The Solace of Illusion
The payoff of pseudoscience and why it’s so damned attractive are explored by writer Amy Wallace for Wired in her comprehensive profile of infectious-disease specialist Paul Offit (aka Satan incarnate to anti-vaccinationists).
Some kind of solace is what the otherwise rational Bill “All-I’m-Saying-Is-That-We-Should-Have-a-Debate” Maher must be seeking in his faith-like embrace of anything that’s not “Western medicine”—a term that he has used liberally, disparagingly, and without explanation on his HBO show.* On the show’s season finale, Maher once again maligned vaccination to an otherwise incredulous guest panel of Chris Matthews, Alec Baldwin, and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Among the many illogical, non-sequitor, and/or flat-out wrong claims made by the host is this gem.
I also would like to say that I do understand the theory of inoculation. Yes, you give someone a little bit of the disease, and it fools your body into providing antibodies, which fight it. Brilliant. Bravo. Maybe there’s some occasions where an inoculation is a wise thing to do. I hope not. I hope I would never have to have one, because, you know, to present it just as this genius medical advancement—no, it’s actually a risky medical procedure that begs long-term cost-benefit analysis. I mean, if you don’t believe me, look on the CDC web site as to what is in the swine-flu vaccine. You know, aluminum, insect repellant, formaldehyde, mercury. You know, that’s right on their web site. Don’t take it from a talk-show host.
Maher’s last statement is the only one worth heeding. He continues to require education about the actual process of modern vaccination, given his statement “you give someone a little bit of disease…,” and wrongly implies that vaccine advocates deny any risk whatsoever from vaccination.
As Maher indicates, the CDC web site offers some answers to FAQs about the ingredients of the 2009 H1N1 vaccine. The most obvious relates to the vaccine’s mercury content, which has been falsely associated with the risk of autism. The truth of the matter: Only vials of the vaccine, not the prefilled syringes, contain measurable (but very tiny) amounts of ethylmercury (25 microg/dose), which is part of the thimerosal preservative. The seasonal flu vaccine is also available in thimerosal-free versions.
Data on other purported 2009 H1N1 vaccine ingredients, or lack thereof, are more easily found from online sources other than the CDC web site, including the FDA web site. Aluminum hydroxide is evidently used as an adjuvant in the low-dose Chinese vaccine,** but the US vaccine does not contain it.
Formaldehyde is used during vaccine production—to harvest and inactivate the cultivated virus from the chicken-egg medium, specifically the allantoic fluid. The virus is then chemically split by using a noninonic surfactant, polyethylene glycol p-isooctylphenyl ether, or Triton X-100. According to the package insert for the sanofi-pasteur 2009 H1N1 vaccine, “Each 0.5 mL dose may contain residual amounts of formaldehyde (not more than 100 microg), [Triton X-100] (not more than 0.02%), and sucrose (not more than 2.0%). It’s not clear to me if the “insect repellant” that Maher refers to is supposed to be Triton X-100 or some other substance.
* The alternative, logically, is Eastern medicine–which is generally understood to encompass any idea of illness or medical therapy that’s unproven. Adherence to Eastern medicine therefore requires faith. It could be said that Maher, who famously eschews religion, ironically places a religious-like faith in the benefits of these non-evidence-based ideas and practices.
** Hey Bill Maher, you still like Eastern medicine?