Do vaccines bring you closer to death?
November 19, 2009 9:16 PM   Subscribe

Is there a set quota of white blood cells that the human body produces over its lifetime, and if so do routine vaccines (e.g. the flu) tax the immune system enough to significantly shorten the person's lifespan?

A while ago I found out that my room mate is, as he put it, "waaaaaaay anti-vaccine." I chalked it up to his occasional wool-headedness and benign (if frustrated) lack of critical thinking, but today he mentioned that he wanted to finish his undergraduate degree in biology sometime in the next couple years.

After dinner I couldn't help myself and asked him, politely, how he squared his science ambitions with his vaccine beliefs. He explained that the human body only creates a limited amount of white blood cells during its lifetime, and vaccines cause the immune system to unnecessarily spend its set quota on a single pathogen (namely, the one being vaccinated against) and thus "make you die quicker."

I kind of nodded and said something like, "Well, at least it's a scientific reason," but that really does not seem right to me. If the human body has a set quota of white blood cells that's honestly so limited that a healthy person is actually at risk of having their life significantly truncated due to routine vaccinations wouldn't medical practitioners screen patients much more thoroughly to prevent unnecessary damage? Plus, isn't one of the reasons to get a vaccine not just for your own health as an individual but the health of everyone around you?

Add in the hypocrisy factors of a) room mate smokes, b) had a serious case of bronchitis in the last six months that c) nearly developed into pneumonia and I am smelling some concentrated bullshit here. (I feel like his immune system wasted more white blood cells fighting off a contracted case of preventable bronchial infection than it would have during a few years of flu vaccines.) Am I right? Is he right?

Does anyone with a background in biology/immunology/medicine have a definitive answer?
posted by foulowl to Health & Fitness (33 answers total)
I don't need a background in biology to know that it's bullshit
posted by dfriedman at 9:22 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Of course he isn't right. He doesn't even understand basic cell division.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:22 PM on November 19, 2009

I can't think of a more succinct answer than "are you kidding? no."

When he gets infections and things, does he think that he's just using up his lifetime supply of white blood cells? Where exactly does he think white blood cells COME from?

I'm sort of fascinated now.

What an interesting rationalization.
posted by circle_b at 9:23 PM on November 19, 2009

He's full of bullshit. White blood cells are produced in your bone marrow, along with your other types of blood cells. People who live longer don't suddenly run out of white blood cells. A healthy individual will continue to produce white blood cells until the day they die.
posted by sbutler at 9:25 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

A healthy individual will continue to produce white blood cells until the day they die.

Yep. I've never heard of someone running out.
Reserves will decrease. But the normal 115 year old -who is not trying to collect stem cells- will have plenty.
posted by SLC Mom at 9:35 PM on November 19, 2009

Your immune system has several levels of defense, starting out with nonspecific defenses and going down to the sort of finely tuned immunities that prevent you from re-contracting this year's flu. The white blood cells in your body (leukocytes) that cover specific defenses have a turnover rate that's less than red blood cells (48 hours, about), but still not very long. Your immune system "remembers" what pathogens it's encountered whenever your B and T Cells are signaled to reproduce and leave some memory cells as offspring -- a process that happens whether you get vaccinated or not.

That said, your immune system can get run down -- we see it in untreated late stage AIDS patients. Once a person is HIV positive, the immune system responds by going into overdrive and producing leukocytes as quickly as possible. After several years of intense production, the patient's body won't be able to keep up anymore and suddenly viral load increases and T-Cell count drops. This is considered late-stage AIDS and death is not far around the corner. Consult any undergrad textbook on general biology or evolution and you'll get a more detailed explaination. Or click to see the pretty graph.
posted by ayerarcturus at 9:37 PM on November 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

Has he confused white blood cells with eggs? Because I'm pretty sure you only get a finite number of those. I doubt he has any eggs to begin with, though.
posted by you're a kitty! at 9:44 PM on November 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

I've taken a graduate-level course in immunology. No, there is not a set quota of white blood cells that the human body produces over its lifetime.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:47 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I doubt he has any eggs to begin with, though.

But this could be the beginning of an epic prank by getting him to bullshit himself into a corner, OP...
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 9:52 PM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: I love pretty graphs!

Thank you guys, this is some pretty solid vindication. During our brief discussion he kind of pulled the "this is why I'm studying biology" card, and being an art history/fine arts double major I didn't feel like I held enough ground to contradict him at the time. I guess the next part of the equation is working out how to convince him that his understanding of the science behind vaccination and the immune system is incorrect.

I hope that doesn't sound too arrogant. I can't pretend that I'm not partially motivated by sheer irritation, but I know he's going to come into direct and indirect contact with children who might be too young to have gotten their immunizations, as well as some really elderly people, during the course of the winter holidays. If his beliefs regarding vaccination only affected him that would be one thing, but that's the thing about vaccinations - infectious disease doesn't confine itself to an individual.

But then, I'm only an art major, what do my beliefs matter in the face of his Hard Science.
posted by foulowl at 9:54 PM on November 19, 2009

With the exception of your brain and (most of your) nervous system, due to that wonder that is cell regeneration and substitution, you (meaning: the cells that make up your body) are never going to be more than (more or less) 16 years old.

Red cells live 4 months. The lining of your mouth or your gut, a few days. Your muscles are on average 15 years old. You are made of 100 billion cells which originated from just one. Your body produces one million new cells (including white blood cells) every second (emphasis added for awesomeness).

I recommend your roommate (whom a notorious, albeit fictional, M.D. very popular in prime time tv would dryly classify as "an idiot") to pursue a completely different degree, such as clay throwing or some such. I have little faith in the enlightenment brought by scientific studies on minds that are not already open to challenge. And being "waaaaay anti-vaccine" does hardly qualify.

One can always hope, but, like I said, your brain cells stay with you since birth!
posted by _dario at 9:59 PM on November 19, 2009 [7 favorites]

Well, bronchitis isn't always preventable but the smoking would be the odds-on cause. If you're at an accredited college there is definitely a vaccine requirement for attending. Unless your roommate has spent his life in a sterilized plastic suit designed by N.A.S.A. then he is most definitely better off receiving vaccines than not.
posted by Locobot at 9:59 PM on November 19, 2009

Roommate is wrong. There is no finite amount of white blood cell production.
posted by emd3737 at 10:01 PM on November 19, 2009

He is right in that all cells, except stem cells, can only divide so many times before they run out of omph (the Hayflick limit). But his conclusion, that vaccinations use up white blood cells, is wrong. Too many wonky assumptions along the way.

A couple of reasons why he's wrong: Bone marrow cells, which include stem cells, are very good at dividing and growing. There is way too much capacity built into the system for something like a vaccination to 'use it up' otherwise we'd be dead the first time we got sick. Also part of what vaccines do is make you recover from an infection faster and with a more efficient immune response, so being vaccinated could easily end up costing you less cells over time. There are other reasons too, it's actually kind of difficult to say exactly why he's wrong because it's a complicated process and there are so many places he could have made false assumptions, we'd need to know exactly why he's come up with this idea to refute it specifically. I presume he heard about the Hayflick limit then made it up from there but who knows?

Hopefully he's a plant scientist or something cos dude's pretty confused with his physiology. What he gave actually isn't a scientific reason, there's no plausible mechanism, no evidence, and no logical chain of thought leading to that conclusion. Sadly this is more common than you'd think among even science students.
posted by shelleycat at 10:02 PM on November 19, 2009 [4 favorites]

White blood cells are being continually renewed by stem cells in our bone marrow, which develop into various white blood cell precursors. Stem cells, unlike other cells in our body, can divide indefinitely because they contain telomerase - a special enzyme that repairs the ends of DNA after replication (which normally shortens DNA ends, bringing the cell closer to senescence). Thus, there is no limit to the amount of white blood cells a healthy body can make. This is a very good thing, since some types of our white blood cells only live for a couple of days.
posted by mossicle at 10:04 PM on November 19, 2009

Response by poster: Locobot, he actually has taken around nine years off from school since he graduated high school, so he hasn't been required to get a vaccine in that time.

You know, now that I think of it he also mentioned he's only taken one college-level course so far. Hm.

(I should add, he's a really nice guy, and even though I think his stance on vaccination is ridiculous at least he didn't try to get me to agree with him. But - but - he's wrong!)
posted by foulowl at 10:12 PM on November 19, 2009

You are made of 100 billion cells

You're off by a factor of about a thousand there (unless you're referring to the long scale billion). IIRC, the brain alone contains about 100 billion neurons (and neurons are not the only type of cell in the brain).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:17 PM on November 19, 2009

Ask him if you have a finite number of hemocytoblasts or if your body can only do so many conversions or what.

You have a finite T cells repertoire for reasons of tolerance, but since you probably don't want antibodies against your liver, that's feature not a bug.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:17 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Well, that's the thing, effugas, I was expecting a political reason for him to be anti-vaccine. That I can place in context with the vaccine debate going on right now. But he cited scientific reasons behind his belief, and that's what put the cranky in my pants. So to speak.
posted by foulowl at 10:19 PM on November 19, 2009

> unless you're referring to the long scale billion
(actually I was, sorry. In my native language, un bilione = 1012 and I still get confused from time to time)
posted by _dario at 10:22 PM on November 19, 2009

Beyond technical details facts (i'm also an art person, so not entirely well versed in biology, heh) my first thought was "well if vaccinations shorten life so much why do we live so much longer than we used to? Which may well be a specious argument (correlation vs causation)
posted by Wink Ricketts at 10:31 PM on November 19, 2009

Response by poster: shelleycat, I know he's expressed interest in marine biology (he's an ardent admirer of Jacques Cousteau) rather than, say, medicine. So I guess that's lucky.

And you're right, there are a lot of places he could have made false assumptions. Beyond high school he's largely self-taught, and he's intelligent enough, he just doesn't consider the possibility he could be wrong until evidence to that effect is shoved forcefully in his face. And even then, sometimes it's a no go. (Case in point, he thought Pyongyang is still part of South Korea up until the point I showed him on a map where it is located. Never mind that my parents are South Korean and I am Korean-American and might have some insight on the matter.)
posted by foulowl at 10:36 PM on November 19, 2009

People have been screaming about vaccines for at least 15 years, long before there was anything with sales like Gardasil or Prevnar (there is some theory that Gardasil may some day make 10 billion a year.)

The 2006 Menactra sales were like 300 million, which is 100 million less than that Transformers movie pulled down.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:41 PM on November 19, 2009

The only thing I can find that remotely touches on your roommate's argument is that "The rate of T-cell production by the thymus is greatest before puberty. After puberty, the thymus begins to shrink and the production of new T cells in adults is lower, although it does continue throughout life." But that doesn't mean what he is saying.
posted by grouse at 10:42 PM on November 19, 2009

Grouse, what's left out of that statement is the fact that T-cells also divide while free floating in the blood. In fact, that's a vital part of the immune response: a T-cell which is sensitized to a given antigen (say, by vaccination) which recognizes that antigen (say, during an infection) starts producing hormones (like interferon) and antibodies and starts dividing like mad so that there are more sensitized T-cells capable of producing the appropriate antibodies.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:12 PM on November 19, 2009

Yes, I know, I was just trying to look for anything that could possibly explain why he had this thought, besides making it up out of whole cloth.
posted by grouse at 11:19 PM on November 19, 2009

Aren't the memory cells B cells anyway? I have to admit I'm a bit vague on the antigen based stuff these days as my speciality is innate immunity (Th cells, macrophages, etc) so I'm guessing T cells are involved somewhere along the way. They usually are.

he just doesn't consider the possibility he could be wrong until evidence to that effect is shoved forcefully in his face.

The evidence that Wink Ricketts mentions is probably the most straight forward and compelling. Now that we live longer, at least partially thanks to vaccines, if we were all running out of T cells then people would be dying from it. Which they aren't.
posted by shelleycat at 1:20 AM on November 20, 2009

Aren't the memory cells B cells anyway?

Antibodies are produced by B cells, but there are also antigen-specific memory T cells.
posted by grouse at 6:52 AM on November 20, 2009

That's a bit like saying you've got a limited amount of saliva, so avoid tasty foods or your mouth will dry up and you'll die.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:59 AM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

I was expecting a political reason for him to be anti-vaccine.

People who dislike vaccines for philosophical reasons or just because of general heebie-jeebies almost always try to justify their position with something that sounds sciencey. It makes trying to educate/dissuade them all the more pointless; they didn't reason themselves into that position in the first place, and the facts you offer aren't going to get to their real issues.
posted by lakeroon at 10:47 AM on November 20, 2009

The recent Wired magazine article on the anti-vaccine hysteria makes reference to the concept of immune system capacity. Anti-vaccine nuts seized upon an estimate from this review article that an infant could handle 10,000 vaccines at once to discredit one of it's authors and make one of its authors look like a nut by suggesting that he actually aspired to that level of vaccination.

In any case, it walks through what factors you'd want to consider in doing such an estimation, but the bottom line was, that, at least in 2002, the lifetime capacity of the immune system seemed to be practically unlimited, and in the short term, even an infant could probably respond to 10-100K antigens at once.

posted by Good Brain at 12:41 PM on November 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I managed to mangle my link to the estimate of short-term immune system capacity.
posted by Good Brain at 12:44 PM on November 20, 2009

Response by poster: I read the Wired article in passing a month ago and I'll give it another look. I'm debating whether or not to take the issue up with my room mate or just let it lie. On the one hand, it would suck for someone to catch something off of him because he insists on being stupid. On the other hand, the irony in his stance is that if he actually sticks to biology and gets into the school he wants to go to he'll have to get vaccinated anyway (and then be proven wrong a gajillion times over in pretty much every remedial course thrown his way).
posted by foulowl at 1:36 AM on November 22, 2009

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