Precious bodily fluids

Last night, I finished reading Paul Offit’s Deadly Choices(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), his new book about the history of anti-vaccination movements. It’s very good and very thorough and very convincing, and I found it informative because it also takes a broad view, looking everything from the campaigns against Jenner to the crazy talk of Jenny McCarthy. I had never really seen where these opponents of a simple life-saving procedure were coming from, but seeing a few centuries worth of their rhetoric lined up and put on display was helpful, and I finally realized what was wrong with the anti-vaxers.

They’ve all got Jack D. Ripper Syndrome. What drives them nuts is the idea that someone will pollute their (and worse, their children’s) precious bodily fluids with filth and contaminants and base animal substances. It’s a concern about purity and a fear of foreign substances that is amplified beyond all reason; they take a reasonable core concern about cleanliness and avoiding toxins, blow it up into a hysterical terror about a medical procedure that intentionally introduces minute quantities of a foreign substance, and then build pseudoscientific rationalizations for their fear. It’s all gotten a bit ridiculous.

For instance, all the howling about formaldehyde in some vaccines; it’s a trivial amount, a tiny fraction of the quantity your very own metabolism produces in the normal course of a day. If you’re going to get upset about trace formaldehyde in a shot you’ll get once in your life, you ought to be even more upset with your liver, which is trickling more aldehydes than that into your bloodstream every day. Here’s how Offit handles that, in his discussion of the avuncular Dr Bob Sears and his pandering to the anti-vax lobby:

Unfortunately, Sears fails to educate his reader about the importance of quantity—that is, that it’s the dose that makes the poison—and that spacing out vaccines to avoid exposure to quantities of chemicals so small that they have no chance of causing harm will accomplish nothing. For example, Sears claims that formaldehyde is a “carcinogen” (cancer-causing agent) but omits the fact that formaldehyde is a natural product: an essential intermediate in the synthesis of amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) and of thymidines and purines (the building blocs of DNA). Everyone has about two and one-half micrograms of formaldehyde per milliliter of blood. Therefore, young infants have about ten times more formaldehyde circulating in their bodies than is contained in any vaccine. Further, the quanitity of formaldehyde contained in vaccines is at most one six-hundredth of that found to be harmful to animals. It would have been valuable if Sears had informed his readers of these facts rather than scaring them with the notion that formaldehyde in vaccines could cause cancer.

We’re living in a world swarming with all kinds of gunk and goop and dirt and bugs, and some of it is bad for you…but it’s only bad if you get a dose that exceeds your body’s capacity to manage it. The stuff in a vaccine is at such a low concentration and purified to an amazing degree to minimize the quantity of nasties that it contains to a point below the amount that can do anyone harm.

If you’re going to dread a few proteins in a shot, though, I have a tale to make you quiver in disgust. I just had two carrots for lunch, and I didn’t peel them, I just gave them a quick wash in the tap. The quantity of uncharacterized filth and strange chemicals and weird biologically active agents, not to mention the scattered nematodes and bacteria and viruses colonizing the surface of that vegetable, was immense. If I get some random disease in the next day or two, should I blame the carrot farmers of America? Who knows what mysterious pathogens I took into my system via those horrible plants. Farmers raise them in dirt!

(By the way, Orac has a review of Oracian length on this same book. Check it out for the details.)