Triumph of Reason: the Vaccine by Groff Schroeder: Freethought Views, April 2020

Triumph of Reason: the Vaccine

by Groff Schroeder


Living things are made of cells, highly complex, microscopic biochemical systems about one tenth the diameter of a human hair. Some organisms (like bacteria) exist as single cells, while complex organisms (like us) have multicellular biochemistry in which groups of cells work together. Bacteria can cause infectious diseases that interfere with nearby cells, clog up biological systems, and release toxins. Because bacteria are living things, chemicals that prevent them from reproducing (antibiotics) can overcome bacterial infections over time as individual bacteria eventually die off.


In contrast, viruses are not living things, but extremely small "biological agents," which invade normal cells and force them to make copies of the virus. Viruses are so tiny they can only be imaged by electron microscopes - but can be so prolific host cells can explode after becoming filled with virus particles. If not destroyed by the immune system, both bacterial and viral infections can cause diseases like tuberculosis (bacteria), smallpox (virus), and pneumonia (either bacteria or viruses).


The extremely complex and beautiful human immune system responds to bacterial and viral infections with primary and secondary immune responses. The primary "complement" response is way cool, non-specific, occurs rapidly, and involves proteins that poke holes in the cell membranes of bacteria and virus infected cells. The secondary response involves antibodies and a variety of cells and cell components that once exposed to an infectious agent, biochemically "remember" and later phagocitize (eat) bacteria and virus infected cells. The primary immune response happens quickly but is non-specific. The secondary response is initially slow, but is rapid and specific upon subsequent exposure.


During the Enlightenment (1715-1789), variolation (creating a minor local infection by intentionally introducing powdered pus or smallpox scabs - ew - into scratches in the skin) first inoculated (vaccinated) humans against disease by artificially teaching the secondary immune system to recognize and attack infectious disease. Newer, safer vaccines taught immune systems to recognize infectious agents with intentionally killed or damaged bacteria and viruses. Despite the oft disproven claims of illogical, anti-science politicians and adult entertainment celebrities, etc., vaccines are extremely safe and effective, and have all but eradicated numerous dreadful diseases including smallpox, polio, diphtheria, and measles.


So how come public health providers are so concerned by epidemics (a spike in local cases) and pandemics (infectious disease incidence over a large area) if the immune system and vaccines are so good? When an infectious agent is "novel" (new to the human population), infections spread quickly because no one's immune system recognizes it and no vaccine exists. In contrast, extremely large numbers of people have been immunized or have immune system experience with the "common cold," influenza and countless other infectious agents, so only small numbers of people are infected at any time. In the absence of such "herd immunity" created by previous exposures and vaccinations, people can become infected with the novel disease so quickly that the resources of health systems are exhausted.


In the absence of exposure or vaccine generated immunity, the best way to avoid contracting and spreading bacteria and viruses is regular, thorough hand washing. Ironically, the maternity physician who discovered this fact in the 1840's, Ignes Semmelweis, died of an infection after his hypotheses about infectious disease and sanitation (specifically washing one's hands after autopsies and before treating live patients) were rejected and ridiculed by both physicians and the public alike.



Published April 1, 2020 in the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs Freethought Views advertorial column in the Colorado Springs Indepemdent.