Once again, I was going to post about the amusing homeopath that I’ve come across, and once again something came up with the whole Autism Omnibus came up, leaving our poor homeopath to wait a little while longer for the loving application of a bit of Respectful Insolence™ that she so clearly craves. If you’re getting tired of hearing about the lunacy of antivaccinationists, I apologize and sympathize. I plan on taking a break from the subject for a few days unless some truly new news comes to light, as once again I don’t want any one topic to dominate this blog for too long.

However, before I take that break, I have to do one more post because this bit of information was just too important to let it go without comment for any longer. Besides, it’s hard to pass up a chance to apply a little more Respectful Insolence to David Kirby, author of Evidence of Harm: Mercury in Vaccines and the Autism Epidemic: A Medical Controversy, a book which, along with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s irresponsible sewer of misinformation published in Salon.com and Rolling Stone, was instrumental in fueling antivaccination hysteria two years ago based on the fear that the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal in vaccines was somehow responsible for an “autism epidemic.”

Remember a couple of weeks ago, when I wrote about how mercury militia buddy David Kirby invoked the Osama bin Laden gambit in discussing the Autism Omnibus trial? Here’s a refresher, in case you didn’t remember:

And then there is the Middle East.

Osama, for one, has a very extended family. We are exporting thimerosal containing vaccines to many Muslim nations. Some vaccines contain not only mercury, but products derived from pigs.

I don’t need to tell you where I am going with this train of thought. You already know.

Yes, I did already know. Kirby made his racist intent very clear with that little tidbit. However, I did wonder where his claim about pig products in vaccines came from and what vaccine components were “derived from pigs,” as did a number of my readers. Indeed, I did some digging and searching and have a hard time finding anything.

Now I know, thanks to a reader.

I was pointed to the World Health Organization website, specifically to a letter here (PDF files: letter in Arabic; letter in English). Basically, it’s the trypsin used in culturing the cells in which the viruses are grown to make the vaccines.

I kid you not. That’s the sum total of the “products derived from pigs” in vaccines.

For those of you not hip to how cell culture is done, I’ll explain. Many types of cells in culture are grown on plastic dishes coated with substances to which the cells can adhere using proteins attached to their cell membranes. Periodically, as the cells grow to confluence (covering the entire bottom of the dish, with no empty space showing), they must be detached from the dish and then subcultured or “split” (i. e., put into other dishes at lower density so that they have room to continue growing). Typically, cells will be split anywhere from 1:2 to 1:10, depending on the cell type and the need of the researcher. The enzyme used to detach the cells is trypsin, which digests the proteins that hold the cells to the dish. The trypsin used for most cell culture applications is porcine in origin. Consequently, the fear that David Kirby is trying to stoke about radical Muslims coming after us because vaccines contain “unclean” pig components has been addressed by Muslim clerics already. Here’s an excerpt. The first excerpt is from a letter from East Mediterranean Office of the World Health Organization to the European Council of Fatwa and Research:

The vaccine for immunization against poliomyelitis is prepared with the virus that causes the diseases on a tissular culture, i.e. a culture made of multiplying cells that form a cellular tissue of contiguous cells. When the culture succeeds, the cells need to be disconnected. The disconnection is done by using an enzyme called trypsin, derived from pigs. Small, almost negligible, amounts of trypsin are added, because the enzymes achieve the desired effect with minimal concentration. When added to the contiguous tissue cells, trypsin disconnects them in a very short period of time. The disconnected cells are thoroughly laved, so that no trace of trypsin remains. Next, poliomyelitis viruses are cultivated, in order to multiply on the cells. The multiplied viruses are then cropped, and an undoubtedly-lawful solution is added. The viruses are thus made ready for the preparation of vaccine, two or three drops of which are orally administered to every child.

Out of piety, some brother Muslims in various parts of the world, particularly East Asia, have made the fatwa that it is not permissible to administer this vaccine to children, due to the fact that porcine trypsin is used in preparing it.

We have argued back as follows:

  • What God forbids is the partaking of pork, and trypsin has nothing to do with pork.
  • Even if we admit that trypsin is forbidden, the scanty amount that is added in preparing the vaccine is too small to make any difference, if one applies the rule that “when the amount of water exceeds two quillas, impurities no longer affect it,” even when the water does contain impurities.
  • Supposing that trypsin is truly unclean and thus forbidden, the trypsin that is added is so thoroughly laved that it leaves no traces whatsoever.
  • In case the three arguments made are insufficient, taboos are made permissible in cases of necessity and pressing need.

Kindly state the Islamic ruling in light of the facts mentioned above. Please take into consideration that the hesitation of some parents to have their children immunized with this vaccine poses a risk to Muslim children alone. At the same time, it gives an unfavorable image which portrays Muslims as hindering a process that aims to eradicate, with God’s permission, the existence of this disease on earth once and for all. After all, this eradication cannot be complete while there is even one child on earth carrying the virus.

Here is the response:

First, it has been medically established that the administration of this medicine is useful; that, with God’s permission it immunizes children against polio; and that so far there is no alternative vaccine. Consequently, it is permissible to use it for purposes of treatment and prevention, especially since forbidding its administration results in great harm. Even if it is admitted that this liquid vaccine is impure, there are ample cases in Islamic jurisdiction where the prohibition of impurities is waived. In this case, the impurity is exhasted through lavation and multiplication. Moreover, this is a case which involves a necessity or a need that amounts to a necessity. It is well known that one of the principle purposes of Islamic law is to achieve benefits and ward off harm and corruption.

Second, the Council urges Muslim leaders and officials at Islamic centers not to be too strict in such matters that are open to considered opinion and that bring considerable benefits to Muslim children, as long as these matters involve no conflict with any definite texts.

This same question has been dealt with in terms of medicines, too, specifically the gelatin that is sometimes used as filler in pills. This gelatin is sometimes made from pig tendons. This letter was forwarded to me by the same reader, but there does not appear to be a link to it that I can find. Consequently, I have uploaded it here as a PDF. The conclusion about gelatin is essentially the same as the conclusion was about trypsin.

David Kirby is a truly disgusting human being for bringing this up again in the context of fundamentalist Islamic radicalism and terrorism, with the implication that Osama bin Laden will attack us because we ship Muslim nations vaccines with pig products and mercury in them. This is an issue that was discussed and dealt with long ago. Kirby’s bringing it up in the context of the Autism Omnibus trial without explaining exactly what the component in vaccines is that ever caused concern and how inconsequential it is was in the first place or bothering to mention that Islamic clerics and scholars have already dealt with the issue of the tiny amount of trypsin that is used to culture the cells used to grow up the polio vaccine (or any live attenuated virus vaccine, for that matter) is utterly unforgivable. He knew the actual situation and chose to represent it in a manner calculated to provoke fear.

Every time I think Kirby’s reached bottom and can’t go any lower, damn if he doesn’t get out a backhoe and start digging deeper.


  1. #1 notmercury
    June 28, 2007

    Great post.

    Between this and the layperson’s primer on PCR you provided in an earlier post, I’m learning a lot. Thanks for explaining the lab techniques so clearly and concisely and thanks for showing how the science fits (or doesn’t) with the claims being made.

  2. #2 h3nry
    June 28, 2007

    Hi, you probably have been tagged already – so my apologies if that is the case. But you have been tagged. 🙂


    Keep up the great work.

  3. #3 Justin Moretti
    June 28, 2007

    Orac, your ability to put science into laypersons’ terms is awesome. Keep up the good work.

  4. #4 VJB
    June 28, 2007

    It was very good of you to bring the Islamic view to our attention. I had already been familiar with the permissibility of taboo substances in case of necessity as I had discussed it at length with a friend from Guinea whose father is a prominent imam there. I wasn’t sure if it was only the moderate, laid-back African kind of Islam that found this so, and am glad it is more general. The rejection of polio vaccine in northern Nigeria in recent years (mostly through rumor of intended sterility in girls, not the pork argument) really bothered me a great deal as it set back the ‘herd immunity’ by years. And we had been making such progress there.

  5. #5 AgnosticOracle
    June 28, 2007

    Find that a “Council of Fatwa” has a more reasoned approach to evidence based medicine ought to be embarrassing.

  6. #6 Calli Arcale
    June 28, 2007

    Actually, a lot of Muslims are far more rational than we tend to think, thanks to a stereotype driven by Iran’s theocracy and the idiocy of fundamentalists like Osama Bin Laden. There’s a reason why science was able to flourish in Islamic nations during the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, as in any religion, fundamentalists often provide a powerful force againt that. Still, it seems to me that arguments like this are terribly ignorant and prejudicial. (Not that I ever expected better from Kirby.)

    Orac, this article may actually be relevant to your coming take-down of a homeopath.
    “Even if we admit that trypsin is forbidden, the scanty amount that is added in preparing the vaccine is too small to make any difference, if one applies the rule that “when the amount of water exceeds two quillas, impurities no longer affect it,” even when the water does contain impurities.”

    That sounds like the clerics are quoting actual Scripture. Does that mean that even a religious text over a thousand years old is sensible enough to know that homeopathy is bunk? 😛

  7. #7 A. Schaefer
    June 28, 2007

    If America was indeed exporting vaccines containing pig-products to Muslim countries ( why does that seem no problem to Israel ? Pork is surely as abhorrent to Jews ? ) then those companies would foster the case of the terrorists – namely that America is out to destroy Islam and convert everybody to its brand of capitalist-McBurger-Christianity.
    Actually even if there never was any pork products involved with the production of the vaccines someone fostering the belief that the vaccines contained such’ impurities’ would support the case of the terrorists.
    I was reminded of the discussion about the causes of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 ( hey a 150 year anniversary!) where claims that the new Enfield cartridges contained pork fat were at least contributing (http://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rls=GGLJ,GGLJ:2006-43,GGLJ:en&q=sepoy+mutiny+pork)

    Now havin established that claiming that vaccines are pork-contaminated furthers the cause of the radical ‘Islamist’ terrorists one has to wonder why someone would claim this publicly .
    The only reasons I can think of is either being a traitor working for the terrorists or an agent provocateur out to trigger the showdown between America and the Islamic world now – either because America is readier now than ‘they’ are, or because the chances to win that conflict would get worse if one waited. However at the very least such a decision would have to be made by the president. ( or congress – I am not sure about US constitutional law )
    However since the current administration seems to have no problem with starting a war on a pretext it would not need to use such underhanded methods. Thus I think the people protecting the Fatherland oops Homeland Security should have a serious talk with Mr. Kirby.

  8. #8 AnnR
    June 28, 2007

    If America was indeed exporting vaccines containing pig-products to Muslim countries why does that seem no problem to Israel ? Pork is surely as abhorrent to Jews ?

    I was wondering that myself.

  9. #9 DrYak
    June 28, 2007

    I’ve just got back from the ISSCR (International Society for Stem Cell Research) Annual meeting in Australia. A great meeting with a lot of cool new stuff (great talks on iPS cells and primate cloning, etc) but of interest to this thread was a poster on Islamic attitudes to work on human embryonic stem cells (hES). I’ll quote a bit from the abstract:
    “A majority of Islamic scholars felt that hES research is allowable within Islam with some limitations. Interestingly, a majority of discussion with all the scholars tended to focus on principles related to justice and equity for the donors and potential beneficiaries of hES research. The perspectives on the status of the embryo at the early blastocyst stage varied between it is something that is not explicitly protected to it has some status, but that the goal of curing disease is greater than that of protecting the blastocyst. Based on the primary sources of the Quran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, more significant time points of protection in development rather seem to occur at 40 and 120 days.”
    Siddiqui, et al.

    I find it quite fascinating (but not that surprising) that the Muslim perspective is more “enlightened” than the fundamentalist Xtian one. Of course as an atheist I find their rationalisations rather strange…

  10. #10 isles
    June 29, 2007

    Kirby’s in a death spiral. He knows his goose is cooked: the autism claimants are going down with prejudice, his movie deal is a dud, and his dream of being the next Bob Woodward is looking more and more like a sad joke. So he’s flailing about trying to get his name in print a few more times before this issue dies out completely.

  11. #11 Kaleberg
    June 30, 2007

    I know that some Muslims have trouble with replacement heart valves which come from pigs. Of course, the real problem for people with replacement heart valves in the third world is getting necessary immune system suppressors and appropriate follow up care.

    Jews don’t have this problem. You aren’t supposed to eat pork, but you can wear a pig skin belt or get a pig heart valve transplanted. Given the choice of not eating pork or dying of hunger, you are expected to give it a try.

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