December 6, 2023

Alchemists and Apertures – Vaccination Nation

Anne-Milda Pu '17 getting a flu shot. Courtesy of Harrison Miller

By: Harrison Miller ‘17, Michael Shea, Kayla Kroning ‘18, Emma Folkerts ‘21 and Anne-Milda Pu ’17


In the beginning smallpox killed the young and the old. The disease was deadly and highly contagious. Communities were destroyed throughout the explored world, and any survivors were left with disfiguring scars…

Most of us today have only heard stories about the smallpox disease, maybe in high school history or biology class. Certainly, it’s remembered as one of the worst diseases in history, killing hundreds of millions of people; however, it’s also remembered as the mother to one of the biggest medical advancements—vaccines.

Some swear by them, and others claim vaccines are straight from the devil, himself. So, let’s talk about them—how did they come about? How do they work? Why are some people against them? And are vaccines really something to be feared?


By the 1700s, smallpox had spread as far as people had explored. Everyone except milkmaids caught it, according to the old English wives tale. A doctor by the name of Edward Jenner wanted to know why milkmaids were seemingly protected against the disease and thought that the milkmaids’ exposure to cows and cowpox was the reason.

Like smallpox, cowpox is an infectious disease that causes blister-like sores, but unlike smallpox, cowpox is not deadly. As the name implies, cowpox was commonly found in cows. Since milkmaids worked in close proximity with cows, they often developed cowpox as well. Jenner speculated that the milkmaids’ bout of cowpox somehow resulted in immunity against smallpox. To test his idea, he infected a healthy young boy with cowpox from which he developed a slight fever with moderate aches. Two months later, Jenner infected the same boy with smallpox. Nothing happened.

While this was not the most ethical experiment, it marked the beginning of the smallpox eradication and the evolution of vaccines. But for as long as the advancement of vaccines has been around, so, too, has opposition to vaccines. The first smallpox vaccines were not manufactured in a sterile environment and administered with small disposable needles, like they are today. Back in the day, doctors had to make a small incision in a child’s skin and introduce the pus from a previously vaccinated person. It’s no wonder some parents were skeptical and opposed.


Remember how our bodies have red and white blood cells? The red ones supply our muscles and organs with oxygen, and the white ones fight infections. The three major types of white blood cells are called macrophages, antibodies, and T cells. The macrophages’ job is to eat germs and create antigens. Our bodies don’t like antigens, so we send antibodies to destroy them. But what happens if the germ makes its way past the macrophages and into a cell? That’s when the T cells enter the picture. T cells fight these germs and then remember how to kill them in the future. Think of them as specialized soldiers: specific sets of T cells know how to fight specific germs.

When we get vaccinated, we introduce our bodies to a faux infection, which our white blood cells then fight—it’s kind of like military boot camp that our bodies use as training for the real deal. Vaccines simply give our bodies a bigger variety of specialized soldiers.


I’m sure you’ve heard the claim that vaccines cause autism. Even though that paper was fully retracted as fraud in 2011, it still taints our generation’s attitude towards vaccines. So, what are some concerns people might have today?


Many mothers hesitate to vaccinate their babies because they are afraid to expose their infants to aluminum. While aluminum toxicity is a valid concern, aluminum toxicity from vaccines is not. Vaccines contain trace amounts of aluminum as an adjuvant (an adjuvant is just something that enhances our immune response to antigens). This means that the amount of aluminum is almost insignificant. In addition, a 2011 study showed that the benefits of vaccinating infants significantly outweigh the risks associated with potential aluminum toxicity from vaccines.


Everyone knows that mercury is poisonous, so why would anyone put that in a vaccine? Yes, in high quantities it’s poisonous, but it small amounts it acts as a preservative, which is extremely important in certain medicines. Let’s remember that pharmacists also know about mercury poisoning, so, like aluminum, mercury (in the form of thimerosal, a molecule containing a mercury atom) is added in trace amounts: there is just enough to protect vaccines against bacterial or fungal contamination. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recognizes that reducing mercury exposure is optimal and continue testing drug addiction advocates can help with heroin addiction.

Ok, Gordon, let’s be real. This is probably the biggest reason (apart from laziness) why some of you don’t get the flu shot. Vaccines fall within five main categories: live attenuated, inactivated, toxoid, subunit, and conjugated. The flu shot is of the inactivated category meaning the flu injected into your arm is dead. Like Jesus, it died so you will not die. Vaccines can certainly cause side effects ranging from a sore arm to nausea, but the live attenuated vaccines are the only type that can potentially result in developing the illness. Live attenuated vaccines give our bodies the best fighting experience, but doctors are careful not to administer these frequently or to people with compromised immune systems.

Pathologists, pharmacists, and doctors all agree vaccines have far more benefits than drawbacks. It’s incredible that our bodies can learn to fight against diseases and even remember how to kill foreign bacteria for the future, and vaccines do nothing more than exercise this extraordinary ability of ours.

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