Most people in the modern world receive vaccination for a range of illnesses when they are children, and many adults continue receiving yearly vaccinations for the common flu. This sample essay examines the nature of vaccines and vaccination. The essay will proceed through four parts.
- The general science of vaccination
- The process that is used every year by scientists to formulate the influenza vaccine
- Public concerns regarding vaccination that have emerged over time
- The moral principles deciding whether or not to vaccinate oneself and/or one’s children
The science of vaccination
A vaccine fundamentally works by actually introducing a sickness into the person’s body, but at such a level that the person does not actually begin to develop symptoms of illness. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has simply put it:
“Vaccines help develop immunity by imitating an infection. This type of infection, however, does not cause illness, but it does cause the immune system to produce T-lymphocytes and antibodies” (“Understanding”).
As a result of exposure to the vaccine, then, the body’s immune system is able to develop the resources that it will need to actually resist the relevant sickness in its pure, real-world form. Without this exposure, the body would be unprepared when encountering the sickness and will thus likely become infected, with the result that the person will develop all the symptoms of the sickness. The body of a vaccinated person, on the other hand, will be prepared to resist becoming infected with the illness.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated the benefits of vaccines outweigh the risks but has affirmed:
“vaccines work really well. Of course, no medicine is perfect but most childhood vaccines produce immunity about 90–100% of the time,” and that the argument that better hygiene and sanitation could work just as well as vaccination “simply isn’t true.
Preventing disease through hygiene and sanitation
Certainly, better hygiene and sanitation can help prevent the spread of the disease, but the germs that cause the disease will still be around” (paragraphs 2-3). At the level of strategy, the real point of vaccination is not to simply avoid contact with an existing germ; rather, it is to bring about the annihilation of the germ itself, by making it impossible for the germ to find any human host.
For example, the small pox virus no longer exists anywhere outside of laboratories, because the worldwide vaccination campaign against small pox was successful, to the point that it became impossible for the virus to continue replicating itself by infecting other persons. In principle, it is only systematic vaccination that can achieve this kind of outcome.
There is some skepticism in the general public regarding the value of vaccination and whether the vaccines cause severe medical issues like autism; this will be discussed further below. For present purposes, though, it can perhaps be suggested that this skepticism has its root in the basic paradox of the fact that vaccines protect people against sicknesses by actually themselves exposing people to those very same sicknesses.
There is sound science that can explain how this works and why it is, in fact, effective in achieving the objective of meaningfully protecting people. At a superficial level, though, there is perhaps something apparently contradictory about the basic nature of vaccines and vaccination. Likewise, it is not uncommon to develop minor symptoms, such as mild fever, after receiving a vaccine; but to the layman, this could make it seem like it was a mistake to get vaccinated at all if he was just going to get sick anyway.
Formulating the influenza Vaccine
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
“Influenza (flu) viruses selected for inclusion in the seasonal flu vaccines are updated each year based on which influenza virus strains are circulating, how they are spreading, and how well current vaccine strains protect against newly identified strains” (“Selecting,” paragraph 5).
There are several different strains of the influenza virus due to the fact that this particular virus is able to mutate at an extraordinarily rapid rate. This is also why it is necessary to get a flu vaccine every single year, as opposed to the one-time vaccinations that are given for other sicknesses. In principle, one is not really getting vaccinated against the same virus over and over again; rather, the virus essentially turns into something new every year, meaning that a given person is actually getting vaccinated against a different sickness every year.
The flu and ongoing efforts to create current vaccines
Moreover, the fact that there are several strains of the influenza virus means that in principle, it is possible for scientists to make a mistake when choosing particular strains for inclusion into the annual vaccine. As Wang has put it:
“While vaccines for measles or polio are nearly 100% effective, immunizations against flue work moderately at best, topping out at 60% in the general population…That unpredictability stems in part from guessing which strains will circulate each flu season” (paragraphs 5 and 7).
Even in the best case scenario, scientists are working on the basis of statistical generalizations: the fact that a particular strain of influenza is left out of the vaccine does not mean that it will not affect people; it only means that it is not likely to affect a large enough number of people that it is necessary to worry about developing a vaccine against that particular strain.
Public concerns about vaccination
Over time, there have emerged some significant public concerns regarding the practice of vaccination. These concerns, though, have generally not been based on any kind of solid empirical evidence. For example, one of the most prevalent concerns has consisted of a putative link between childhood vaccination on the one hand and the onset of autism spectrum disorder on the other.
This hypothesis would seem to have its roots in a study that published several years ago, but which has been widely and wholly discredited since the time of its publication (Gerber and Offit). Nevertheless, it would seem that the hypothesis still has something of a hold on the popular imagination of at least a certain sector of people within the modern world. In part, this may have to do with distrust of the federal government.
Insofar as the government has a significant stake in developing and propagating vaccination programs, it would become possible to suspect the government of doing this out of ulterior motives—such as, for example, diminishing the intelligence level of the population so that the powers-that-be will be able to more easily retain their own positions.
In summary, this essay has discussed the nature of vaccines and vaccination. The essay has discussed the science of vaccination, the formulation of the influenza vaccine (and the unique weaknesses of this vaccine), public concerns regarding vaccination, and moral considerations regarding vaccination. On the basis of this discussion, it can be concluded that vaccination is by and large an effective practice for preventing a range of sicknesses. It can also be concluded that public concerns regarding the practice of vaccination are largely ungrounded, insofar as there is no solid empirical evidence to support those concerns. A moral tension remains between individual autonomy and the common good regarding this social issue.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Selecting the Viruses in the Seasonal Influenza (Flu) Vaccine.” 2014. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/vaccination/virusqa.htm./
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Understanding How Vaccines Work.” 2013. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/patient- ed/conversations/downloads/vacsafe-understand-color-office.pdf.
Dennis, Brady. “Why Scientists Guessed Wrong on This Year’s Flu Vaccine, and Why It Could Happen Again.” Washington Post. 9 Jan. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/from-an-uncertain-process-of-guesses-and-science-each-years-flu-vaccines-emerge/2015/01/08/efc6e010-9744-11e4- aabd-d0b93ff613d5_story.html.
Gerber, Jeffrey S., and Paul A. Offit. “Vaccines and Autism: A Tale of Shifting Hypotheses.” Clinical Infectious Diseases 48.4 (2009): 456-461. Print.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “Vaccines Are Effective.” http://www.vaccines.gov/basics/effectiveness/.
Wang, Shirley S. “The Making of a Flu Vaccine.” Wall Street Journal. 22 Dec. 2014. Web. 11 Aug. 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-making-of-a-flu-vaccine-1419268276.
Weinreb, Steven L. “For the Herd’s Sake, Vaccinate.” New York Times. 27 Dec. 2011. Web. 4 Feb. 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/28/opinion/for-the-herds-sake- vaccinate.html?_r=0.