The wonders of our cells – the Immune System part I

The human body is made up of many different kinds of cells.  Some of these are quite underappreciated; others are pretty much disliked for what they do.  Cells of the immune system protect us every single day from the microscopic world that is continually trying to eat away at our bodies.  In this article, I will discuss the first part of the immune system, the one that is fairly mindless – the innate system.

immune-system-allergyNow, the innate system includes all the body defenses that do not have to be activated in order to work.  This includes things like your skin, stomach acid, mucous (kind of disgusting, but there it is), and some very specialized cells.  I will discuss those cells in further detail later on, but I want to focus on the first defensive barriers for now.

Now, think of your body as an impenetrable fortress.  What would you picture?  Walls 600 feet high?  Stone 6 feet thick?  If you made your fortress completely impenetrable, would you have things like doors or windows?  Of course not – things can come in through doors and windows.  Now, are doors necessary?  Absolutely – how would you get out of your impenetrable fortress for things like food, water, clothing?

Our body works the exact same way, through our skin.  Our skin is our major first-line defense against infection.  Unfortunately, you have to have ways to eat, see, and eliminate wastes.  So, you have doorways – entrances through your impenetrable barrier.  These areas have their own defenses.  Of course, if you get a cut, you’ve now made a new doorway, and nasty things can enter those as well.

Mucous secretions are next on the list.  These include things like tears, ear wax, mucous in your lungs/throat, and, since I don’t want to use the medical term (keeping it simple), snot.  Most of these things are not exactly pleasant, but here’s what happens.  First, little creatures tend to get stuck in mucous.  Several things can happen then – they can die immediately (you produce things in your mucous that can kill some creatures), or they get moved out of the body.  I do say moved out – in some cases, those mucous secretions can enter your stomach, which is my next topic.

Your stomach has a ph of around 1.0-4.0, depending on when your last meal was.  It rises to the 3.0-4.0 level after a meal; if you haven’t eaten in awhile, it can lower to about 1.0.  Basically, what these mean is that your stomach is extremely acidic (a neutral ph is 7.0, lower is acidic, higher is basic (bleach)).  Most creatures that you could ingest don’t really like acidic places, and so most of them die.

There are a couple exceptions to this.  Some creatures actually like acidic places, and will set up shop in your stomach.  Others will be ingested with food (think E. coli) and will hide in the center of the food particle.  Most will be killed off, but some might still make it through the stomach, and the rest of the intestinal tract is around 7.0-8.0, which makes these creatures much happier – so happy in fact that they reproduce, set up shop, and make you very sick.

OK, so what happens if a creature gets past all of those defenses (and I’ve left out a couple, such as the creatures that already live in your gut)?  We have certain types of cells that will attack them, without having to be told to do so.

It would be completely improper to introduce some of these cells, so I will do so.  The first cells I would like to talk about would be what is called phagocytic cells.  These cells basically eat other cells, ones that do not belong in the body.  They are the hungry teenagers in your system – eating anything that they find that doesn’t belong.  Some of these cells (types are macrophages, monocytes, and neutrophils) are important for what is called the acquired immune response, more on that in the next article.

Most of these eating-type cells contain lots of nasty chemicals, which they put with whatever they eat to kill it.  There is really one exception to these cells, and they are the natural killer (NK) cells.  These cells will kill your cells if they contain things like a virus, and some forms of cancer.  Since most viruses live in “host” cells (your cells), this is the only way that your innate system has to kill them off.

Now, of course this is a simplified view of your first line of defense, and I’ve not talked about all the different things these cells can do, but this should give a good overview of this part of your immune system.  Now, on to symptoms…

When your innate system is activated, it can cause things like inflammation, fever, runny nose, etc.  Now, while these are all signs that you have an infection of some type, it is a completely normal response to any type of infection.  OK, some infections do not cause fevers, but you get the point – these symptoms are common across a wide variety of infections.  This is important to note, since these are signs that your innate immune system is functioning normally.  I mentioned this in my last article on vaccinations.

Now, one last thing.  Your innate system is only the first part of your immune system, but it is also the fastest.  It takes very little time – minutes to hours – to become fully active against any threat.  Now, the downside of this is that it reacts to any infection exactly the same each time – it has no memory of previous infections, and so it can’t do what is called a targeted response.

That type of response is a function of the acquired immune system, which I will discuss in my next article.  That system takes days to be activated, but after it has seen something once, it can mount an immediate, targeted response.

Until next time – stay healthy!

***EDIT – I completely forgot to source my information!  So sorry about that – my information is in Kuby Immunology, 6th edition, chapter 3 on the innate immune system.  Book is by Kindt, Goldsby, and Osborne, published by W.H. Freeman and company, New York

Comment Policy at Science & Medicine…

Hello all!  I just wanted to do a quick post about the comment policy here at Science and Medicine – For The Rest Of Us.  First of all, please see our comment page.  If you have posted here before, and been approved, your comment *should* automatically show up.  If this is your first time commenting here, your comment will be put into a queue, and I will have to approve it.  Again, this is just for your first comment on this site.

I have been getting a lot of spam comments.  Please note that I DO use Akismet – a spam filter for Wordpress.  If you have a legitimate comment, and you notice your comment hasn’t shown up after 24 hours, please feel free to contact me and ask why.  Most likely Akismet flagged your comment as spam.  If it is legitimate, I will certainly let it pass through the filter.

One other thing – I do not have the dofollow flag enabled.  This means (for all you spammers out there) that leaving your spammy addresses, or spammy names, or spammy IP addresses will do you absolutely no good on this site.

On the other hand, I would really like to reward the legitimate commentators out there with quality backlinks (if you don’t know what those are, don’t worry about it – it’s a link back to someone’s home blog).  If you have any suggestions as to how to enable dofollow without being inundated with spam, please let me know!



The Disease-Ridden Masses: Does Vaccination Cause Disease? Part III of III

So, in my first article, I talked about what vaccines are, and what types of substances are in them.  In my second article, I discussed the possible link between autism and vaccinations.  In this article, the final part of a 3 part series, I am going to discuss whether vaccines actually cause disease, and whether there is any scientific evidence to back this up.

First of all, what diseases are vaccines supposed to cause?  It’s very interesting, my research into this has led me onto various different websites, with lots of different viewpoints.  Below is a partial list of different diseases that vaccines are supposed to cause:

  • Autoimmune diseases (body attacks itself)
  • Blood disorders
  • Bowel diseases
  • Nervous system diseases
  • Skin disorders

These are broad categories – I found it amazing to learn that vaccines are accused of causing everything from AIDS, to CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, otherwise known as mad-cow), to ear infection and, yes, even shaken-baby syndrome.

Is there ANY evidence that vaccines can cause these types of diseases?  I will take two examples – the polio vaccine, and the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine.

There are two different types of polio vaccine – oral polio vaccine (OPV) and injectable polio vaccine (IPV).  In a study done for the Healthy People 2010 initiative, the OPV has been found to increase the risk for vaccine-associated paralytic polio (VAPP).  The injection, or the IPV, has no risk for VAPP.  The direction is to move the country entirely to the IPV (as far as I can find out, this has been done, oral polio vaccinations are no longer given).  The incidence (how often it occurs) of VAPP in the population receiving the OPV is about 0.4-3.0 people per million vaccinated – this translates into about 0.0000004-.000003 percent of all people vaccinated.

The pertussis (whooping-cough) vaccine is another interesting example.  It seems as though whole-cell pertussis vaccines can cause seizures in controlled clinical trials, at a rate of about 1 per 1750 doses.  These seizures very rarely result in any long-term side effects, although they do result in an increase of emergency room visits.  Whole-cell vaccine is being replaced by acellular pertussis vaccine (vaccine using pieces of the cells, instead of the entire cell), which has a seizure rate of 1 per 14280 doses.  It is important to stress that, even though seizures are a scary occurrence, it is extremely rare for any long-term side effects to occur.

Now, like I stated in my first post on this subject, there are well-documented side effects from vaccines, including fever, redness at the injection site, flu-like symptoms, etc.  Getting a live attenuated vaccine (a vaccine containing a live, but weakened version of the virus/bacteria) might result in some of the symptoms of that disease.  These do not, however cause disease.

One more thing I would like to point out.  I saw on a couple of sites that “experts” were complaining that vaccines were given to immuno-compromised children, who had symptoms of a suppressed immune system such as runny nose and cough.  These are not symptoms of a disease – these are natural body defenses against disease.  When your throat becomes infected, the body wants to get rid of the organism that is infecting it – and so, you cough.  This is why it is extremely dangerous to treat a cough in someone who has pneumonia – the body needs to get the liquid out of the lungs, and coughing is an important part of that.  So, coughing, sneezing, etc do NOT indicate a suppressed immune system – rather, they indicate an immune system that is working exactly like it is supposed to.

So, do vaccines cause disease?  In very rare cases, you can get the symptoms of some diseases through a vaccine, but these symptoms are usually very short lived.  Personally, I would much rather have some symptoms of a condition like polio, and be able to recover from that, than get the real thing and possibly be paralyzed for life.  Yes, there is a risk for any vaccination.  What you have to do is weigh the risks against possibly getting the disease.

In the end, there are risks for anything you do.  Every time you take a medication, even something like Tylenol, you are putting a foreign substance into your body – and there are possible side-effects from that.  Think of vaccinations like any other medication – and weight the risks and benefits for yourself.  Until next time!

P.S.  The easy way to tell quackery from real science?  Look for dates on their studies, or references.  Note that I link to a couple of articles above, as this is an evidence-based blog.  Most of the sites I could find trying to prove that vaccines cause disease had no studies, no scientific proof for what they were presenting, presented heresy, or were presenting studies that were extremely out of date – some by as much as 30-40 years!

Vaccinations and Autism – Linked or Not Linked? Part II of III

So, in my last post I discussed what vaccines were, what types of  vaccines there are, and what they are composed of (different substances you might find in a vaccine).

In this post, I will address the more controversial points about vaccination – do they cause serious diseases, and most of all, is there a link between vaccinations and autism.  I will be referencing several sites and journals as I go (since this IS an evidence-based blog! ;) , and you’ll find all of those references at the bottom.Vaccine shot thumb Vaccinations and Autism – Linked or Not Linked?  Part II of III

Vaccines have been under fire almost since they were first invented, for causing all sorts of ill effects.  Sometimes this has drastically altered the face of public health policy.  In the United States, there has been an outcry from antivaccinators targeting a link between vaccines and autism.  Specifically, most of the attacks on vaccinations are on two things:  thimerosal containing vaccines, and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine.

Thimerosal is a preservative that was widely used in vaccines in the US until 1999, at which time it was voluntarily removed from the vast majority of vaccines (really the only vaccines that contain thimerosal now are the seasonal flu shots, in multi-dose vials).  Thimerosal is supposed to be dangerous to children’s health due to the fact that it contains mercury.

It is important to note that thimerosal doesn’t contain the solid metal mercury (OK, it’s a liquid, but you get the point).  It actually contains a substance called ethylmercury, which is eliminated from the body much faster than regular mercury is.  Here is what one study in the Journal of the American Medical Association discovered about thimerosal and autism:

“We found no evidence of an association between thimerosal-containing vaccine and autism in children who received thimerosal-containing vaccine compared with children who received the same vaccine formulated without thimerosal. Furthermore, there was no indication of a dose-response association between autism and the amount of ethylmercury received through thimerosal.

The hypothesis of an association between thimerosal and autism has primarily been based on biological plausibility through analogies with methylmercury.2 Ethylmercury, however, is thought to have a shorter half-life in the human body than methylmercury, and no controlled studies of low-dose ethylmercury toxicity in humans have been conducted.11 Pichichero and colleagues12 measured the concentration of mercury in the blood, urine, and stool of infants who received thimerosal-containing vaccines and concluded that vaccination did not raise the blood concentration of mercury above safe limits, and that ethylmercury was rapidly eliminated via the stools. They estimated the blood half-life of ethylmercury at 7 days (95% CI, 4-10 days), although their study was not designed as a formal pharmacokinetic study of ethylmercury(1).”

Well, that was quite a lot of words.  First of all – they found no evidence that thimerosal containing vaccines cause autism. The second paragraph talks about the substance I mentioned before, ethylmercury, and talks about how they discovered that it is rapidly eliminated from the body, and in fact never approaches unsafe levels in the bloodstream.

In an excellent letter to the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, Dr. KinKee Chung, DO writes:

“The origins of the supposed link between autism and the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine can be traced to a 1998 article by Andrew J. Wakefield, MD, and colleagues.2 Although that article no longer has any scientific merit, the hypothesis of the autism-vaccine link has become deeply rooted among many parents who have children with autism. To this day, these parents accuse the MMR vaccine, thimerosal (a mercury-containing preservative formerly used in many childhood vaccines), or merely “many shots” of causing the onset of autism in their children. To such individuals, it does not matter how many scientific studies disprove the alleged associations or how much money was spent to conduct those studies. Thus, we are witnessing a disaster in public health caused by Dr Wakefield’s unsupported claims(2).

Dr. Chung also discusses an unrelated theory, that ultrasound can cause autism.  It’s quite an interesting letter.

Basically, Dr. Wakefield (mentioned above in the letter) did a study where he discovered a link between autism and vaccinations.  Many years after the study, it was discovered that he had massive conflicts of interest, and falsified information in his paper.  10 of the 13 authors of the paper retracted what they had said.  You can read a little more about Wakefield on Wikipedia (I usually don’t use Wikipedia, but it actually has a good write-up on Wakefield)(3).

Unfortunately, as fears about autism rise, vaccination rates have declined.  We are now seeing outbreaks of illnesses that were nearly destroyed.  Many people that are against vaccines might say that the illnesses themselves aren’t all that bad, but children have died (and recently, due to declining vaccination rates) from measles, whooping cough, etc.

Not enough is being done to get new scientific findings out to the general public.  This is one of the purposes of this blog – to try to get the word out (in a *hopefully* understandable way) about new studies,  especially those that disprove things or uphold public health studies.

I realize that this article also is decidedly one-sided.  I must admit to a slight bias in this area, since I feel that vaccines are absolutely necessary.  I feel that you should know about my bias, so you can make your own decision.

That being said, I spent quite a lot of time researching this particular topic for the sake of presenting evidence concerning both sides.  Had there been any evidence pointing to a link between autism and vaccinations, I would have presented it – but, to date, I have not found any published in peer-reviewed journals.  In trying to present the best evidence possible, I wanted to only use scientifically tested evidence for this article.

Please, feel free to comment if you have something to add, or ask any questions.  Until next time (which will be part III of this series)!


(1) Anders Hviid, MSc; Michael Stellfeld, MD; Jan Wohlfahrt, MSc; Mads Melbye, MD, PhD.  Association Between Thimerosal-Containing Vaccine and Autism.  Journal of the American Medical Association – 2003:290:1763-1766

(2) Chung, KinKee, DO.  Letter to the Editor.  Journal of the American Osteopathic Association – July 2009, Vol 109, No 7, 384-386.

(3) Wikipedia:  Andrew Wakefield.  Accessed on 3/2/2010.

Vaccinations are DEADLY – or NOT??? First of a Series…

Polio Vaccine Stamp So a family friend asked me to investigate the dangers of vaccination, and of course this would prompt a look into the “possible” link between vaccination and autism.  There are many really good studies out there, some from both camps (those against and those for vaccination), and the results seem to be nearly all over the place.

For now, this article will discuss what vaccines are, what they are composed of, and will also explain substances that might be found in a vaccine.  I will also cover different types of delivery systems (a shot, nasal mist, etc) and the side-effects that might come from each.

In the next article, I’ll talk about why vaccines might be necessary (and I’ll cover the opposing view, why they might not be necessary).   I will also try to focus on the substance known as Thimerosal, and whether there is any link to autism with use of this substance.

Since I want to write a trilogy ( ;) ) the third article will focus on other diseases that may be associated with vaccination in childhood, and some things you can look for to prevent these conditions.

So, what is a vaccine?  At its heart, a vaccine is a substance that can help your body achieve immunity against something.  In other words, a vaccine is supposed to offer you protection against a certain disease.

Vaccines typically contain either weakened or dead organisms (the organisms that the vaccine is supposed to protect against).  Vaccines are split into 4 categories (typically):Vaccine Cartoon

  • Live attenuated vaccines
  • Inactivated (killed) vaccines
  • Toxoid Vaccines
  • Component Vaccines

Live attenuated vaccines contain live (of course) cultures of the creature that you want to protect against.  The chickenpox vaccine is a perfect example of this.

Inactivated (killed) vaccines contain heat killed or chemically killed creatures.  An example would be the seasonal flu shot.

Toxoid vaccines contain the poisons that organisms produce.  These poisons have been inactivated through heat or chemicals.  The diphtheria and tetanus vaccines are good examples of this type.

Component vaccines are made from parts ONLY of the organisms.  Some of the newest vaccines are made this way, including the hepatitis vaccines.

All 4 vaccines have good and bad points.  The only one that can actually cause symptoms of the illness (but not nearly as bad as the real illness) is the live attenuated type.

OK, so we all know (at least now! ;) ) that vaccines contain either the organisms themselves, their toxins, OR parts of the organisms.  What else could be in a vaccine?

First thing on the list are substances known as adjuvants.  These substances are put in to increase your body’s response to the vaccine.  Without these substances, most vaccines would have to be repeated many more times than they already are in order for you to have full immunity.  Some adjuvants include aluminum salts, squalene (an organic adjuvant), and some oil-based adjuvants.  However, aluminum salts are much more common in human based vaccines – the others are mainly used in animal vaccines.

Antibiotics might also be added, to prevent growth of bacteria during production and storage of the vaccine.How flu vaccine is prepared

Some proteins may be present, such as egg protein in flue and yellow fever vaccines, since these vaccines are grown in chicken eggs.

Formaldehyde (used for embalming) might be found in trace amounts – it is used to chemically kill some organisms found in vaccines.

MSG might be found as a stabilizer in a few vaccines – helps them remain unchanged when exposed to heat, light, acidity, or humidity.

A preservative might be added to multi-dose vials of vaccine.  These are usually where the controversy enters, when substances such as Thimerosal are used (more in a future article).

Just as a side note, for those concerned about the formaldehyde sometimes found in vaccines.  Yes, formaldehyde is found in embalming fluid.  But, more formaldehyde than you are exposed to in vaccines is found in the air, particularly indoors.  It can be put into the air by new wood products, new clothing, or just found in the environment throughout the day.  So, while the thought that there might be formaldehyde (trace amounts) found in a vaccine, it shouldn’t be too concerning.

OK, so a quick note about delivery.  Besides the obvious needle and nasal mist routes, there are oral vaccines, and a new vaccine delivery using microneedles.  Here are some of the side effects from each approach:

  • Injection – So you have redness at the site of injection, soreness, warmth, swelling, and drainage (through the needle poke).  Some injections might cause a fever – if it is over 101, you should see your doctor about a possible reaction to the vaccine.
  • Nasal Mist – runny nose, nasal congestion (stuffy nose), sore throat, and fever (again, if over 101, see your doctor)
  • Oral Vaccine – entirely depends on the vaccine given.  General side effects might include sore throat, possibly nausea and diarrhea.  Again, fever is possible with most vaccines, if above 101, see your doctor.
  • Microneedle – still experimental, will probably know more in the future.  Likely to be similar (but less than) the side effects of injected vaccines.

So, there you have it – the who, what, and how of the vaccine world.  Next time we’ll talk about Thimerosal, any possible link to Autism spectrum disorder, and probably talk about other preservatives and substances added to vaccines and their possible side effects.