Vaccination, an Overview, Part 4 Building Immunity

As discussed in Part 1, vaccines are designed to stimulate the immune system. In fact, their effectiveness really comes from triggering the body’s own natural processes of adaptive immunity. The underlying assumption of vaccination is that the immune system is inherently not likely to be strong enough to handle a disease when it encounters it in nature, which is why we need vaccines to safely and artificially engineer the encounter with disease. This assumption, which has its origin in the aforementioned germ theory of disease, is perhaps an understandable one. In the late 19th century, scientists had observed epidemic after epidemic of infectious disease resulting in millions of casualties. It was reasonable in them to consider that the pathogens they had discovered were indiscriminately deadly. However, one scientist of the era, a French biologist named Antoine Bechamp, had a different proposition for why people were succumbing to infectious disease at great rates: he pinned it on their weak health.

Bechamp, a contemporary of and influence upon Pasteur, would have agreed with Pasteur’s arguments that methods of sanitization (such as hand-washing and pasteurization) would prevent the spread of disease by eliminating pathogens from the local environment. However, Bechamp’s theory was that most people who suffered from infectious disease did so because their own bodies were, in a sense, “unsanitized,” but on a cellular level. According to Bechamp, when we are in a diminished state of health, our cells and tissues form a breeding ground for microorganisms (or microzymas as he called them) that are largely already present in our bodies, but which do not take on a harmful form or reach harmful levels without the supportive environment provided by an sick individual.  Bechamp’s theory formed a contrast to an interpretation of the germ theory that identified external pathogens as being the sole and direct cause of infectious disease, regardless of the prior health of the diseased person.

Meanwhile, Robert Koch, a contemporary of Bechamp and Pasteur, had formulated four postulates meant to establish a causal relationship between a unique pathogen and a unique disease. The postulates specified the following: (1) the pathogen should be in all organisms suffering from the disease, but not in healthy individuals; (2) it must be possible to isolate the pathogen and grow it in a pure culture; (3) it must cause the disease when introduced into a healthy organism; and (4) it must then be possible to re-isolate it from the inoculated organism and found identical to the original. Koch later had to change the first postulate after finding cases of healthy, asymptomatic organisms carrying the bacteria that cause cholera and typhoid fever, respectively. He also had to change the third postulate after finding that not all organisms exposed to a pathogen will display symptoms of infection.

Koch’s findings indicated that both Bechamp’s and Pasteur’s theories had some merit. Pasteur’s disease-centered approach, which relied on sterilization, pasteurization, quarantine, and sanitation, was focused on preventing the spread of disease by eliminating the pathogen from the external environment. Bechamp’s health-centered approached was based on making the individual stronger and healthier, and thereby better able to prevent pathogens from gaining a foothold within the environment of the human body. Although the specific mechanism of Bechamp’s theory – that of microzymas arising from our own tissues to form pathogens – has never been proven, scientists have since discovered that our health plays a tremendous role in the effective functioning of our immune systems, and consequently affects how easily we succumb to infections.

The human immune system is a conglomerate of many different body parts and processes. The skin, liver, kidneys, respiratory tract, intestinal flora and more all play a role in destroying pathogens by means of inflammation, white blood cells, and antibacterial or antiviral chemicals and enzymes.  Those pathogens are discharged via the cleansing and flushing action of tears, urine, mucus and diarrhea. The cells that form the adaptive part of the immune system are able to retain memories of specific pathogens and thereby easily neutralize those pathogens with antibodies upon future encounters.

All systems, mechanical or biological, cannot work properly unless supplied with the proper fuel or raw materials.  A car cannot run without fuel, nor an ecosystem without water, oxygen, and sun.  Our immune system is no different; in order to function, it must be providedwith needed nutrients. Vitamin D, the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, Vitamin B6, folic acid, and the minerals zinc, copper, iron selenium have all been found to be vital for promoting the health of the immune system, as have the beneficial bacteria contained in raw fermented foods. Other nutrients contained in whole foods that are as yet unstudied or even undiscovered may be similarly essential. Where infants are concerned, breast milk provides, in addition to needed nutrients, a variety of immunologic factors such as immunoglobulins (antibodies), the enzymes lysozyme and lactoferrin, and lymphocytes (white blood cells). These ingredients promote not only the health but also the growth and strengthening of the infant immune system and protects against the routine infections that are much more commonly seen today in babies that are fed formula, which does not contain immunological factors. Along with nutrition, people need a certain amount of rest and sleep, as well as moderate exercise and clean water, in order to maintain healthy immune function. Stress, extreme conditions, exhaustion and dehydration all weaken the immune system, and they also weaken a nursing mother’s ability to provide nourishing milk.

The scientists who were formulating the germ theory of disease in the late 19th century were living during the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution, a period of enormous social, political and technological change. Economies in Europe and America had shifted from an emphasis on rural agriculture to one on urban industry.  In England in 1750, only 15% of people were living in urban areas, but by 1860, that number had risen to 80%.  Within the cities, the lower classes (both children and adults) had started working long hours in factories for little pay, often doing heavy labor in extreme conditions. As a consequence they were frequently exhausted and, as a result of their poverty, malnourished.  The upper classes, on the other hand, deliberately chose to eat newly available refined foods that were low in nutrients and high in calories, and many women did not get enough exercise or sunlight. They too were weak and sickly and prone to death in childbirth. In sum, the majority of people living during this era were in poor health, with low functioning immune systems, and thereby had reduced resistance to disease.

At the same time, the cities to which so many had relocated lacked the proper waste disposal systems for handling such large populations. Consequently, pathogens were able to contaminate the air, water, food and the streets.  Technology had developed in such a way as to ease the transmission of infectious disease without yet possessing a means to  prevent it. Doctors themselves were some of the worst transmitters. Yet unaware of the need to wash their hands (in many cases outright rejecting the idea), they easily spread fatal pathogens to the many patients, particularly mothers in childbirth, whom they treated in busy urban hospitals.  It is no surprise that infectious diseases ran rampant and that infant mortality was around 40% on average, with the highest rates occurring in the cities.

With the formulation of the germ theory of disease, sanitary practices such as Pasteur and the physician Ignaz Semmelweiss proposed were grudgingly accepted by physicians, with positive results. However, the theory ultimately focused much more on the danger of microbes than the ability of the healthy human body to resist them. As a result, scientists and government officials complemented sanitary practices by arguing the need for vaccines, rather than following Bechamp’s lead in promoting a healthy diet and lifestyle that would simply strengthen the immune system.

Fortunately, due to the explosion of nutrient deficiency diseases during the same period of time, vitamins were gradually discovered and added back into the processed foods from which they had recently been removed. This resulted in better nutrition, which, together with advances in sanitation technology, greatly improved overall health and hygiene in Europe and America following the turn of the century, though the conditions for epidemics were still occasionally created by destabilizing events such as World War 1 and the Great Depression. Smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and other infectious diseases all began to decrease, whether vaccines had been developed for them or not. Endemic diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox persisted, but were far less likely than before to cause complications or fatalities.

The only disease to cause epidemics in the developed world into the mid-20th century was polio. Polio, like many of the epidemic diseases of the time, had been around for thousands of years without ever being responsible for major epidemics prior to the late 19thcentury. Since 90% of polio infections cause no symptoms at all, deaths and paralysis from polio were rare. All that changed with the onset of the industrial revolution and the weakened health of the population; suddenly, polio could spread easily, and it met with little resistance in its victims. As sanitation began to improve, fewer people were exposed to the polio virus as young children, when they are least likely to suffer harm from it, and when they can acquire long-term immunity. But while the number of people exposed to polio was lessened, the number of those who died or suffered paralysis increased, since those who did not develop immunity as children encountered it as teenagers or adults, when the disease is more severe.

Additional factors in the severity of the polio epidemic were the rising fads of formula feeding and the tonsillectomy procedure. By 1950 over half of all babies were being fed infant formula (lacking polio antibodies, naturally), which was being promoted as better than breast milk by now-discredited scientific studies. It was around this time as well that performing tonsillectomies became a fad among surgeons and doctors, and in the 1930s and 1940s between 1.5 and 2 million tonsillectomies were being performed each year. The tonsils are glands that aid the immune system by blocking pathogens; when they were inflamed, it was a sign they were hard at work. These tissues formed the first line of defense against ingested or inhaled pathogens, such as polio.  Since polio was not as stymied by better sanitation as other diseases, it was able take advantage of the weakened immune systems of older children and adults. Still, polio, like most other infectious diseases, continued its downward trend of incidence prior to the introduction of its vaccine.

As the historical evidence indicates, vaccines simply speeded an already-occurring disappearance of infectious diseases in developed countries. Without advances in nutrition to ensure basic immune system function, and sanitation to prevent the spread of pathogens, infectious disease would probably have persisted despite vaccination.  Tuberculosis is a good example. During parts of the 19th century it was responsible for one quarter of all deaths in Europe. It no longer troubles the developed world, despite the fact that we never effectively vaccinated against it in America or Europe.  However, it still causes between 1.5 and 2 million deaths per year in impoverished countries whose citizens have poor health and sanitation, despite widespread vaccination in such countries.

In conclusion, while vaccines do possess varying degrees of effectiveness, and can help to reduce the incidence of disease, they are not our most important form of protection against disease.   As Bechamp theorized, the explosion of infectious disease in the 19thcentury was really due to a relatively brief, but steep, reduction in general health, which, when paired with unsanitary living conditions, made epidemics inevitable. Our strategy for acquiring better immunity to all diseases, or providing the conditions for such immunity to our children, should primarily be to maintain good nutrition and health through breastfeeding, consumption of natural whole foods, clean water, regular rest, regular exercise, and reduction of stress.


In next week’s article, entitled “Two Approaches to Vaccination,” I’ll discuss the underlying worldview behind the modern-day vaccine schedule and contrast it with a more holistic approach to public health.