Sorry, Anti-Vaxxers: Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism But They Might Prevent Cancer

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153098945Have anti-vaxxers started claiming that vaccines will give you cancer yet? So far, immunization has been blamed for autism, ADD, and asthma, but cancer doesn’t seem to have made it onto their list yet, despite their concerns about ‘toxins’ in vaccines (even though those toxins are found in greater quantities in, say, a apple than in a DTaP syringe). But if anti-vaxxers want to add cancer to their list of accusations to nail to the public accusation door, they’d better get on it fast — because new research suggests that ‘preventing cancer’ is actually a plus on the pro-vaccination side, not for the anti-vaxxers.

Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, or ALL, is the most common type of childhood cancer. It causes about a quarter of cancers in children and young teens. And it is, as far as diseases go, a total asshole. This cancer arises in the sort of quasi-stem cells that are present in the blood of a lot of newborn babies: when certain genes that affect the immune system get flipped to the ‘On’, or ‘freak out and make extra cells like crazy’, switch. Those switches can be accidentally flipped by any number of biological oopsy-daisies, but one of the most common causes is infection with a little disease called Haemophilus influenzae – but you may know it better by the name ‘Hib’.

Don’t be deceived by the word ‘influenza’ cropping up in the name; this isn’t the actual flu we’re talking about. Haemophilus influenae causes an upper respiratory infection, especially when a child is already weakened by another sickness or a condition such as asthma or allergies — and its chronic presence in a child’s body can be enough to send those immune system cells into a cancerous overdrive. The scientists at the University of California in San Francisco probably made this discovery by extensive study of which immune system genes were turned on and off in different patient populations, but I like to imagine them looking through a microscope to see immune system cells striking a defensive pose and yelling, “What do we say to the god of death? NOT TODAY!”

Public health researchers have long since been aware that rates of ALL have dropped since the introduction of widespread immunization campaigns, but now we have a better idea of why this is happening: the four doses of Hib vaccine a child receives before 15 months of age aren’t just protecting him from the disease itself, but also from cancer. And if that’s not the coolest thing you’ve heard all day, well, go watch some Bill Nye on Netflix until you can come back and appreciate the hell out of some science with the rest of us.

And just remember, next time an anti-vaxxer accuses you of loving ‘toxins’ and ‘poisons’ because you got your children immunized, you can accuse them of loving cancer. Thanks, science!

(Image: oksun70 / iStock / Getty)