The scary thing about vaccinations

 “Immunization saves more than three million lives worldwide each year, and it saves millions more from illness and lifelong disability.” - Human vaccines and immunotherapy.

Today, in many parts of the world, people see vaccination as common sense, especially in developing countries where people are exposed to life threatening diseases. However, as the developed world enjoys clean water and modern housing, we have seen less and less of the illnesses that have plagued humans and animals over the previous centuries. We’ve forgotten how terrifying it was when polio played Russian roulette with all the children in a village, or measles swept through urban slums, leaving death, blindness and deafness in its wake. Instead, we look at the rare cases of medicine gone wrong, such as thalidomide affecting unborn babies, and we start to distrust medical experts and big pharmaceutical companies, seeing bogie men under beds and monsters in closets. In recent years, Melbourne and Sydney have seen babies dying again, despite our clean water, modern housing and medicine, from diseases that should have been entering the history books. 

The sled dog community has no business forgetting this stuff - sled dog enthusiasts known well the story of the Nome Serum run, where sled dog team relays transported vital diphtheria serum across snow bound rural Alaska to save the children of the town of Nome. That diphtheria serum contained antibodies to fight the infection, and today it is no longer used, having been replaced by vaccines like DTaP that stimulate the body to make its own antibodies for life long protection against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The Nome serum run is commemorated each year with the Iditarod race to Nome, the heroicism of dogs and mushers, never to be forgotten.

So, with the recent tragedy of parvovirus deaths, there has been a lot of discussion about vaccinating our puppies. Healthy discussion is obviously good - if people have genuine concerns, they need to be addressed. But when everyone is so passionate about the health of their dogs, it can be hard to stay calm and reasonable. I get burning mad when people use terminology that I think is irresponsible, like “vaccines are poisoning animals” or “vaccines are full of carcinogens”. Too many people see those statements and freak out, without looking into it fully.  And of course, when I get mad, I annoy people by saying things like “are you serious????” Not helpful.

So here is my calm(er) response. 

What is in puppy vaccines? 

One of the chemicals used in vaccines last century is a preservative called thimerosal. It has antifungal and antibacterial properties, which are excellent, and it is used in a variety of ways, including in some tattoo inks. However, it breaks down into compounds that include ethylmercury, and ethylmercury can be toxic, similar to mercury. Because of concerns about this, thimerosal was phased out of human vaccines, starting in 1999. (Adults like me, who were fully vaccinated prior to this have yet to become Mad Hatters in vast numbers, and the scientific consensus is that the concerns were unjustified.)

When this question was raised recently, a vet who was part of the FB discussion went and did some very detailed reading on animal vaccines.  

  “Having spoken with drug companies in Victoria and looking at all MSDS  for multiple vaccinations in canines I can confirm that there is NO thimerosal used in our vaccinations. It was used primarily in human multi dose vials as a preservative and given canine vaccinations are individually compounded there has never been a need for it. The only vaccination it is used it is the rabies vaccine which is not used in Australia, and currently there are thimerosal free vaccinations which can be used instead overseas.” - KC, B.VSc

Is there a risk of over-vaccinating our dogs? 

Currently puppies get their “core” vaccines at 6, 12 and 16 weeks, and many adult dogs get an annual booster.  In recent years, there has been a concern that annual boosters may lead to other health issues in animals, especially in terms of feline tumours. It is not clear yet whether this is directly related, and currently (2018) this is being reviewed. Some vets are transitioning to triennial boosters. Others are using a process called titre testing to look at the antibodies in a dog’s blood and give boosters only when the levels fall below optimum. This process is very expensive in Australia. Many vets are sticking to annual vaccinations.

  “Vets often recommend yearly vacations given 90% of vaccinations are not registered for a three yearly vaccinations and until that changes WE are legally liable. Yes the vaccinations guidelines are changing, yes vets are changing, it’s not an overnight change. Titre testing is a wonderful alternative however minimal labs in Australia are doing it. My last rural clinic had to send ours to the uk for testing.” - KC, B.VSc

Overall, we have a choice - 1) we can quarantine puppies til 16 weeks and hope that a single core vaccination is enough to protect the dog for its entire life (the trade off is restricted socialisation and very high risk of death from infectious diseases during a critical developmental and vulnerable period), 2) we can titre test dogs repeatedly from 6 weeks to find the perfect time to try a single core vaccination (very expensive) or 3) we can trust the veterinary expertise and follow their guidelines, which may change as new research clarifies the impact of annual boosters.

How Big is the risk attached to not vaccinating versus vaccinating? 

Over the last hundred odd years, we have introduced more and more vaccines to humans and animals. Hundreds of thousands of puppies are vaccinated every year. Yes, there is a risk to vaccination, just like there is a risk to crossing the road. Sometimes the immune system responds with hives or a temporary lump of lymph fluid - unpleasant but low risk, and quite rare. The risk of a bad reaction is even more minimal - there are no terrifying stories about dozens of puppies having allergic or anaphylactic reactions. It’s so rare that it’s actually hard to count such cases, despite the huge numbers of dogs now getting vaccinated every year. Vaccination carries a minimal risk. 

The risk of not vaccinating is very high. Bacteria can become antibiotic resistant. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics. Diseases are often deadly - parvovirus is estimated at a 75% chance of fatality in puppies and 50% in adult dogs.  Vaccination protects our animals and children from these things by giving their own immune systems the amazing ability to fight them off naturally.

Overall, to me, the scary thing about vaccination is just that people don’t do it.