This is an update to an article published on 23 July 2013.
Vaccine myths are annoying, not just because they are dangerous to the public health, but because they are like the diseases prevented by vaccines, because the myths keep returning to infect the public, just when you’re not watching. It’s bad enough that social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, Google, reddit) continuously send out this pseudoscientific myths, but it’s the ersatz “news” sites that do the same. They retread old myths as if they are “breaking news”, which requires we skeptics and pro-science writers to jump out like a vaccine trained immune system to thoroughly destroy these antivaccine myths.
I have long ago accepted that there are just ignorant and plainly delusional people who will buy into any pseudoscience that shows up on their radar screen, without utilizing a single neuron for critical analysis. However, I also understand that there are people on the fence about vaccines (or any other issue with a pseudoscience counterargument), who will appreciate a thorough debunking of ignorant lies.
For example, I wrote an article a while ago about some nonsense meme on Facebook that contended that eating ripe bananas cured cancer because the bananas contained a protein called tumor necrosis factor (TNF). It was based on some “Japanese scientific study,” which took significant effort to find. After a critical and thorough reading of the article, I concluded that: the study made no claim that bananas made TNF, AND even if bananas did, you couldn’t ingest enough bananas to get a bioactive dose of TNF, AND even if you could, you wouldn’t absorb any TNF through the digestive tract, AND TNF doesn’t do what the meme writer thought it does (TNF is badly named, and does not directly attack cancers). In other words, the myth lacks any truth, except, maybe that bananas are yellow.
This is by far the most popular article I’ve ever written with probably close to 100,000 page hits. The reason is that every 2-3 weeks, the myth about bananas arises out of the background noise of the internet, people (unknown to me) use my article to debunk the banana myth in the comments section, and the myth slowly dies. But it never really completely dies. It’s only 99% dead. It’s a zombie which keeps coming back to life.
Thus, the best we skeptics can do is keep debunking these social media fables and tall tales, and move along to refuting the next one in line. At least I can save time by not having to write the article again, we can just update with any new information and re-debunk (yes, I have the absolute right to invent words).
Recently, I ran across two presumably “breaking news” (scare quotes intentional) articles that gave the impression that someone has uncovered the fact that polio vaccines cause cancer. Now, I tend to take notice when “cancer” and “vaccines” intersect in the blogging world, mostly because I assume that the article will be about Gardasil and HPV related cancers. In these cases, I was wrong.
There was the article, CDC Admits 98 Million Americans Received Polio Vaccine In An 8-Year Span When It Was Contaminated With Cancer Virus, authored by Dave Mihalovic, a naturopathic doctor (typically someone who eschews science-based medicine in favor of pseudoscience like homeopathy and acupuncture). He also claims to be a “vaccine researcher.” If he’s a vaccine researcher, he has published exactly zero indexed articles about vaccines, or any other field of real medicine. In other words, his research probably means he spent a few hours on Google and thinks he’s now as smart as anyone who actually has a bachelor’s and doctoral degree in immunology, virology, biochemistry or some other biomedical science along with a decade or two research in a world class laboratory. Mihalovic is as much a vaccine researcher as I am an Oscar winning screenwriter. I can say that I write screenplays. I can claim that I am Steven Spielberg’s best buddy. But it would take you about 14 nanoseconds to find that there is no evidence of my being a screenwriter, and you’d just think I was nuts. Mihalovic, of course, thinks he’s as brilliant as a real scientific researcher, but like my credibility as a screen writer, he has approximately no credibility as a “vaccine researcher.”
Over the last week or so, their have been dozens of “news” articles about how the polio vaccines carry a cancer virus. There’s this article: Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys. Oh, and Natural News, the absolute worst science source on the planet, published this video, Merck vaccine scientist admits presence of SV40 and AIDS in vaccines – Dr. Maurice Hilleman. Or there’s this article, Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys, from the conspiracy website, Before It’s News. Or here’s this article, Merck vaccine developer admits vaccines routinely contain hidden cancer viruses derived from diseased monkeys, by David Icke, who has devoted his life to informing the world that it’s actually secretly controlled by evil shape-shifting lizard-people from the 4th dimension. No, I am serious. Anti-vaccine people get their news from someone who thinks the world is controlled by lizards.
Nevertheless, let’s get back to what these vaccine deniers are using as their “facts”:
- Polio vaccines were contaminated with the SV40 virus (known as simian virus 40, a polyomavirus that is found in both monkeys and humans),
- SV40 causes cancer,
- And, the CDC admits that 98 million Americans are at significant risk of SV40 infection and thus cancer.
I would be frightened by these articles if I weren’t a scientific skeptic and didn’t utilize my critical thinking skills. Because of those three statements, none, with the partial exception of the first one, are supported by evidence and high quality science. Here’s the real story, based on scientific and historical information, available to anyone with even minimal critical analysis skills:
- The groundbreaking and lifesaving polio vaccines, developed by Jonas Salk (injected, inactivated virus, vaccine) and Albert Sabin (oral, live virus, vaccine) in the early 1950′s, and were produced using VERO green monkey kidney cell lines. Typically, viruses used in vaccines need to be “grown” in a cell line, because viruses cannot replicate themselves without hijacking a cell to propagate. You just can’t grab a handful of virus and force it to reproduce and multiply in some flask.
- In 1959, microbiologist Maurice Hilleman found a monkey virus in both vaccines—it was the 40th simian virus tone discovered by scientists, hence the SV40 moniker. Back in the 1950′s, we didn’t have the technology that we do now to screen for contaminants, so the SV40 virus had contaminated the VERO line well before production of vaccines. Not all of the cells in culture were contaminated, just some of them.
- Salk’s inactivated virus vaccine, which was treated with formaldehyde (only a tiny amount remains in the vaccine), had very small amounts of the virus. On the other hand, Sabin’s live oral vaccine was heavily contaminated with SV40.
- Worried about the potential effects the virus could have on humans, researchers injected it into hamsters, finding that nearly all of them developed massive cancerous tumors. But, as I’ve said on numerous occasions, primary research should be examined carefully before accepting that it has any type of applicability to human health. And that we have cured and caused cancers in rats, hamster and mice without ever providing evidence, except in a tiny minority of cases, that those studies have any applicability to humans.
- Upon further review of the initial studies, it was observed hamsters that ingested SV40 instead of being injected with it didn’t develop any cancers. In other words, Sabin’s live oral vaccine (which actually had a higher burden of SV40 than the injected, inactivated virus Salk vaccine) did not cause any cancer.
- Additional studies showed that children who were given Sabin’s vaccine did not develop antibodies to SV40; apparently, the virus quickly and safely passed through the child’s digestive system, never causing an SV40 infection.
- On the other hand, Salk’s vaccine, which contained very little SV40, but was given by injection, and there was evidence that some of these children might have been infected with SV40. However, recent studies have shown no credible evidence (here, here, here and here) that those children who received SV40 contaminated vaccines had an increased incidence of cancer as unvaccinated children.
- No plausible evidence suggests that SV40 has ever caused cancer in humans. So, we not only are we unable to show that SV40 was ever transmitted to anyone, even if we did, we have no evidence that it cause any type of cancer.
- And polio vaccines have been free of SV40 since 1963 in most advanced countries, although Soviet bloc vaccines were contaminated until the 1980′s.
Predictably, the information spread by the “polio causes cancer” articles pushed by the vaccine deniers are wrong on so many levels. First, not all polio vaccines were contaminated, and the SV40 virus in the oral vaccine merely passes through the digestive tract without causing an infection. SV40, as shown in so many published articles, does not cause cancer in humans. If it does, it’s at such a low rate that it’s impossible to detect unless we check tens of millions of patients. Finally, the number of “98 million” is an incredible scary, but ultimately inaccurate number (a tactic employed the antivaccination crowd whenever it suits their needs to establish dangers of vaccines). The facts are before the SV40 virus was removed from the vaccine, around 98 million children got one of the two forms of the polio vaccine. However, eliminating those who got the oral vaccine, which, as we have established, did not infect children with the SV40 virus, approximately 10-30 million Americans were immunized with the Salk vaccine that contained the SV40. Potentially, only those 10-30 million Americans are at actual risk of contracting the SV40 virus; however, given the low levels (very low levels) of actual SV40 contamination of the vaccines, those numbers probably vastly overstate the SV40 risk.
What can we conclude? First, and most importantly, if you don’t believe anything about SV40 and cancer, those who received the vaccine after 1963 have no worries. There was no SV40 after that date, so if you’re under 50, you’re thinking “why did I read this story then?” And those over 50, there is no increased risk of cancer from SV40 contamination, so you also can say “why did I read this story then?” Well, I only investigated it because I was curious about what constituted evidence.
The problem with the lying liars who lie in the antivaccination movement is that if you just looked at the headlines for those articles, you’re probably terribly concerned that giving the polio vaccine to your children puts them at risk of cancers. Except the worry was eliminated 50 years ago. And there is no evidence that SV40 is causally linked to any cancer.
Polio vaccines have saved and will save many many lives. And we have irrefutable evidence for it.
If you need to search for accurate information and evidence about vaccines try the Science-based Vaccine Search Engine.
- Eddy BE, Borman GS, Berkeley WH, Young RD. Tumors induced in hamsters by injection of rhesus monkey kidney cell extracts. Proc Soc Exp Biol Med. 1961 May;107:191-7. PubMed PMID: 13725644.
- Engels EA, Chen J, Hartge P, Cerhan JR, Davis S, Severson RK, Cozen W, Viscidi RP. Antibody responses to simian virus 40 T antigen: a case-control study of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2005 Feb;14(2):521-4. PubMed PMID: 15734981. Impact factor: 4.559
- Engels EA, Chen J, Viscidi RP, Shah KV, Daniel RW, Chatterjee N, Klebanoff MA. Poliovirus vaccination during pregnancy, maternal seroconversion to simian virus 40, and risk of childhood cancer. Am J Epidemiol. 2004 Aug 15;160(4):306-16. PubMed PMID: 15286015. Impact factor: 4.780
- Engels EA, Katki HA, Nielsen NM, Winther JF, Hjalgrim H, Gjerris F, Rosenberg PS, Frisch M. Cancer incidence in Denmark following exposure to poliovirus vaccine contaminated with simian virus 40. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2003 Apr 2;95(7):532-9. PubMed PMID: 12671021. Impact factor: 14.336
- Engels EA, Viscidi RP, Galloway DA, Carter JJ, Cerhan JR, Davis S, Cozen W, Severson RK, de Sanjose S, Colt JS, Hartge P. Case-control study of simian virus 40 and non-Hodgkin lymphoma in the United States. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2004 Sep 15;96(18):1368-74. PubMed PMID: 15367569. Impact factor: 14.336
- Hilleman MR. Discovery of simian virus 40 (SV40) and its relationship to poliomyelitis virus vaccines. Dev Biol Stand. 1998;94:183-90. Review. PubMed PMID: 9776239.
- Kimman TG, Boot H. The polio eradication effort has been a great success–let’s finish it and replace it with something even better.Lancet Infect Dis. 2006 Oct;6(10):675-8. PubMed PMID: 17008176.