Heather Zwickey, a Yale-trained scientist who is currently Dean of Research and Graduate Studies at the National University of Natural Medicine and Director of the Helfgott Research Institute, has done original research to develop vaccines. Zwickey earned her Ph.D. in immunology and microbiology from the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, and did a postdoc at Yale Medical School. When I interviewed her a few years back, she explained that she was staunchly in favor of some kind of vaccine program. Her scientific concerns are not about vaccines in general, but about the timing of the current childhood vaccine program. Zwickey explained why: A newborn’s immune system can’t mount an effective response to diseases or to vaccines because it is protecting the baby’s brain, which would be damaged by a full-fledged immune reaction (an incredible book about one mother’s heart-rending struggle that began with her daughter’s brain injury, and her subsequent quest for answers that you might want to read, is available here).
So newborns rely on their mother’s antibodies, which they get in breast milk, to give them the immune cells and proteins needed to combat infections.
It is not until the brain is more developed—probably between nine and twelve months of age—that a human baby can mount an effective immune response.
Mild, general immune responses
Until between nine and twelve months, the baby has only mild, general immune response (the scientific name for this is a TH2 response), the sort we associate with allergies, but which doesn’t tailor any of the special white blood cells (called TH1 cells) to respond to a specific bacterium or virus.
After twelve months the baby’s brain is better able to handle a stronger reaction, and the immune system’s full range begins to come online.
A baby’s short-lived and immature immune response is the reason we have to give so many doses of any given vaccine in the first few months of life.
Any vaccines that doctors give before a baby is a year old need another dose given at or after twelve months. Why? Because the immune system didn’t really learn anything from doses given before then, Zwickey explains.
This dovetails with what other medical professionals have told me. In nursing school, Michele Pereira’s instructors informed students that from an immunological standpoint it would be better to give vaccines to children when they are past infancy. But since parents less reliably bring children over a year old to the pediatrician, the best way for public health officials to ensure high levels of vaccinated children is to vaccinate them as early as possible.
But what if what is easy and convenient for doctors and public health officials is not what is optimal for our children?
Early vaccination is not immunologically optimal
Zwickey tells me that early vaccination makes sense from a public health perspective but it is not immunologically optimal. It is only after about twelve months that the immune system is sufficiently mature to have a memory. That is, a baby can develop antibodies in response to a vaccine, and these antibodies will stay in the bloodstream without needing booster after booster.
“Everyone who studies human immunology knows that the TH1 response doesn’t come up until the end of the first year of a human baby’s life,” she says.
But the timing of childhood vaccines may not be the only drawback.
After twelve months, when the body can mount a specific response, there’s another problem. In a normal infection, the bacteria or virus would be living in your body and excreting something that makes you sick. Your body would recognize that a foreign substance was making it sick, so it would react to get rid of it by mobilizing a whole system to attack whatever foreign protein it doesn’t recognize in the system. TH1 cells are specifically keyed to lock on to foreign proteins to form a chemical bond to kill the bacteria or virus. The garbage (the used-up T cells and the killed bacteria or virus) is then excreted—sometimes with great force into the porcelain goddess (if you’re lucky and your child doesn’t miss).
With a vaccine the response is similar: The body finds the toxin in the vaccine and looks for a foreign tissue to glom on to. But because the bacteria or virus has to be disabled (the scientific word for this is “attenuated,” which means weakened) in a vaccine, so as not to give a child the very disease the vaccine is intended to prevent (which happened so much with polio and pertussis whole-cell vaccines that both were taken off the market and reengineered), the body may not react to them at all.
So vaccine makers need to put something in the vaccine that the body recognizes as foreign in order to provoke an immune response. This extra something is called an “adjuvant.”
Aluminum is adjuvant of choice.
Most attenuated viruses and bacteria are too weak to stimulate a strong immune response. So in order to make a stronger response, aluminum is added to vaccines.
Aluminum adjuvants prime the body to attack itself
The body reacts to aluminum because it recognizes it as a poison, but the immune system can’t attack aluminum. Instead it treats the foreign aluminum like an allergen, and makes a TH2 response.
If babies have a lot of aluminum in their bodies, they will be making a large TH2 response, and that response will spread to additional things the baby is exposed to that are actually harmless, like pollen, cat dander, or even food. So aluminum in vaccines makes it more likely that a baby will develop allergies.
One study done in Canada showed that when vaccinations were delayed until the babies’ systems were mature enough to mount the TH1 response, children developed asthma at significantly lower rates.
Another study has shown that children exposed to wild measles virus have lower rates of allergies than children who are vaccinated against measles.
But the most worrisome part is that the immune system can sometimes mistakenly identify the body’s own cells as foreign, causing the body to attack itself.
When the body inappropriately attacks its own proteins, a child develops an autoimmune disorder.
There has been a sharp rise in autoimmune disorders among children since the 1950s.
One study found that cases of type 1 diabetes among children under five increased fivefold between 1985 and 2004. (For more on diabetes, read Dan Hurley’s Diabetes Rising: How a Rare Disease Became a Modern Pandemic.) Graves’ disease, once unheard of in children, is becoming common.
Other autoimmune disorders on the rise in American children include:
- Crohn’s disease
- Atopic dermatitis
One 2008 epidemiological study found that infant immunization leads to a statistically significant increase in type 1 diabetes in children.
Some leading immunologists, like Jean-François Bach, professor of immunology and head of the immunology unit at Necker Hospital, Paris’s most renowned children’s hospital, hypothesize that increased immunizations, which have in turn led to a decrease in the circulation of infectious diseases for the body to respond to, may be partly responsible for the exponential rise in autoimmune disorders.
Larry Palevsky, M.D., a pediatrician based in New York, shares Zwickey’s concern that we are doing long-term damage to our babies’ immune systems.
“Fatal allergies and autoimmune diseases are exponentially on the rise in our country,” Palevsky says.
“That’s not anecdotal. You can’t look at this rise and not look at the fact that we are instigating a change in the immune system that could potentially be the catalyst for the development of these diseases.”
The nervous system and the immune system go hand in hand
Although she fully supports some kind of national vaccination program, Heather Zwickey has a further concern that early immunizations can and do cause neurological damage in some children.
“The nervous system and the immune system go hand in hand,” Zwickey explains. “Physiologically we’re designed to be protected by breast milk until we mature enough to mount an effective response without harming our brains.
“Like naturally occurring infections, vaccines can lead to dangerously high fevers in babies. If you have a vaccination—or any infection that makes a baby spike a high fever in the first year—it can lead to all sorts of brain disorders, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder. It’s dangerous to a developing brain.”
Author’s Note: This article is a web-formatted modified excerpt from my book Your Baby, Your Way: Taking Charge of Your Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Parenting Decisions for a Happier, Healthier Family (Scribner, 2015). If you want to read the rest, and learn more about the safety, efficacy, and necessity of childhood vaccines, check out the chapter, “Boost Your Bottom Line: Vaccinating For Health or Profit,” in my book, Your Baby, Your Way.
Last updated: May 15, 2018