Opinion: The Virome and the Anti-vaccination Debate

Advances in microbiome research are increasingly used in anti-vaccination arguments, yet the science actually undermines the premise of the argument.

By | June 6, 2017

ISTOCK, PHONLAMAIPHOTOThe debate about childhood vaccination is intriguing for many reasons, but one aspect that stands out is the fact that more and more parents refuse to have their children vaccinated despite a strong scientific consensus on the benefits and the safety of vaccines.

One factor that drives this refusal is a preference for alternative medicine and a holistic lifestyle (a recent survey found that up to 20 percent of anti-vaccination websites refer to alternative medicine, healthy eating, and similar lifestyle norms when making their arguments). Part of such a holistic view is usually a picture of the immune system as an integrated system that is naturally balanced and easily disturbed by human interference.

What is interesting about this view is that recent developments in the life sciences, in particular, research on the microbiome, seem to support it. We now know that our immune system depends on interactions with a whole range of other organisms to function properly. Anti-vaccination activists have picked up on these developments, claiming, for instance, that a person with a “natural” microbiome does not require vaccination.

On the surface, there seems to be an alliance emerging between particular strands within the life sciences and anti-vaccination advocates. However, if we look more closely at the anti-vaccination arguments and at what microbiome research is telling us, we see that, rather than supporting the anti-vaccination message, our new knowledge about viruses and other microbes helps expose its flaws.

The holistic human

Over the last 15 years or so, we have witnessed a radical shift within the life sciences to a more holistic picture of how our bodies work: many scientists no longer think of the body as some sort of isolated organism that simply functions, depending on what genes it has received from its parents. Rather, the human body—and in particular its immune system—is seen as an integrated system driven by intimate interactions with its microbial environment.

In this revised picture, old players have been assigned new roles. Microbes are no longer seen as exclusively pathogenic; the old friend-foe distinction has given way to a view in which microbes can be an integral part of the healthy human body.

These changes are probably most surprising when it comes to viruses. Researchers have, for instance, found that norovirus infection can help maintain or restore a normal gut morphology in mice. It has also been shown that infection with cytomegalovirus can enhance the immune response to influenza in young adults. And, more generally, chronic viral infections—of which we carry about 10 at any point in time—are now thought to “imprint” our immune system and thereby keep it in a healthy state.

All of this seems to play into the holism narrative of some anti-vaccination activists. It is little surprise then that findings from virome research are increasingly being used by anti-vaccination advocates as supporting evidence for their views.

Flawed premise

But does microbiome research really play so neatly into the narrative of anti-vaccination activists? Does the fact that some microbes, under some circumstances, have beneficial effects on our health really mean that vaccination is to be dismissed?

If we look more closely at the argument the anti-vaccination advocates are making we see that it is not so much the fact that microbes and the human body work together that is key to their point. Their argument is not so much about integration and a holistic view of the body but rather about the distinction between nature and culture: immunization is presented as an artificial (read: unnatural) interference with a naturally balanced system. The basic premise of their argument is that there is some sort of natural harmony our body attains with microbes and that vaccination disturbs this state. That is why vaccination has to be rejected.

But while virome research shows that we live with microbes and depend on them in different ways, it also shows that the nature-culture distinction is thoroughly misguided. Our new understanding of the virome has taught us that there is no “natural” virome that forms the essence of a healthy human body; each person has his or her own virome (and microbiomes more generally). Importantly, our virome depends on how we live; changes in diet, for instance, have been found to affect virome composition. The virome we carry is always a function of our own (“cultural”) activities.

STEPHAN GUTTINGERWhat our insight into the role and the dynamics of the virome shows, then, is that nature and culture cannot be treated as separate entities; what our body is and how it works is always a co-produced state, brought forward by our own actions and those of the many entities we encounter and live with. The attempt of anti-vaccination activists to discredit vaccination as some sort of unnatural disruption of an otherwise natural harmony is therefore invalidated by the very science they increasingly call upon.

Stephan Guttinger is a research fellow in sociology, philosophy, and anthropology at the University of Exeter.

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Avatar of: Lizzie

Lizzie

Posts: 1

June 8, 2017

I am not sure that (all) anti vaxxers think that vaccinations disrupt the natural harmony that bodies attain with microbes. It is more that the chemical constituents of the vaccinations are thought to be directly harmful and that it would be better to be subjected to the natural outcome of contracting a virus, accepting fate as it were, than deliberately poisoning oneself or one's children.

Replied to a comment from Lizzie made on June 8, 2017

June 8, 2017

I agree that not all anti vaxxers are worried about the disruption of the virome and that the chemical constituents of vaccines are another source of concern. In this article I wanted to focus on the virome issue as one among many - I did not mean to imply that it is the only driving force behind the worries.

But I do think that the issue of a natural/undisturbed virome is a topic that is coming up more and more in anti-vaccination arguments and I think, as discussed above, that the underlying reasoning has its flaws.

When it comes to the chemical constituents of vaccines: there are many studies that have looked at the alleged poisoning effects and a key point here, I think, is the amount of the chemicals contained per shot. This article here https://theconversation.com/toxins-in-vaccines-a-potentially-deadly-misunderstanding-11010 gives a good illustration of this.

Avatar of: James Lachman

James Lachman

Posts: 4

June 9, 2017

These two studies propose a mechanism through which vaccination could lead to chronic inflammatory illness by altering the microbiome:

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22495116

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25874947

This discusses the general background:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9105757

It is at this point a theory and which is far from complete, but it matches real world observation very closely, for instance another species with the same capability is bacillus anthracis, and the model would predict that contamination of anthrax vaccine would cause a series of chronic inflammatory diagnoses in recipients, or to use the colloquial term, Gulf War Syndrome.

How paediatric vaccines might be contaminated is unknown, but the large increase in chronic illnesses that has accompanied the increasing vaccine schedule over recent decades gives considerable cause for concern.

Avatar of: James Lachman

James Lachman

Posts: 4

June 9, 2017

These two studies propose a mechanism through which vaccination could lead to chronic inflammatory illness by altering the microbiome:


http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22495116

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25874947

This discusses the general background:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9105757

It is at this point a theory which is far from complete, but it matches real world observation very closely, for instance another species with the same capability is bacillus anthracis, and the model would predict that contamination of anthrax vaccine would cause a series of chronic inflammatory diagnoses in recipients, or to use the colloquial term, Gulf War Syndrome.

How paediatric vaccines might be contaminated is unknown, but the large increase in chronic illnesses that has accompanied the increasing vaccine schedule over recent decades gives considerable cause for concern.

Avatar of: factotum666

factotum666

Posts: 25

Replied to a comment from Lizzie made on June 8, 2017

June 9, 2017

For example polio.   Nothing says health like spending your life in an iron lung in a sterile ennnvironment like a hospital, or wherever they keep 24 hour assisted breathing systems today.

Avatar of: factotum666

factotum666

Posts: 25

June 9, 2017

 

 

For example polio.   Nothing says health like spending your life in an iron lung in a sterile environment like a hospital, or wherever they keep 24 hour assisted breathing systems today.

 

Avatar of: Bods

Bods

Posts: 1

November 5, 2017

Seriously Stephan,

" a recent study" = October 2016
a study undertaken by a pharma marketing stooge whose sole aim was "Understanding the 'tactics' these individuals and groups (anti-vaccine)... and the broader culture supporting anti-vaccine decisions can be used to inform tailored pro-vaccine education and advocacy messages
."
"
can provide insight into communication tactics that could be incorporated into vaccine promotion efforts"

filled with military rhetoric: combat, tactics, strategies..
but this was the icing on the cake for me personally...

"
Values such as choice, freedom, and individuality were linked to anti-vaccine beliefs."


I'm with the 'anti-vaccine' movement mate, whoever you're working for, hope you enjoy the junket mate!

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