If bacteria and viruses are predators and we are prey, what are vaccines?

watchtower with soldiers

Imagine an idyllic village nestled in a jungle clearing.

The people are prospering because they have easy access to animals for meat, copious river fish, and abundant roots, nuts and tubers. There’s just one problem: the same land that feeds them so generously is filled with predators who attack them. Lions and tigers eat the villagers, elephants stampede and even small animals drag their children away, never to be seen again.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Once predators get through the fence they can attack anyone and typically kill the most vulnerable.[/pullquote]

The villagers’ first thought is to create better weapons with which to kill marauders. They keep their spears that kill at close range, but add bows and arrows to kill predators long before they can get close enough to harm anyone. It’s not perfect, but it works well … in the daytime. Eventually the villagers have to sleep and nearly every night, someone, often a child, is eaten.

Then they decide to built a wooden wall complete with wooden watch towers. Powerful or determined predators can scale the wall, but the watchers alert the villagers who use their weapons to kill them. This turns out to be an excellent solution. As each new home is built in the village, the owner is required to expand the fence.

It’s not a perfect system, of course. Every now and then a predator manages to scale or breach the fence, but the watchtowers allow for advance warning so the villagers invariably meet the predator with immediate and deadly force.

Several generations pass and one day a villager has the terrible misfortune to watch his child die when one of the heavy timbers being used to construct a new watchtower falls over and crushes her. He grieves deeply.

“Why,” he asks, “are we repeatedly extending the fence as the village grows and building new watchtowers? No one has been killed by a predator in several generations. My daughter died because of a fence no one needs. Let’s stop extending the fence and building watchtowers. Don’t let another child die like my daughter did!”

All the villagers feel sorry for the grieving father, but most recognize that the reason that that no one has been killed by a predator for several generations is because of the fence and watchtowers, not in spite of them.

A few of the father’s friends, however, fear that what happened to his child might happen to one of their children. They decide that when they build their new houses, they will not extend the fence around it; they will simply leave it open. Others caution them about the risk, but they point out that they are well armed and can simply shoot any predators that make it through the gap.

At first it seems that the father was right. Leaving a few segments of the fence open appears to make no difference. The fence perimeter is nearly a mile around and the scattered openings represent only a few feet. Every now and then the child of parents who refused to extend the fence is dragged away and eaten, but those grieving parents bear the horrible result of their personal decision. And, as they are quick to point out, none of their children are ever crushed by fence timbers.

Over several years the number of homeowners who leave their portion of the fence open slowly increases. Then something strange starts to happen. Villagers who live inside the fence are attacked by wild animals. An alligator drags off the child of a villager who had faithfully extended his fence and built a watchtower to go with it.

Why are people well protected by the fence being killed by predators?

The reason isn’t hard to fathom. A few small gaps in a large fence offered great protection even if it wasn’t perfect protection. A predator would only be able to gain access to the village if it found an opening by chance. As the number of gaps grew, the chance that a predator would stumble upon one and then enter the village also grew. The predators now had access to the entire population of the village and didn’t necessarily stop after killing someone near the gap. The fact that those living closest to the gap have powerful weapons isn’t particularly helpful. They aren’t constantly standing guard so they can easily be caught unawares.

What does that have to do with vaccination?

Bacteria and viruses are the predators and we are the prey. What are vaccines? They are the fence and watchtowers. Vaccination is an early warning that allows the immune system to meet any threat with immediate and deadly force in the form of antibodies. Yes, you can fight an infection without having been vaccinated just as you can fight a predator as it is dragging off your child. But forewarned is forearmed in infectious disease just as it is in mortal combat.

Anti-vaxxers are like the grieving father and his friends. They are more frightened of falling fence timbers than of lions and tigers. They no longer see lions and tigers as a threat because they’ve been kept out of the village, but predators are deadly whether you have seen them recently or not.

Anti-vaxxers create holes in the immune fence that protects all of us. They risk the health of everyone, not just their own children.

When you understand that vaccines function as the fence you can see the absurdity of anti-vax claims. Insisting no one who is vaccinated needs to fear the unvaccinated is like insisting that no one needs to fear a few gaps in the fence that keeps out the lions and tigers so long as the gaps are only near those who don’t like the fence. Once the predators get through the fence they can attack anyone and typically kill the most vulnerable no matter how desperately their parents try to protect them. Similarly, once bacteria and viruses get through the immune fence created by vaccination, they can attack anyone and typically kill the most vulnerable no matter how desperately their own parents try to protect them.

Leaving gaps in the fence is an invitation to predators. Leaving gaps in vaccine immunity is an invitation to predators, too. Pertussis and measles may not look as harmful as lions and tigers, but they can be every bit as deadly.