I've had a few questions about vaccinations this month from people wondering how they work and if they're really worthwhile.
The answer is simple. They work very well and they are very worthwhile.
The way vaccines work is that they expose the animal (or human) to a form of a disease before the actual disease occurs. This can be done in a variety of ways and using a wide variety of techniques.
Killed vaccines use a killed disease-causing agent to make the animal generate antibodies against the real thing. Killed vaccines include rabies and other diseases that could be too dangerous in the live form.
There was, and maybe still is, a live form of rabies vaccine but this is not really used anymore.
Fortunately, in Yukon, rabies vaccination is for border crossings, etc. since we've never had a confirmed case of rabies here. But it's still a good idea to get it done.
Some diseases, such as canine distemper, seem to give better protection with a live vaccine. The body reacts to a modified virus that doesn't cause the disease, but does cause a good production of antibodies against the real one.
Really, this is a form of modifying the genetic makeup of the animal in a good way, and protects the animal in the future.
Some vaccines expose the animal to a similar disease that produces immunity to the real one. A good example is that giving someone cowpox will protect them against smallpox.
Sometimes, vaccines can be in a combination of live and killed in the same vaccine. Multiple diseases can be included in a single shot.
And some vaccines work best locally, such as the intranasal vaccines for respiratory diseases in cats and dogs. They act locally in the nose and lungs and are usually far superior to the injectable vaccines for the same diseases.
The interesting thing about some of these vaccines is that they cause sneezing and coughing and it has been shown that the first cat sneezing at another cat effectively vaccinates the second cat.
But you shouldn't bet on this happening, or that the first cat will sneeze in the right direction!
The real theory of vaccination is to look at the risk of the vaccine vs. the risk of the disease. Yes, there could be a lump at the injection site, or the animal could be sick for a day or two. But this is much better than the disease.
Most vaccines today have been well-researched and are very effective, but in the past, some vaccines were produced quickly and some were even produced unethically or fraudulently.
During the Second World War, yellow fever was a huge problem in the South Pacific. Researchers worked madly trying to produce a vaccine. When a group of test mice suddenly died, a vaccine was produced from the virus and this was sent to the U.S. Army.
Over 150,000 U.S. troops were vaccinated against what later proved to be mousepox.
Another famous vaccine scam involved a study published in 1998 that made a wide variety of claims in a group of 12 children involving a multiple vaccine for children.
The study claimed it caused autism, behavioural abnormalities, and intestinal disease. It recommended using three shots instead of the one combined shot.
Researchers all over the world tried to duplicate the results, but never could.
It was later proven that the study was completely false, that the researcher actually was being paid by the people who had launched a lawsuit, and that he held the patent on the vaccine that was supposed to be the replacement to the one that he claimed caused the problems.
Some still are confused by the controversy, which proved to be completely bogus.
There are a couple of other things to remember about vaccinations.
When a disease has mostly vanished from a population, some start failing to vaccinate for it. We don't see much canine distemper in Yukon, but there have been outbreaks, and if the population isn't vaccinated, it's a scene for a disaster.
Polio is now very rare in the world, but it does exist. When a group isn't vaccinated for it, it can reappear in a moment.
The other thing to remember is that disease patterns shift. The mosquito that carries West Nile Virus is probably here, but the disease has shown up only in more temperate climates.
But what happens if it suddenly appears in an unvaccinated population such as Yukon? How are you at gambling?
When someone brings in an animal from another part of Canada, or a tourist flies in from another country, it's quite possible that they are coming into a population that is completely unprotected.
Remember, too, that some canine diseases reside in the wolf and coyote population. Parvo might be under control in the dogs of Whitehorse, but the real risk is likely around the edges of the city and the coyotes that walk through all the time.
Really, the whole field of vaccination is modifying the animal for its own benefit: a form of genetic modification.
The best example of this was in the 1960s, when it was shown that corn was limited as a nutrient by its low lysine content.
By genetically modifying corn to produce a higher lysine content, corn became a much more valuable food source, particularly for poorer nations. The same production produced much more nutrition.
Some genetic engineering can be very good and valuable.
Even when you get a natural disease, including a simple cold or the flu, your body modifies and adapts to producing antibodies against it. If you've ever had a cold, then you yourself are genetically modified.
But that's for others to fight about...