vaccine, but there are also preservative free forms of the flu vaccine available as well.
Vaccines also contain other stabilizers such as sugars to keep the vaccine potent during transportation and storage. Residual inactivating ingredients such as formaldehyde (present in our own cells) are used during the production process to kill viruses or inactivate toxins during the manufacturing process, so your child will not receive live potent versions of the antigen. Formaldehyde in large quantities can be dangerous, but through processing, very small, safe quantities of formaldehyde are actually present. Residual antibiotics, such as neomycin, are used during the manufacturing process to prevent contamination by bacteria of the same stabilizing sugars mentioned above. So, you can see, everything that makes up the various components of the vaccine is present for a reason.
I also get a few questions about which side effects to be aware of. Vaccines, like any medication, can cause some side effects. Many of these are minor, treatable, and last only a few days at most. One of the most common side effects, a low-grade fever, is actually a good thing. It’s a sign of an immune response to the antigen in the vaccine. Other reactions can include redness at the site of injection or mild tenderness or soreness. The tenderness at the site along with a low-grade fever are all reasons for possible fussiness. I encourage parents not to prophylactically treat with Tylenol before the vaccine is given as it has been shown to blunt the immune response. Wait until your child is febrile after the vaccines before giving the Tylenol. An allergic reaction to the components is possible but actually not seen often. It’s much more common to have an allergy to a medication, food, or herbal supplement. If a child does develop an allergic reaction to a specific vaccine, we have to be very careful that other vaccines that may have similar components are not given to that child.