Science Says: Don’t Fear Vaccines. They Are Our Friends.

As a scientist conducting microplastics research, I am concerned about how plastics can affect human health. In my current research, I’ve developed a methodology to detect plastics in human tissues, which we were excited to complete as quickly as we did given all of the strict lab protocols and restrictions put in place due to COVID. During this pandemic, we have seen a massive spike in single-use plastic items like masks, gloves, shields, etc., all essential for keeping us safe, but worrisome in regards to the impact this will have on the environment.

Other than the obvious desire to end the suffering and death brought on by this pandemic, the waste issue is another reason for me, personally, to be eager for the distribution of a COVID vaccine to end this global pandemic.

However, I was surprised to learn that many people may be hesitant to receive the vaccine. 

As we enter the heart of winter in the northern hemisphere, the various COVID vaccines are now starting to be distributed around the globe, but of course with plenty of debate. A public distrust of vaccines in general has been around for some time. At one point, it was due in part to a research article from 1998 that claimed a MMR vaccine could be the cause of autism. Many more studies have shown there to be no link between the two. Not only that, but the original research was shown to be false, the author of the paper lost his medical license and the article was later retracted by the journal. 

I genuinely believe that folks who reject vaccines do so because they are scared of the vaccine itself, not because they wish for others around them to fall ill. These fears should be addressed so let’s take a little walk together and have a chat. I’ll present six common concerns that I’ve heard about vaccines, see if any apply to you. 

1. “There is no way that a baby can handle that many vaccines at once”

The immune systems of infants is something to behold. It is theorized that they could actually support around 10,000 vaccines at one time (super babies). Let’s be more realistic. Giving babies all 14 or 15 scheduled vaccines at one time only uses up about 0.1% of their immune capacity, but even the idea of a capacity is theorized, there may not even be a limit! In comparison to the viruses and bacteria that babies face daily, vaccine’s effects on the immune system are trivial. 

Charlie Rolsky getting vaccine

Charlie walking the talk.

2. “Vaccines have toxins in them that are unsafe”

I get it. Some chemicals have big, scary names. But that isn’t to confuse or frighten you, it’s because each part of that name means something. Take for example, 2-methylpropanol. The “2” is the position of the methyl group. The methyl group refers to the structure of the compound, or one carbon atom (safe) bonded to three hydrogen atoms (safe). Lastly, “propanol” means an alcohol (safe) containing three carbon groups (also safe). Oh, by the way, 2-methylpropanol is a chemical found in apples.

The word “chemical” should not be scary. A chemical is anything made of atoms. This includes water, diamonds, salt, Canada, and a herd of goats. That being said, potentially more ominous chemicals in vaccines are the source of fear. Mercury, formaldehyde or aluminum seem to fit that mold. It is true that at high doses, those can be dangerous, but the amounts used in vaccines are far less concentrated. Your body actually creates more formaldehyde than is administered in a vaccine. For example, a newborn between 6 and 8 pounds already has 50 to 70 times more formaldehyde in its body than would be administered in a vaccine because it’s found within the body, as well as the natural environment. It’s presence in the vaccine helps to inactive viruses, so that they don’t cause disease. Aluminum salts are used and important because they help to enhance the immune response of the individual. Copious amounts of research has shown the level of salts to be extremely low and have little to no negative side effects (we actually eat or drink 20 times the maximum allowed vaccine dose of aluminum, daily). Mercury is found in thimerosal, which is a preservative once used in vaccines, which prevents bacteria from contaminating the vaccine or needle. Now that many childhood vaccines are provided as a single dosage, preservatives, such as thimerosals, are no longer needed.    

3. “Once the COVID-19 vaccine is ready, I want to wait and see how it affects others before I get it”

The ol’ Guinea pig effect! Let me assure you, before a vaccine reaches the point at which we sign up to receive it, it has gone through A LOT of testing. Each vaccine must pass a very complicated, multi-step approval process before they’re even ready for the public. This is normally a process that takes 10-15 years but because scientists and researchers around the world have all rallied together behind this, they’re CRUSHING it and we hope to have a vaccine within a year! Round of applause for them as well as all those involved in the testing process. When the COVID-19 vaccine is ready, it is only because it has been proven to be safe.

Okay, speed round time, our walk is almost over. 

4. “Natural immunity is better”

This means you want to catch the virus, let it run its course, and hopefully build up an immune response to it. That’s a pretty big risk. Let’s say you wanted to gain immunity to measles. By contracting it, you now have a 1 in 500 chance of dying.  In comparison, the number of people who have had severe allergic reactions to the MMR vaccine is around 1 in 1,000,000. A much lower risk.

5. “…okay, then I’ll wait for herd immunity”

Herd immunity is achieved when 60-70% of the population has antibodies. In the US, we’re most likely still in the single digits. What would get us close to 60-70%? A vaccine.  

6. “Ugh, vaccines just aren’t worth the risk, Charlie”

There has never been one credible study linking vaccines to long-term health issues. On the contrary, the CDC estimates that of all the children born in the last 20 years within the US, vaccines have prevented 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths. To put that into another perspective, of all the diseases we now have vaccines for, 90% of them have either been eliminated or reductions of above 99% have been achieved. These include smallpox, mumps, rubella and measles, to name a few. 

Vaccines are safe and effective. I enjoyed our walk. Let’s do this again soon.

Dr. Charlie Rolsky is Director of Science for Plastic Oceans International. He is also the host of “Breaking It Down, With Charlie Rolsky” – a new YouTube series from Plastic Oceans that simplifies the science, while having a bit of fun. He conducts research at Arizona State University, where he works on marine and aquatic plastic pollution, a major concern within many ecosystems and environments around the world.