There has been growing support for the anti-vaccination campaign in the United States. Some people criticize the movement, arguing that vaccines are only released for public use once necessary safety tests are undertaken. However, the fact is that some vaccines can produce negative effects. At the recent Global Vaccine Safety Summit organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), even some of the top scientists associated with the organization admitted that they are not too sure whether vaccines are completely safe.
The problem with adjuvants
One of the main topics of discussion among the experts was regarding adjuvants. These are immunological or pharmacological agents added to a vaccine to improve its immune response, stimulate the production of more antibodies, and ensure long-lasting immunity. This also minimizes the antigen dose necessary in the vaccine. Antigens in vaccines are basically molecules from a pathogen that are introduced into the body to stimulate an immune response. All bacteria and viruses have antigens.
Dr. Martin Howell Friede, coordinator of Initiative for Vaccine Research at WHO, pointed out that whenever there is a case made against vaccines, most of the time the issue seems to be related to adjuvants. However, he believes that without using adjuvants, humanity will find it difficult to produce the next generation of vaccines. Many of the popular vaccines that are in use today, including those related to HPV and tetanus, need adjuvants to work properly. He poses an important question — how do we build confidence in adjuvants and vaccines?
Dr. Friede recommends avoiding the use of adjuvants while making a vaccine if this is possible. However, if an adjuvant has to be added to make the vaccine effective, only those adjuvants that have a history of safety should be used. And if even this is not possible, he warns that we should “think carefully” about using adjuvants.
Stephen Evans, Professor of Pharmacoepidemiology, argued that since adjuvants multiply the immunogenicity of the antigens as well as reactogenicity in some cases, it seems reasonable to assume that adjuvants might also multiply the occurrence of adverse reactions. Dr. Friede agrees with the professor and admits that some of the recent studies show that increased addition of adjuvants to vaccines results in higher local reactogenicity.
Studies and regulations
Dr. Bassey Okposen, program manager at the National Emergency Routine Immunization Coordination Center (NERICC) in Nigeria, raised a troubling thought at the conference. “I cast back my mind to our situation in Nigeria, where at 6 weeks, 10 weeks, 14 weeks, a child is being given different antigens from different companies. And these vaccines have different adjuvants, different preservatives, and so on… Something crosses my mind… Is there a possibility of these adjuvants, preservatives, cross-reacting amongst themselves?” he asks, as seen in a YouTube video. Unfortunately, a deeper study of this topic has yet to be done.
Heidi Larson, director at Vaccine Confidence Project, brought attention to a growing trend — a lack of confidence in vaccines among healthcare providers. She warned against using old studies to make a case for vaccine safety and pointed out that there needs to be more investment in safety science to prove that vaccines are indeed safe.
Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, pediatrician, and Chief Scientist at WHO, is disappointed by the fact that there is a lack of proper communication when it comes to allaying people’s fears about vaccines. This thwarts attempts to provide a clear cut answer to some of the burning questions on the minds of many people, like the deaths triggered by a specific vaccine, and so on. Dr. Swaminathan believes that this ends up eroding people’s trust in the system.
The Global Vaccine Safety Summit was held at WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The year 2019 marked the 20th anniversary of the organization’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS). The summit was organized to assess the accomplishments of GACVS as well as to decide on focus areas for the new decade.