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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.

Jun 6, 2017
Stephan Guttinger

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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