Dianne Fowlie has noticed I haven’t tasted vaccine yet, and asks whether it’s a tasteworthy word. Well, in my view, all words are tasteworthy – though I might have more ideas about, or inclination towards, one or another at a give time. Some words I take a long time to get to because I can see that there’s so much to taste, it will take me quite a while to write the note.

And some words I shy away from because I don’t really want to have to deal with the reaction some people will have to them. I don’t mean just vulgarities, and not just those and other offensive words such as racial epithets either. There are some words that are not per se offensive, but they are strongly charged because of a vigorous polarity of opinion on them. I have no immediate plans, for instance, to taste abortion. I simply don’t want my comments section to become home to a raging debate between assorted people who have happened by and have little to say about linguistics and phonaesthetics and so on but a whole lot to say about the word’s referent. It’s not that there’s no place for that debate; it’s that this is not the place for it.

Certainly, vaccine is not as much of a lightning rod as abortion – or I wouldn’t be tasting it today. But there has been a lot of upset about vaccines in some quarters. I don’t just mean the scurrilous rumours passed around in some third-world countries that the polio vaccine is really a means of infecting people with AIDS. I mean such things as the idea that there is a link between some vaccines and autism – a hypothesis at one time supported scientifically by just one study, but even that study has now been withdrawn by the journal that published it, nearly all of the co-authors have repudiated it, and the lead author (Andrew Wakefield) has been found to have committed fraud (and had a significant undeclared conflict of interest: he stood to profit from lawsuits that it would have supported) and was stripped of his medical licence. So far no other scientifically reliable evidence has been published. None of which has kept many people from feeling strongly convinced that there is a link, and in general that vaccines are not trustworthy, and voicing their conviction vehemently. And those on the other side of the question often mirror the strength of feeling and expression in response.

But why such strong feelings? Why such fear about something that has such an excellent track record over all, statistically among the most persuasive track records in all of medical treatment? Many preventable diseases have been virtually eradicated by vaccines, and where vaccination rates reduce, the diseases reappear – in Ireland in 2000, for instance, the vaccination rate for measles fell to 76%, and the number of cases rose from 148 to more than 1200 – and several children died. In 1995, a routine diphtheria vaccination was cancelled in Russia, and deaths from diphtheria rose from none to around 1500. Nor has there been any documented significant rise in other health problems correlated reliably with vaccines – with most drugs, long-term problems caused by them surface within a decade or two at most; vaccines have had up to two centuries of use now. When we look at the success rates of many medications, and the overall gain versus harm, a great many of them – common treatments that many, many people take – come nowhere remotely close to the success rate of vaccines. And yet some people – quite a few people, in fact – have very strong, emotionally charged, opposition to them. Not just the sort of cautious reserve you see in regard to most medications. The kind of passion more often reserved for religion, politics, and sports.

I can only make guesses as to why the emotional component is so strong for some people, but two factors that come to mind are that vaccines are often universally or broadly required and enforced by government, and vaccines are made with the same things that cause the disease, being injected right into your (or your child’s) body (or sometimes put in the mouth). Many people are reflexively mistrustful of government – I probably don’t even need to point that out. And the idea of having pathogens injected into you surely must by horrifying to many people, especially if they don’t know that, for most vaccines, the pathogens have been “killed” – well, viruses aren’t live per se (they’re bits of genetic material and protein, not cells), but they have been broken up. For some people, there are further specifically religious reasons for resistance, but those don’t seem to be strongly evident in the loudest voices against vaccination. I’d be interested in further insights to the strong emotional level of the resistance – though not in raging arguments in the comments section.

Actually, what’s in the vaccine isn’t always the same thing that causes the disease it’s being given to prevent. For instance, the first real vaccine prevented smallpox by using cowpox. It had been noticed that people who had gotten cowpox had immunity to smallpox. And cowpox isn’t nearly as nasty as smallpox – smallpox had a 30% fatality rate and was a very widespread cause of disfigurement and blindness as well, while cowpox is a blister at the site of infection, and it goes away. A little mild cowpox, just enough to stimulate the immune system, turned out to be an excellent way to keep from getting smallpox. (This is one case of a “live” virus being used for vaccination.) With the aid of cowpox, smallpox was wiped out – the disease was declared completely eradicated in 1979. I guess the scientific way of putting it is that infection with Variola major and Variola minor was eradicated through inoculation with Vaccinia.

Ah, yes, we’re back to the word: Vaccinia is the formal name for cowpox; vaccine is a Latinate word meaning “of, or relating to, cows” (compare bovine, which is based on the Greek root), and is also the French name for cowpox. (Cowpox is not limited to cows and people, but at the time vaccination was discovered – just before 1800 – it was most noted as something milkmaids got from cows’ udders.) It is something of a bovine coincidence that vaccination programs can produce a “herd immunity” effect: it is not necessary for absolutely all of a population to have been vaccinated as long as a substantial minority have; any new case introduced will almost certainly be limited to one or a few people. Likewise coincidental, of course, is the fact that some people have a cow about the idea of themselves or their children being herded into vaccination.

Aside from all that, what tastes does the word vaccine have? It starts with a bite of the lip, /v/, and then leaps to the back and rolls on the tongue from back to front – /k/, then /s/, then it releases a little to the tight high front /i/, then the nasal /n/ on the tip. In vaccine you see the sharp tooth or open collar of v at the start, and the two hooks or two soft curves of cc (which, come to think of it, is also a measure of fluid for injectable fluids such as vaccines – the usual term now is mL, though). And the a, the i, the n, the e – to my eyes they look like a cast of servants from a drawing-room comedy, but, then, so do a lot of other things. It’s all innocuous, hardly smacking of inoculation.

And the overtones? Vacuum, accident, accede, obscene, accuse, scene, maybe even cinema… If you swirl it on your tongue for a bit, and in your head, you can find a fair bit you don’t notice at first. We are exposed to some words so much that we don’t really notice their aesthetic potential – it’s sort of like drinking lots of wine without stopping to savour it. I won’t say we become immune to the word’s effects – indeed, at least some of them are persistently there, if at a low level. But we do tend to fix our attention much more on what they signify than on their aesthetic properties. It’s nice to be able to pause and look at all aspects of what a word brings, if we can.

One response to “vaccine

  1. Huh; I wonder how distantly I’m related to Dianne… 😉

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