Do you have a scar on your arm and you aren’t sure why it is there?
Is it from the smallpox vaccine?
Recognizing Old Vaccine Scars
Classically, there are two vaccines that can leave a scar – the ones that protect us against smallpox and tuberculosis.
“BCG scar is a surrogate marker of vaccination and an important index in the vaccination program.”
Dhanawade et al on Scar formation and tuberculin conversion following BCG vaccination in infants: A prospective cohort study
And there are a few easy ways to tell if you have a smallpox scar.
When were you born? Remember, the smallpox vaccine hasn’t been used in the United States since the early 1970s and its use stopped everywhere in 1986.
And where were you born?
The BCG (bacille Calmette-Guerin) vaccine, on the other hand, is still in use in many countries, and is given at birth to prevent tuberculosis disease, including meningitis and disseminated tuberculosis. It isn’t routinely used in the United States though “because of the low risk of infection with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the variable effectiveness of the vaccine against adult pulmonary TB, and the vaccine’s potential interference with tuberculin skin test reactivity.”
In general though:
the BCG vaccine scar has a raised center
the smallpox vaccine scar is depressed, with lines that radiate to the edges
Complicating matters is the fact that you can have multiple scars from each vaccine…
“In 1972, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization in Canada recommended that routine immunization of infants for smallpox be stopped. Very few Canadians born after 1972 have been immunized against smallpox. Those, like me, who were immunized prior to that date have little or no immunity left. Nothing, but a small scar as testimony to a grand global achievement.”
Although Lyme disease is caused by a bacterial infection, the bacteria is transmitted to people through tick bites. Not surprisingly, the original Lyme disease vaccine didn’t attack ticks, it attacked the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria in those ticks, before they could cause an infection.
After three doses, LYMErix was found to be 78% effective at preventing Lyme disease.
In their article, “Concerns Grow Over Reactions To Lyme Shots,” The New York Times even gave equal time to doctors from the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society, who push the idea that folks need treatment for chronic Lyme disease.
Another vaccine, ImuLyme, didn’t even bother applying for FDA licensure at the time.
“In 2002, in response to low vaccine uptake, public concern about adverse effects, and class action lawsuits, SmithKline Beecham withdrew the vaccine from the market despite the fact that both pre- and post-licensure safety data showed no difference in the incidence of chronic arthritis between those who received the vaccine and those who had not.”
The History of the Lyme Disease Vaccine
Interestingly, a more current article in The New York Times, “Lyme Disease Is Spreading Fast. Why Isn’t There a Vaccine?,” doesn’t mention the media’s role in bringing down the vaccine.
“But the company took it off the market less than four years later, citing low sales, amid lawsuits from patients who said the vaccine caused severe arthritis and other symptoms… The high cost of the vaccine and confusion over who should get it and how many doses were needed didn’t help its prospects.”
Lyme Disease Is Spreading Fast. Why Isn’t There a Vaccine?
And that’s likely why we continue to see false balance in their reporting, as we see them interview a group who is “skeptical about the new vaccine.”
A new vaccine that hasn’t even made it into phase II trials yet!
“Whatever you think about Andrew Wakefield, the real villains of the MMR scandal are the media.”
Ben Goldacre on The MMR story that wasn’t
The media’s role in scaring folks about vaccines isn’t new.
“As we ask how to weigh public health benefits of interventions against potential risks (notably incurred by identifiable individuals), the LYMErix case illustrates that media focus and swings of public opinion can pre-empt the scientific weighing of risks and benefits in determining success or failure.”
The Lyme vaccine: a cautionary tale
Hopefully, folks have learned their lesson though. How many people have developed Lyme disease since LYMErix was withdrawn from the market? After all, Lyme disease should still be a vaccine-preventable disease.
brought the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report to CDC
investigated the swine influenza virus vaccine incident, when it was thought that some people developed GBS after getting the new swine flu vaccine in 1976
His work saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
Did he ever tell folks to not get a flu shot?
Was he ever concerned about mercury in flu shots?
Considering that Dr. Langmuir died in 1993, before folks became concerned about thimerosal in vaccines, that’s unlikely. That’s especially so considering that the only place you can find these types of quotes are on anti-vaccine websites.
Still, Langmuir was critical of flu shots.
“From this appraisal of the experience in the past three and one-half years, it is apparent that progress in the control of influenza has not been impressive.”
Langmuir et al. on The Epidemiological Basis For The Control Of Influenza
He didn’t think that they worked well enough. Or more importantly, he didn’t think we had enough information about how well they worked.
“Our information regarding the occurrence of influenza is largely qualitative. Schools close, absenteeism increases, medical services become taxed, virus isolations and serological identifications are made in great numbers, and daily accounts appear in our newspapers and on television. We know we have an epidemic and we know its specific cause, but we have few quantitative measures of incidence, age- and sex-specific attack rates, and character and severity of complications. Further- more, we have only crude data regarding mortality. We do not know what proportion of excess deaths occurs among reasonably active and productive citizens in contrast to deaths among persons who are already invalids suffering from severely debilitating pre-existing disease. Despite this serious deficiency we base our recommendations for vaccine use largely on mortality experience. We undertake major efforts to produce influenza vaccine in large amounts, but we have no meaningful information regarding its actual distribution. We do not know to what extent it actually reaches persons at highest risk.”
Langmuir et al. on A Critical Evaluation of Influenza Surveillance
“The availability of potent and effective measles vaccines, which have been tested extensively over the past 4 years, provides the basis for the eradication of measles in any community that will raise its immune thresholds to readily attainable levels.”
Langmuir et al. on Epidemiologic Basis For Eradication Of Measles In 1967
And concerning all that he did in the field of public health, he is certainly not someone that anti-vaccine folks should be quoting.
The former Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Indiana (1983-2013) has been described as being “antivaccine through and through” and “organized quackery’s best friend in Congress.”
Dan Burton held over 20 Congressional hearings trying to prove that there was a link between vaccines and autism.
Hearings that gave a high profile platform to Andrew Wakefield and are best described as:
“carefully choreographed to generate as much negative feeling toward the vaccination system as possible.”
Arthur Allen on Vaccine The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver
Who replaced Dan Burton?
It seems to be U.S. Congressman Bill Posey (R-FL), who has been described as “vying to take over the title of the most antivaccine legislator in the U.S. Congress since Dan Burton retired.”
He got a little help from Rep. Darrell Issa, who conducted a meeting of the Subcommittee of Government Operations in 2014, Examining the Federal Response to Autism Spectrum Disorders.
“Okay. Let’s stop it right there. Because every time we have ever talked about doing one of those studies, some idiot in the media says I am suggesting that children intentionally don’t get vaccinated. And I don’t know that anybody ever has ever proposed that. But there are plenty of children whose parents will not allow them to be vaccinated. There are plenty of cultures where children are not vaccinated. And there are other reasons children are not vaccinated. And there are children who take large doses of vaccination, and children whose parents decide to have them take one vaccination at a time to avoid thimerosal. And I have not been able to ascertain that there has actually been a legitimate study done that wasn’t tainted by the touch of the international colossal scumbag Poul Thorsen.”
Rep. Bill Posey questioning NIH Director Thomas R. Insel, M.D. in the Congressional hearing on Examining the Federal Response to Autism Spectrum Disorders
Who else might be joining him?
There is Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY).
Maloney also spoke at a 2012 hearing planned by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on the federal response to rising autism rates.
“Are you looking at vaccination? Is that part of your studies? I have a question. Are you looking at vaccination? Are you having a study on vaccination and the fact that they’re cramming them down and having kids have nine at one time. Is that a cause? Do you have any studies on vaccination?”
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) in a hearing on Rising Autism Rates
Rep. Carolyn Maloney was also a co-sponsor of Rep. Bill Posey’s 2015 Vaccine Safety Study Act bill, which called for “a comprehensive study comparing total health outcomes, including risk of autism, in vaccinated populations in the United States with such outcomes in unvaccinated populations in the United States, and for other purposes,” even though many experts have long pointed out the problems with using intentionally unvaccinated folks as a comparison group.
But Rep Maloney got her start long before Bill Posey ever came to Congress…
In 2006, in response to a series of articles by Dan Olmstead, who later created the website, Age of Autism, Rep Maloney held a briefing at the National Press Club where she proposed the Comprehensive Study of Autism Epidemic Act of 2006, a bill that sounds awfully similar to Posey’s Vaccine Safety Study Act.
Rep. John Duncan (R-TN) was another co-sponsor.
But we shouldn’t forget Rep. Dave Weldon MD (R-Fl), who introduced the Mercury-Free Vaccines Act of 2004 and the Vaccine Safety and Public Confidence Assurance Act of 2007. Weldon also sent a number of letters to Julie Gerberding questioning a study about thimerosal by Thomas Verstraeten, a study that was investigated and cleared by Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee in 2005. Because he was a doctor, Rep. Burton also had Weldon do a lot of the questioning during his hearings.
And there is also Rep. Christopher Smith (R-NJ), who was a cosponsor when Maloney reintroduced the Vaccine Safety and Public Confidence Assurance Act in 2009.
Not surprisingly, many of these members of Congress have been getting donations from anti-vaccine organizations.
In contrast to all of the folks above, there was Rep. Henry A Waxman (D-CA), who retired after 40 years in Congress, but not before:
fighting back against Dan Burton’s misinformation in his hearings about vaccines
introducing the Vaccine Access and Supply Act of 2005
authoring the stand-alone Vaccines for Children legislation that was included in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 that created the Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program
introducing the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986
But his work on vaccines has probably been the most low-profile thing that Waxman did, which is why he is often described as “one of the most important Congressman ever.”
You’ll never hear that said about Dan Burton, Bill Posey, Dave Weldon, or Carolyn Maloney…
With billions of doses of vaccines being given each year, it is likely not surprising that we see some problems. But when many of those vaccines are being given to kids, even one mishap, especially if it leads to life-threatening complications, is too many.
That’s why many safe guards have been put in place in the manufacturer and distribution of modern vaccines, so that we don’t see these types of vaccine tragedies:
the Cutter Incident, when, in 1955, at least 56 people developed polio and 5 children died after being vaccinated with inactivated polio vaccine that was poorly manufactured by Cutter Laboratories and still contained live polio virus
hepatitis-contaminated yellow fever vaccines – some lots of yellow fever vaccines used in the military in 1942 were unintentionally contaminated with the hepatitis B virus
the Lubeck Disaster – 75 children died and others got tuberculosis in 1929 Germany after there was a mixup between the BCG vaccine and the strain of Mycobacterium tuberculosis that causes tuberculosis. The BCG vaccine was supposed to be made with a weakened strain of Mycobacterium bovis bacteria instead.
the Bundaberg incident – 12 children died in Australia in 1928 after being given contaminated diphtheria vaccine from a multidose vial without preservative
tetanus contaminated smallpox vaccine in the 1890s and early 20th century
Although vaccines are much safer now, some rare incidents still occur.
Fifteen infants died and 75 children got sick in Syria in 2014 after they received a neuromuscular blocking agent, atracurium, instead of the measles vaccine they were supposed to get. How? The measles vaccine that was being used is mixed with a diluent, but instead of using the proper diluent, the health worker unintentionally used a bottle of atracurium instead.
In 2015, at least two kids died and 29 got sick in Chiapas, Mexico, among 52 children who were vaccinated. The children were reportedly given a BCG vaccine, the rotavirus vaccine, and/or a hepatitis B vaccine that day. However, the only vaccine that all of the sick children received in common was the hepatitis B vaccine. Since 130,000 doses from the same batch of vaccines had been given in the area, it was not thought to be a manufacturing problem or widespread issue. It was instead bacterial contamination of hepatitis B vaccine vials at that one clinic.
Fifteen children died in 2017 in a village in South Sudan after a poorly trained team that wasn’t adhering to WHO immunization safety standards used the same syringe to reconstitute measles vaccines over a four day period. They also didn’t keep the vaccine vials refrigerated.
“A single reconstitution syringe was used for multiple vaccine vials for the entire four days of the campaign instead of being discarded after single use. The reuse of the reconstitution syringe causes it to become contaminated which in turn contaminates the measles vaccine vials and infects the vaccinated children.”
Statement regarding findings of joint investigation of 15 deaths of children in Nachodokopele village, Kapoeta East County in South Sudan
As you can imagine, the conditions that led to these tragedies aren’t present when most kids get vaccinated.
Even in developing countries, most children get vaccinated by people adhering to WHO immunization safety standards. Why did they happened then? Both Syria and South Sudan have been rocked by war for years, leading to a breakdown in the ability to provide routine health care, even as basic as getting kids vaccinated. And Comunidad La Pimienta, Simojovel, Chiapas is a very poor part of southern Mexico.
These kinds of tragedies aren’t going to happen at your pediatrician’s office, as they don’t even have drugs like atracurium.
What Happened in Samoa?
In Samoa, four years after the deaths of the children in Syria, we are once again hearing about reports of deaths after kids were vaccinated with the MMR vaccine.
Two children in Samoa, both one-year-olds, died within minutes of being vaccinated on the same day in the same hospital on the island of Savai’i.
Not surprisingly, as health officials investigate the cause, use of the MMR vaccine had been suspended in Samoa.
So what happened?
“Until the investigations have been completed and reported on we cannot say what did happen.
However, given the batch of vaccine involved had been in use in that country since August last year, and given the same batch of vaccine has been used in South American countries and the Caribbean island nations without incident, it seems unlikely that there was anything wrong with the vaccine.
The reports from the parents of the children affected on Friday indicate the reactions occurred within minutes after vaccination. This would preclude a response to the vaccine viruses as this takes at least a week. While anaphylaxis occurs within minutes and can be fatal when not treated the odds of seeing this twice in a day at the same place, given a chance of 1 in a million doses, is literally astronomical.”
Dr. Helen Petousis Harrison on What happened in Samoa?
Since it happened so quickly, it sounds like it could have been a mix-up with the diluent, as happened in Syria. A five dose vial of MMR is used in Samoa, which means that unlike premixed vaccines, it does have to be mixed with a diluent.
What about contamination? It is known that vaccine vials can be contaminated with Staphylococcus bacteria if they are mishandled. Although Staphylococcus bacteria can directly cause infections, they can also release a toxin that can cause toxic shock syndrome (TSS).
Considering how quickly these children got died though (within minutes), it isn’t likely that the vaccines became contaminated with Staphylococcus toxins. There have been reports of TSS following vaccination in the past, usually with vaccines that don’t use preservatives, but symptoms typically develop over four to 24 hours.
“This particular vaccine batch lot arrived to Samoa in August 2017 and has been in use since then. The same vaccine batch lot used in Samoa is also in use in a number of South American and Caribbean countries (Belize, Ecuador, St. Vincent, Trinidad Tobago, Chile, Aruba, Dutch Antilles, St. Kitts & Nevis and Cuba) with no reports of adverse events from those countries.”
Could this be related to what happened to two other children in Samoa who had died after getting their MMR vaccines?
Almost certainly not. Those children, siblings, died years earlier, one in 2015 and the other in 2017. Neither died immediately after being vaccinated and there are reports that they may have had some kind of an immunodeficiency syndrome that contributed to their deaths.
“A number of media outlets are already covering these tragic events, speculating on the cause of death before the investigation is completed, and the stories have been picked up by the anti-vaccination movement.”
Or because Pope Francis thanked members of the Rotary International during an Audience at the Vatican, where the Pope “emphasized the importance of vaccinations against polio and urged Rotary to continue.”
History of the Catholic Church and Vaccines
Pope Francis isn’t the first Pope to promote vaccination.
Way back in the early 1800s, Pope Pius VII said the smallpox vaccine was “a precious discovery which ought to be a new motive for human gratitude to Omnipotence.”
But wasn’t there an anti-vaccine pope too?
Some claimed that Pope Leo XII had said that “Whoever allows himself to be vaccinated ceases to be a child of God. Smallpox is a judgment of God, the vaccination is a challenge toward heaven.”
He didn’t say it though – the anti-vax edict from the Pope was imaginary!
There was no anti-vaccine pope.
Endorsement of vaccination by the Catholic Church had started long before the smallpox vaccine. As early as the 1720s, Jesuits were inoculating Indians in the Amazon against smallpox.
Other noteworthy events in the history of the Catholic Church related to vaccines include:
1757 – Pope Benedict XIV was inoculated against smallpox
1780s – introduction of public vaccinations by the archbishop of Bamberg, Germany
1821 – Council of Vaccination
1800s – priests routinely led processions of people to get vaccinated against smallpox
1862 – Catholic missionaries vaccinated the Quwutsun in the Pacific Northwest
Sean Phillips, in examining the records of the Osler Library, has also found “a story of close cooperation between clergy and the state from the earliest stages of the vaccine in France…” That was important, because when smallpox epidemics were raging, the clergy functioned “as a conduit between the medical community and the majority of cities, towns, and communes in France throughout the nineteenth century.”
Vaccines and Abortion
Of course, one of the main reasons that vaccines and the Catholic Church comes up at all is because of abortion.
What does abortion have to do with vaccines?
While much of what you hear about abortion and vaccines isn’t true, some of it is:
Some vaccines are made in cell lines that originated from fetuses that were aborted over 40 years ago.
These vaccines are made in descendent cells from either the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines, which have been duplicated over and over again and are grown independently. So, “it is important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted child.”
The descendent cells don’t remain in the final vaccine after it has been purified.
It should be clear now why they say that these vaccines are said to have a “distant association with abortion.”
“For its part, Catholic social teaching entails a duty to vaccinate in order to protect the vulnerable.”
Paul J. Carson on Catholic Social Teaching and the Duty to Vaccinate
And why it is said that Catholics are “morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion” and that “it should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.”
“Since there is no Catholic teaching that the use of these vaccines is sinful, schools cannot allow Catholic parents to claim a religious exemption from the requirement of immunization.”
National Catholic Bioethics Center on Vaccines and Exemptions Granted by Schools
Catholics can seek an alternative vaccine when available and “register a complaint with the manufacturer of the products as an acceptable form of conscientious objection,” but the The National Catholic Bioethics Center states that “there is no moral obligation to register such a complaint in order to use these vaccines.”
No, I’m not talking about the “crude brew” that was the original DTP vaccine.
This older vaccine used more antigens than the DTaP vaccine that replaced it, so could cause more side effects. Even before that though, there was less oversight of vaccine manufacturers in the early 20th century. This could lead to vaccines that were contaminated or which simply didn’t work.
That certainly was a problem with the early smallpox vaccine, which is typically considered to be the most dangerous vaccine ever routinely used.
Variolation and Smallpox
But even before the smallpox vaccine was developed by Edward Jenner in 1796, we had variolation.
While the smallpox vaccine involved the cowpox virus, variolation actually infected someone with smallpox. The idea was to give the person a milder form by exposing them to a weaker, or attenuated, form of the virus.
They got this weakened virus from the smallpox scabs of someone who had already recovered and:
blowing dried smallpox scabs into their nose
applying pus from smallpox scabs to a small puncture wound on their skin
Variolation worked, giving the person immunity to smallpox – if they survived.
Unfortunately, about 1 to 3% of people who underwent variolation died.
And people who had recently undergone variolation could be contagious, leading to smallpox epidemics.
So why did folks undergo variolation if they had a chance of dying from the procedure?
A natural smallpox infection was so much more deadly. Up to 30% of people who got smallpox died, and many people eventually got caught up in the regular smallpox epidemics that plagued people in the pre-vaccine era.
The Hospital Rock Engravings of Farmington, Connecticut
We don’t have to worry about smallpox anymore.
Well, not about natural smallpox infections, since smallpox was eradicated back in 1980.
And there are many other diseases that we get vaccinated against, with it being extremely easy to get that protection, especially compared to what folks did in the old days.
Do you know how far folks went to make variolation safer?
“Every year, thousands undergo this operation, and the French Ambassador says pleasantly, that they take the small-pox here by way of diversion, as they take the waters in other countries. There is no example of any one that has died in it, and you may believe I am well satisfied of the safety of this experiment, since I intend to try it on my dear little son. I am patriot enough to take the pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England…”
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu On Small Pox in Turkey (1717)
They actually went to smallpox hospitals to get vaccinated, remaining in quarantine for up to three weeks so that they wouldn’t get others sick.
In Farmington, Connecticut, two doctors established the Todd-Wadsworth Smallpox Hospital and had a lot of success with variolation.
Patients were no longer starved before inoculation, and many had begun to doubt the efficacy and safety of vomiting, sweats, purges, mercurials (toxic mercury salts such as calomel), and bleeding which had previously weakened both inoculees and those who “took the pox in the natural way.”
Charles Leach, MD on Hospital Rock
There, up to 20 patients at a time stayed in quarantine to get variolated, as a smallpox epidemic hit nearby Boston.
Between 1792 and 1794, many who got variolated wrote their names on what is now known as Hospital Rock.
“Many have supposed that the names on this rock were those who had did of the small-pox, but this is a great mistake. Every name on the rock is that of a person who was living when the name was placed there. Norris Stanley lived to own ships which were captured in the war of 1812 by Algerian pirates and still later to receive from the United States an indeminity therefor amounting to a large sum.”
James Shepard on The Small Pox Hospital Rock
The nearby town of Durham seemed to go a different way.
Instead of an inoculation hospital, they had a pest house to quarantine folks with natural smallpox infections.
Adding to the history of smallpox in Connecticut – a smallpox burying ground in Guilford.
Why wasn’t variolation popular everywhere? Folks didn’t have to wait for the first vaccine for the anti-vaccine movement to get started.
What to Know About Smallpox and the Hospital Rock Engravings
Hundreds of people got safely inoculated against smallpox and left their names on Hospital Rock near Farmington, Connecticut just before Edward Jenner discovered the first smallpox vaccine.