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  • Writer's pictureMichael Magee

Vaccines: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The Good

The first documentation of inoculation was 500 years ago. Buddhist monks in China blew powered scabs from smallpox patients up the nostrils of healthy individuals. In 1717, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote a letter to a friend in Britain, describing the practice of smallpox inoculation in Constantinople. This involved the transfer of smallpox scab into cuts made in the veins of healthy patients. The practice was spread in the West by Edward Jenner, who coined the word vaccination in 1796. Napoleon described vaccination as the greatest gift to mankind.

Smallpox was a devastating disease. On average, 3 out of every 10 people who got it died. Those who survived were usually left with scars, which were sometimes severe. It was killing and maiming people for over a thousand years, on every continent except Antarctica. In 1959, the World Heath Organisation (WHO) decided to eradicate the disease. It took a while for the funding to come through, but by 1977 smallpox was wiped out from planet earth! Polio was first described in 1789. The first polio epidemic in the U.S.A was in 1894. It became the most notorious disease of the 20th century. The virus spreads from person to person and could infect a person's spinal cord, causing paralysis. Children who seemed to fully recover could develop new muscle pain, weakness, or paralysis as adults, 15 to 40 years later. In 1953, Dr Jonas Salk created a vaccine from dead polio virus’. By 1957 there was an 85 to 90% decrease in polio cases. Measles vaccination resulted in a 75% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2013 worldwide. During the same period, measles cases dropped by 58% (from 853,500 to 355,000). WHO recommends that every child should receive two doses of measles vaccine. According to a report by the Measles and Rubella Initiative, African countries have made the most progress, reducing measles deaths by about 86% between 2000 and 2014. Between 2017-2018, flu vaccination prevented an estimated 6.2 million influenza illnesses, 3.2 million influenza-associated medical visits, 91,000 influenza-associated hospitalizations, and 5,700 influenza-associated deaths.

Recently, there is evidence that vaccines have non-specific benefits. See this video to hear how the BCG vaccine protects against more than TB.

The Bad

Jonas Salk did not patent the polio vaccine, he wanted it to be widely available. This allowed any lab to start producing. Cutter Laboratories in California administered batches of the vaccine that accidentally contained live polio. 250 people, mostly children were injected with live polio in 1955. From 1955 to 1963, 10-30% of polio vaccines administered in the US contained a simian virus (SV40). A vaccine is a dead or denatured virus. The virus is sometimes harvested in non-human tissue. In this case, a monkey. There have been no studies confirming any negative consequences of SV40 on humans (Poulin and DeCaprio, 2006).

In 1976, a serious neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) was associated with vaccination from swine flu. It affected around 1 in 100,000 people who got the swine flu vaccine (Sencer and Millar, 2006).

In its 30 year history in the US, vaccine suppliers had been sued for millions. Pharmacy companies lobbied President Reagan to create a government fund or risk a collapse of the health system. In 1986, Reagan approved such a bill “with mixed feelings.” The bill effectively removed financial punishment from pharmaceutical companies for any fault.

The Ugly

In February 1998, a paper was published in the British journal, the Lancet. The paper alluded to a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine (MMR) and autism. Leading the study was Dr Andrew Wakefield (Wakefield et al, 1998). A month later another paper was published, also in the Lancet, from a 14 year experiment that found no link between MMR and autism (Walker, 1998). The science community began to question the legitimacy of Dr Wakefield’s study. There were only 12 children studied, a very low sample size. An inquiry found that some of these children had ongoing court cases against pharma companies, and that Andrew cherry-picked the data before publishing. Wakefield was stripped of his credentials and the 1998 paper was retracted. Despite this, antivaxers still quote the Wakefield study.

In 2001, after 9/11, a concern in the US was biological terrorism, by reintroducing smallpox. The government had a year long debate over vaccinating the US population with a smallpox vaccine. The doubt coming from President Bush was picked up by the media, and his doubt for the vaccine spread among the populace.

Social media exacerbated the antivax movement and the public’s faith in the safety of vaccines continued to dwindle. Fewer parents were vaccinating their children against measles, resulting in an outbreak in 2015 in the happiest place on earth, Disneyland.

Also circulating the internet is the claim that vaccines contain secret ingredients to control populations. Since 2000, Bill and Melinda Gates have spent billions of their own money to eradicate disease around the world. They have done more to prevent the suffering of people than most countries. Their foundation makes vaccines available to poor countries. Many people believe the vaccines they provide for free, must have a secret nefarious purpose.

Unfortunately there has been vaccine fraud in the Middle East by Americans. In the pursuit of Osama Bin Laden after the 9/11 attacks, the CIA went from town to town in Pakistan, disguised as health workers distributing vaccines. They were actually taking blood samples to test for relatives of Bin Laden! When the story got out, Religious Extremists in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and India spread the theory that vaccines were an American trick to depopulate their countries. This history adds fuel to the fire of anti-vaxer rhetoric.

The anti-chemical activist group, Moms Across America have decided there are poisons in vaccine. Glyphosate is a herbicide. It has not been found in vaccines. But the MAA’s funded a study to suggest Glyphosate was put in vaccines. Their non-peer reviewed study has been called into question (James, 2015).

If Glyphostate was found in vaccines, it would be removed. We know this because a similar movement declared thimersol, a chemical used to prevent bacteria and fungi from growing in vaccines, caused autism. Dispite there being no evidence of this, the pharma companies and the US government removed the anti-bacterial from the vaccines. No change in autism diagnosis was observed.

What to do?

We all love a good story, unfortunately the conspiracy theories are just a lot more entertaining that the truth. There is a risk of adverse effects with vaccines, so far the risks are far outweighed by the benefits. The real world is rarely black and white, we must stay in an informed grey area, and decide accordingly. An individuals right to choose not to vaccinate, removes another individuals right to live in a society without devastating disease. With the Covid 19 vaccine on the horizon, it is important that science leads the vaccine debate. The most dangerous thing about the anti-vaxer campaign, is the anti-science propaganda.

To hear about an example of how vaccine science works, listen to this Science and Beers episode. Views expressed in this article are those of the author.


Poulin DL, DeCaprio JA. Is there a role for SV40 in human cancer? J Clin Oncol. 2006 Sep 10;24(26):4356-65. Review. James S. Bus, Analysis of Moms Across America report suggesting bioaccumulation of glyphosate in U.S. mother's breast milk: Implausibility based on inconsistency with available body of glyphosate animal toxicokinetic, human biomonitoring, and physico-chemical data, Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology, Volume 73, Issue 3, 2015, Pages 758-764, ISSN 0273-2300, Sencer DJ, Millar J. Reflections on the 1976 Swine Flu Vaccination Program. Emerg Infect Dis. 2006;12(1):29-33. Wakefield et al. RETRACTED: Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children. Lancet. 1998 Feb 28;351:9103:637-641 Walker, DR Autism, inflammatory bowel disease, and MMR vaccine. Lancet. 1998 Mar 21 351;9106: P1355

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