Are Vaccines Safe?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared the week of April 21, 2012 to be World Immunization Week. The purpose of the initiative is to spread information about the importance and safety of vaccines.

The question are vaccines safe and effective? weighs heavily on many parents. I’ll admit that even I, as staunch an advocate of vaccines as you’ll find anywhere, pondered that question on my way to the pediatrician with W. Not that I didn’t ultimately trust — no, KNOW — that they are both. Rather that the doctor was going to Stick A Big Needle! In My Baby! Regardless of where a mother or father stands on the vaccine issue, we’ve all had to answer this central question in our own minds.

Edward Jenner, By Vigneron Pierre Roch (1789-1872)

As this is World Immunization Week, I want to take some time to acknowledge and thank the father of modern vaccination, Edward Jenner. Dr. Jenner was an English country doc, born in the mid-18th century. During his time, smallpox was still very much epidemic, and was deadly in up to 60% of infected adults and 80% of infected children. Jenner was intrigued by the fact that milkmaids didn’t generally contract smallpox. They did, however, contract an illness called cowpox early in their milking careers. Cowpox wasn’t particularly serious. The milkmaids recovered and went on to live full cow-milking, smallpox-free lives. On the basis of these observations, Jenner inoculated (this word means to introduce an infective organism) several individuals with pus from an infected sore on the hand of a milkmaid with cowpox; this was the first modern vaccination. The vaccinated individuals felt a little sore and feverish, but did not contract full- blown cowpox. Those that Jenner vaccinated — including his own 18-month-old son — though certainly exposed in the course of everyday life, did not contract smallpox. They proved immune to the disease.

A child with smallpox, 1973. Photo from the CDC.

As parents, we might recoil in horror at the thought of a mad scientist father “experimenting” on his baby boy. Let me make it clear, though, that all this took place well before the development of germ theory (the notion that bacteria and viruses cause disease). Jenner and his contemporaries didn’t know WHY people got sick, they simply knew that people DID get sick (this actually adds to Jenner’s brilliance). As such, there would have been no possible mechanism for testing the vaccine in a laboratory, on animals, or anything of that nature. Jenner’s only options for testing his theory would have included stabbing a random passerby with cowpox pus and then exposing the unwilling victim to smallpox (not ok!), collecting many willing volunteers from the general public (not likely, since most people were afraid that if they were injected with cowpox pus, they’d grow cow limbs*), or using a combination of his own family and a very few willing volunteers. The natural question, of course, is did he vaccinate himself? The answer is no, but only because he was already immune to smallpox, having been inoculated as a boy through the hideously dangerous practice of purposeful exposure to the scabs and pus of smallpox patients.

*This seems ludicrous, I know. Then again, we’re 200 years after the fact now, and we can look back and laugh. Similarly, I’m sure the notion that vaccines are linked to autism will amuse future generations, who will think us peasants for having entertained that fear.

Some people shake their heads and say Jenner may have been a good doctor, but what a horrible parent, to expose his son to such risk. I would counter and say Jenner WAS a good doctor. Such a good doctor that he was DARN sure his theory would hold water. Such a good doctor that he wanted his theory tested so that, if accurate, it would literally save millions of lives. And I suspect he agonized about it. We don’t know; that part isn’t on record. But I suspect Jenner asked himself, in his own way and as we all do, will this be safe and effective? Then, too, there’s the fact that Jenner wasn’t exposing those he vaccinated — including his son — to a deadly disease. Rather, he was exposing them to cowpox. He suspected (and was correct) that they wouldn’t get a full-blown case of cowpox, but even had they done so, that wouldn’t have been a serious consequence. He didn’t vaccinate his son just to test a theory. He vaccinated his son because he believed in his theory, and wanted the boy protected from the disease. He engaged in some scientific critical thinking — a risk-to-benefit analysis — and decided that the risk of contracting cowpox was nothing compared to the benefit of immunity from smallpox.

Jenner has been strongly criticized in modern anti-vax circles for his “questionable experiments.” For instance, the website Vaccine Side Effects states:

Convinced of the virtue of vaccination Edward Jenner inoculated his 18-month-old son with swinepox, on November 1791 and again in April 1798 with cowpox, he died of tuberculosis at the age of 21 [sic]. James Phipps was declared immune to smallpox but he also died of tuberculosis at the age of 20.

That is to say, inoculating the children caused them to contract tuberculosis and die. This is out-and-out ludicrous. First of all, tuberculosis was rampant at that time, and was responsible for the death of about 25% of the population. Not 25% of the infected population, 25% of the ENTIRE population. Let’s put that another way; any one otherwise healthy person had a one-in-four chance of dying from tuberculosis. This makes it entirely unremarkable that both the boys referred to above died of the disease. Note that Jenner vaccinated many, many children, and the overall rate of death from tuberculosis among the vaccinated was no different than that in the general population. Oh and also? Tuberculosis is completely unrelated to pox, be it cow, small, or otherwise. The quote above is tantamount to saying The flu shot causes death! Every single person who gets the flu shot dies! Some of them die of heart attacks! Some die of strokes! Some die by overdosing on meth! The flu shot causes heart attacks, strokes, and meth use!!!

Those among us who are uncomfortable with Jenner’s experiments can rest assured that things are different now. Armed with germ theory and mechanisms for testing medical hypotheses in the lab long before they’re ever tested on people, no one needs to expose their toddler son to a microorganism in order to advance the science of medicine, or to a vaccine that hasn’t been tested in hundreds of different ways for safety and efficacy.

These days, smallpox exists only in biological laboratories. Photo from the CDC.

In any case, modern vaccines (named for the cows that carried the cowpox Jenner used to inoculate those early patients — vacca is Latin for cow) have indeed saved millions of lives. The CDC has a page that’s well worth a read on what would happen if we stopped vaccinating today. So Edward Jenner, during this World Immunization Week 2012, let me just say thank you. Thank you for being an excellent scientist, a true naturalist, an observer of the world and generator of ideas. Thank you for following through in testing your hypotheses, despite public fear and negativity. Thank you for being willing to put your own family on the line to save so many lives. Thank you for advancing the field of immunology. Thank you for the modern vaccine. Thank you.

On May 8, 1980, the World Health Organization officially endorsed a resolution declaring the global eradication of smallpox. Modern vaccinations are based upon the theories developed by Edward Jenner during his work with cowpox and smallpox.


What do you think about Jenner and his work?




13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Dorit Reiss
    Apr 26, 2012 @ 17:45:01

    I just want to remind you that some parents, worried about the measles vaccine, go to – or worse, organize – measles parties, intentionally exposing their children to sick children to get “natural” immunity. Sounds like a revival of the very primitive procedure through which Jenner was innoculated.


    • SquintMom
      Apr 26, 2012 @ 18:03:55

      Yes, I’m aware of this practice and find it abhorrent. With a 20% hospitalization rate and a 3/1000 death rate, measles is no small thing. To call such a practice a “party” particularly upsets me; it’s like having a party where you take 1000 guns, load three of them, show up with your kids, randomly select a gun, aim at your little one, and pull the trigger.


    • Alice Callahan
      Apr 27, 2012 @ 13:47:00

      I’ve been following a discussion of organizing a “pox party” in a parenting forum. I have a hard time fathoming making my child so sick and uncomfortable on purpose, though from reading Squintmom’s info on the varicella vaccine, I understand that you sort of need to do this if you aren’t going to get your child vaccinated. But, it still blows my mind that people have such distrust for the vaccine that they see purposefully infecting their child as the better alternative. I just hope they understand how important it is to stay home – for like weeks – after exposing their kids.

      Anyway, great article Kirstin. I think the historical perspective is so important, and it is fascinating, too.


      • SquintMom
        Apr 27, 2012 @ 16:35:41

        Thanks! Yeah, I’m in awe of those early physicians who really, REALLY though differently. Like Harvey, and Pasteur, and Jenner, and Osler…

      • LinB
        May 03, 2012 @ 08:46:23

        The other thing these chickenpox party parents may not realise is that in infecting their kids with chickenpox, they are exposing them to the risk of shingles in adulthood/middle age. There is now a shingles vaccine thankfully, but of course that won’t help these kids if they stay antivax when they are adults. Believe me you don’t want shingles. One of my aunts has it and she says the pain is horrible.

      • SquintMom
        May 03, 2012 @ 12:18:51

        I’ve had it too. It’s horrendous.

  2. Ashley @ C is for Cockerham
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 18:34:52

    Just came across this article reposted by a friend on FB. The misinformation and anecdotal information provided makes my blood boil. I’m not buying the money hungry doc and pharma co stories. And either I missed their scientific references, or there weren’t any. Oh, that’s right–there weren’t any. Oh interwebs…why do you let anyone and everyone sound like they know what they are talking about?!


    • Ashley @ C is for Cockerham
      Apr 29, 2012 @ 18:36:33

      Ugh…apparently I need an HTML refresher. Link here.


      • Dorit
        Sep 25, 2012 @ 12:21:43

        Ashley, can you mention the title of the article and where it was from? The link doesn’t work and I’d like to look it up to understand what both of you said..

    • SquintMom
      Apr 30, 2012 @ 07:32:35

      Ugh. What baloney. The whole money-hungry doc/pharma is passe anyway; as I’ve noted before, pharmaceutical companies (as well as medical personnel) would enjoy vastly greater profits from uncontrolled epidemics of disease than they do from vaccination. A study by Michael Kremer (Harvard / The Brookings Institute / National Bureau of Economic Research) and George Snyder (George Washington University) modeled prospective revenue for pharmaceutical manufacturers, comparing the income from vaccines to that from disease treatments. Under two different modeling scenarios, they determined that the treatments yielded greater profits than the vaccines. (Kremer and Snyder. The Revenue Consequences of Vaccines Versus Drug Treatments. Harvard, 2002.


  3. Stephanie
    Apr 30, 2012 @ 11:06:32

    Great article. Thanks.


  4. Cilla Whatcott & Kate Birch
    Oct 03, 2012 @ 07:40:13

    Though I’m a little behind the ball on this post (who am I kidding,I’m way late here) I did take the time to read through each of your comments.

    Whether or not I agree with you is totally irrelevant right now, and I would rather like to thank each of you for being concerned and taking the necessary actions/research to know your stuff.

    You may be pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination, I am not here to judge based off of your personal parenting choices. Instead I would like to offer to all of you, a Solution.

    If you’ve struggled with the decision to vaccinate, I have answers and options that don’t involve sticking your baby with countless needles. In the case that you do choose to vaccinate, I suggest taking a look at blog, as you may discover material not yet researched.

    As a classical Homeopath, I know there are alternative to the traditional vaccination schedule. I’ve used it on all of my children, and they have grown up incredibly healthy. I will note, that I have also dealt with a child who nearly died from her vaccination as a toddler. — I see both sides.

    If you’re a parent, I welcome you to check out my blog: – I am confident in my choice and would hope that some of you are willing to find a different Solution, for the health of your children.


    • SquintMom
      Oct 03, 2012 @ 08:15:17

      Thanks for the praise. Unfortunately, because this is a science-based website, I have to point out that homeopathic vaccines are not proven to work, and as a scientist, I can’t endorse them. You mention that there are clinical trials but they aren’t published because there are no pharmaceuticals involved; this is not an accurate claim. Medical journals do not require that preventative and/or curative measures contain pharmaceuticals in order to be publishable. In fact, there are several studies on homeopathy published in reputable journals. None, however, suggests that there’s any efficacy to homeopathic vaccines.


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