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Science of vaccines

Lookup NU author(s): Dr James Woon


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Publication metadata

Author(s): Woon JSK

Publication type: Digital or Visual Media

Publication status: Published

Year: 2016

Series Title: The Star

Contents: RECENTLY, the Health Ministry revealed its concern over a worrying trend of anti-vaccine sentiments among Muslim parents in this country. Due to certain misguided beliefs, the number of vaccination refusals stood at 1,500 cases last year and is expected to rise to 2,000 in 2016. This unfounded fear has already taken its toll in Malaysia, which has been seeing an increase in the number of measles, whooping cough and tetanus cases of late. What exactly is a vaccine and why has vaccination become an issue among many Muslims parents? To explain in laymen’s terms, a vaccine is a formulation that contains either weakened or killed microbe, its toxin or its surface protein to confer immunity to the person receiving it. One fascinating but unethical story about vaccines (in today’s standard) is its invention roughly two centuries ago by Dr Edward Jenner. In his endeavour to find possible ways to prevent smallpox, Dr Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy with pus from a cowpox patient. He then deliberately infected this poor boy with smallpox virus. Luckily, the boy was not affected by this exposure and escaped unscathed. In short, the injection of the cowpox virus had conferred immunity towards the smallpox virus. Injecting weakened or killed viruses has been a classic way of conferring immunity. Later, scientists started to realise that it was the antigen from the weakened or killed viruses that induced antibody production in the vaccinated host. Subsequently, vaccines were designed and produced in the form of purified antigens which could also induce antibody production but prevent the risk of virulence reversion by the pathogenic host strain. Of course, there are more types of vaccines being used, such as toxoid vaccines, DNA vaccines, recombinant vector vaccines, and etc. They all serve the same purpose – act as an antigen or to produce antigen that induces antibody production. Controversies over vaccines have occurred not just among Muslim communities but also among Westerners albeit for different reasons and claims. Firstly, in Western countries vaccination has been widely associated with autism. This belief is largely based on stories and testimonies that are not scientifically examined. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and the Institute of Medicine all agree that there’s probably no relationship between autism and vaccines. As for the Muslim community in our country, two issues have become their major hurdles in embracing vaccination. Firstly, porcine DNA was claimed to be present in the formulation of certain vaccines. To address this issue, Datuk Seri Dr Hilmi Yahaya, our Deputy Health Minister, promised that all vaccines being used were halal and had been tested for the presence of porcine DNA. However, addressing this issue from a biochemist’s point of view, you can never really be sure it’s truly free of porcine DNA. The DNA testing kit is capable of detecting as low as 5pg of porcine DNA, which is equivalent to 0.000000000005g. Theoretically, a vaccine that contains porcine DNA less than that amount will pass the test and will be declared halal. My question is how minute and how deep the regulatory body should go to identify a sample as halal. Do take note that we are talking at a molecular level when DNA has become the point of controversy. We know that DNA could exist in different nucleotide sequences but the building blocks of DNA are all the same after all! Therefore, discussion that incorporates philosophy, religion and science is required to clarify the grey areas so that people won’t be worried anymore. Secondly, vaccines were claimed to contain certain elements that were derived from pigs. There is no doubt that this statement is true but it is also a non-issue. For example, purified trypsin enzymes from pigs were used in certain polio vaccine preparations and purified gelatin from pigs were used in certain vaccines as stabilisers. When the term “purified” is used, it means all other contaminants from pigs were removed. Pigs produce trypsin enzymes as we humans do. Both purified trypsin from pigs and humans have similar structure and do the same job. Therefore, taking purified trypsin from pigs doesn’t really involve any other porcine elements. The same case also applies to gelatin. In fact, in 1995, the Islamic Organization for Medical Science declared that “the gelatin formed as a result of the transformation of the bones, skin and tendons of a judicially impure animal is pure, and it is judicially permissible to eat it.” Unless vaccines need to be verified and tested down to the molecular level, matters concerning haram vaccines in Malaysia are in fact non-issues and largely based on misguided beliefs.

Publisher: The Star

Type: Newspapers