A common misconception that many people have around vaccines is that they’re a one shot deal that provides you with complete immunity from the disease in question. The efficacy of a vaccine is judged by how much it lowers the incident rate of a particular disease given ideal conditions and typically that number is high enough that herd immunity takes care of the rest. The flu vaccine is a great example of a vaccine that doesn’t provide full immunity to the disease in question (due to its highly mutable nature) but it does however give your immune system some tools with which to fight off variants of the disease should you get infected. Thus anything we can do to improve the efficacy of vaccines is important and it just so happens that lasers might be the next big thing.
Researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital in conjunction with the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Science and Technology investigated the application of a cosmetic laser to an injection site prior to administering a vaccine. The research was primarily focused on improving the efficacy and duration of the protection offered by the influenza vaccine as its current levels could do with some improvement. The results they found were quite interesting, showing a 4 to 7 fold increase in immune response to the vaccine. Interestingly the results could not be replicated by simply increasing the dose of the vaccine, signalling that there was another mechanism in effect. The results also lend credence to one line of thinking of how adjuvants work, opening up new avenues for research.
Cosmetic lasers work by stimulating the body’s in built healing processes. Essentially they damage your dermis (without damaging the outer layer of skin) which causes an inflammation response at the site. For cosmetic purposes this is desirable as it promotes the renewal of skin cells at that site, making the skin look more youthful. For vaccines however this inflammatory response brings antigen-presenting cells to the site, the cells which are responsible for binding to pathogens or other harmful cells, which when faced with the vaccine rapidly bind to it. Interestingly enough the effect is most pronounced when used in conjunction with a typical adjuvant (Imiquimod, a topical cream) which also promotes an immune response at the site.
Interestingly this isn’t the first time that trauma at the injection site was used to promote the immune response. The smallpox vaccine used a bifurcated (split in two) needle which caused a rather unnerving wound at the injection site. This reduced the amount of vaccine required by about 4 times and resulted in the same effect, drastically reducing the cost required to vaccinate large populations. The cosmetic laser is a better approach due to the way it’s administered, reducing the chance for opportunistic infections and nocebo effects that might arise from the treatment.
Best of all whilst the research focused primarily on the influenza vaccine the same method appears to work for some of the other common vaccines. It’s still early days though as there’s a wide range of vaccines out there that will need to be tested with this method before it becomes standard procedure. Still anything that increases the effectiveness of an already high effective tool is great news as it means that these diseases will become less prevalent and, hopefully, we can reduce our mortality rates from them as well.
But also it’s just so freaking cool that lasers (LASERS!) are the things making vaccines better. It makes me unreasonably happy, for some reason… 🙂
Vaccines are the most effective form of disease prevention as they train our bodies to respond to them long before we encounter them in wild. They’re responsible for systemically wiping out several diseases that caused countless numbers of deaths around the world and have saved people from the life long consequences that survivors of said diseases would have to struggle with. You’d think with proven benefits like that the choice to use them, especially for the most vulnerable groups of people (I.E. children and the elderly), would be a no-brainer. Unfortunately it seems that as more time passes the more often I come across articles detailing the increase prevalence of anti-vaxxers and I’m struggling to understand why.
Whilst the anti-vaxxer movement isn’t exactly new, indeed as long as there has been vaccines there have been those who have been opposed to them, this current wave can trace its origins back to Andrew Wakefield’s long since discredited research linking the MMR vaccine to autism spectrum disorders in children. Even though he has since been very publicly shamed over the matter people still seem to link vaccines with all sorts of disorders they are simply incapable of producing. Worse still is the fact that this baseless fear is now spreading to other vaccines, modern ones with impeccable safety and efficacy records.
This little bastard is the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) which is responsible for nearly all cervical cancers found in women today. Thankfully we have a vaccine for it now and all it requires is 3 shots over the course of 6 months to eliminate the risk of ever getting it. The vaccine is most effective when delivered to children when they’re young or in their early teens but it is still effective in older individuals (my wife had hers when she was in her early twenties). Recent studies show that despite its proven track record of efficacy and safety parents are becoming increasingly worried about it with many stating that they’ll never vaccinate their children for HPV:
A rising percentage of parents say they won’t have their teen daughters vaccinated to protect against the human papilloma virus, even though physicians are increasingly recommending adolescent vaccinations, a study by Mayo Clinic and others shows. More than 2 in 5 parents surveyed believe the HPV vaccine is unnecessary, and a growing number worry about potential side effects, researchers found. The findings are published in the new issue of the journal Pediatrics.
Five years ago, 40 percent of parents surveyed said they wouldn’t vaccinate their girls against HPV. In 2009, that rose to 41 percent, and in 2010, to 44 percent.
Let’s tackle the idea that the vaccine is unnecessary first as this means parent’s believe their children simply don’t need it, something which should be easy to prove by looking up cancer rates. I’d accept that it’d be unnecessary if the incident rates were low but the fact of the matter is that cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer in women and the fifth most deadly. The rates might look statistically low however if you could eliminate that risk with a simple (and usually free) vaccination course I think you’d do it if it was any other form of cancer. Calling it unnecessary simply shows your ignorance of how prevalent it really is.
The side effects of the HPV vaccine are also well known and for the vast majority (we’re talking 99.9999% here, and I’m not exaggerating) are mild and easily treatable with over the counter analgesics. In those rare cases where there are severe reactions doctors are trained in how to respond to them and patients will fully recover in short order. All of the other reported side effects, everything from waking comas to deaths, can not be casually linked to the vaccine. Indeed in the 20 or so cases of deaths reported as adverse reactions to the vaccines none of them were found to be caused by the vaccine and were explained by other factors. Considering some 40 million people have been vaccinated with it so far and we can’t attribute anything but eradication of cancer and some mild side effects I think its fair to assume its safe.
I know I’ve been beating this horse (which seems to keep reviving itself) for some time now but it does really get to me that people are being wilfully ignorant of the facts behind vaccines about how effective, safe and necessary they really are. Sadly whilst it didn’t take me long to find all this information it was shown right alongside a whole treasure trove of anti-vaxxer bullshit which is why I continue to write things like this. It’s my hope that someone looking for good information on the subject will stumble across my posts like these and hopefully be convinced that vaccines really are worth it.