It’s impossible to miss the explosive vaccine controversy that has erupted in the media over the last few years; as more and more families have chosen to bypass routine immunizations, scientific communities and concerned families have responded with quite a backlash. Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children, as I once did with my son and daughter, however, aren’t necessarily negligent, lazy, or socially rebellious, as many concerned pro-vaccine “pro-vaxxers” might argue or imply. I’ve known the distress first hand that comes with not wanting to inject who-knows-what chemicals into my brand new baby’s body. In fact, having grown up in the home of my naturalist, vegetarian, health-food-store-shopping mom, who opposed vaccines, is what had me questioning the choice for my own children 16 years ago. For me, adhering to a schedule of chemical injections for my baby wasn’t a natural occurrence. So I did some research.
In the summer of 1998, I gratefully accepted the overwhelming conclusion of all that I had read: as a healthy family not living in extreme poverty or filth, and not leaving the country any time soon, we could forego our shots thanks to herd immunity. Herd immunity is a term coined in the 70s that refers to the protection offered to the community by those who have had their vaccines. In other words, when most of a community receives its shots, the immunized members offer a kind of safety buffer to those who can’t or won’t get their shots (think infants, AIDS patients, cancer patients, and the rare few who are either allergic to vaccinations or unaffected by them). I was thrilled by my research excusing me from injecting my babies! I’d had too many fears about the possible consequences from shots and I worried that they were pushed on us, pretty forcefully, with a corporate greed agenda behind them.
I wasn’t alone in my concerns, either. In “Embracing Vaccination…Lamentably Wrong!,” Viera Scheibner declares that the state mandating of vaccinations was purely for profit. She writes, “It is a documented fact that the few remaining vaccine-producing drug companies lobbied the U.S. government and its agencies to mandate vaccines because without it they were not making any significant profit.” She also relates some of the other common beliefs that have “anti-vaxxers” so upset including the fear that the ingredients in immunizations might harm us, that the strains within them make us sicker and make our immune systems weaker, and that our immune systems ought to develop their own resilience. And even more frightening, Scheibner specifically believes vaccines cause Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Cancer, and insists that “In fact, there is no need to protect children from contracting infectious diseases of childhood. These diseases prime and mature the immune system… A well-nourished child will go through rubella, whooping cough, chicken pox, etc. with flying colors. They are not deadly diseases unless a child was vaccinated.” Scheibner seems to see all vaccines as highly detrimental and obviously cares deeply for the natural development of one’s immune system.
What parent doesn’t care immensely for the health and well-being of their child, though? What parent doesn’t have their child’s best interests at heart when they decide there’s a choice to be made between vaccinating and not vaccinating their babies? Anti-vaxxers fear immunizations because parents long deeply to protect our precious babies. But anti-vaxxers also oppose them, when there have been so many false alarms in the media, because we’re undereducated about them. And that’s not so unreasonable. Our society tells us it expects us to inject our children, but not why. We aren’t generally informed that one child dies of vaccine-preventable diseases every 20 seconds in our world’s poorest countries merely because they can’t afford to receive inoculations (“Vaccine Delivery”), or that in countries where inoculations have decreased, out of a fear of potential side effects, old diseases make a nasty comeback (World Health Organization). Take these three countries, as discussed by the World Health Organization in “Six Common Misconceptions about Immunization,” for example:
-Great Britain, Sweden and Japan- cut back on the use of pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine because of fear about the vaccine. The effect was dramatic and immediate. In Great Britain, a drop in pertussis vaccination in 1974 was followed by an epidemic of more than 100,000 cases of pertussis and 36 deaths by 1978. In Japan, around the same time, a drop in vaccination rates from 70% to 20%-40% led to a jump in pertussis from 393 cases and no deaths in 1974 to 13,000 cases and 41 deaths in 1979. In Sweden, the annual incidence rate of pertussis per 100,000 children of 0-6 years of age increased from 700 cases in 1981 to 3,200 in 1985.
We forget, in our bliss of a mostly-vaccinated country, the way diseases ran rampant through our society before we were graced with the development of vaccines.
Moreover, not only are we often just not simply aware of the science and safety of vaccinations, but we are fed panic-inducing stories in the media and by our well-intentioned friends, co-workers, and other peers. Remember the scare created by Andrew Wakefield, the man who said the MMR immunization might be causing autism in children and causing major damage to their tummies and bowels? People still believe vaccinations can cause autism in a child, even though the study was done with only 11 children, “the original report made clear that the authors ‘did not prove an association’ between measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and a newly described syndrome of bowel disease and autism,” but rather stated that more research needed to be done (Horton), and any correlation between the MMR shot and autism has been debunked over and over by numerous additional studies. In fact, “…current research points to hereditary factors. In 2004, the Autism Speaks Foundation launched the Autism Genome Project in the hopes to find the genes associated with higher risk for the disease. It includes roughly 50 academic and research institutions that have pooled their data. …Newer research leans towards genetics…” (Recame).
Even Scheibner’s declaration that vaccines cause sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS, isn’t based in science! Some babies who die of SIDS tend to pass away around the same time as they’re scheduled to receive their infant DTP shots, but that doesn’t mean the shots are causing those deaths. Actually, “…when a number of well-controlled studies were conducted in the 1980s,… in several of the studies, children who had recently received a DTP shot were less likely to get SIDS” (World Health Organization). As you can see, there’s a profound difference between trusting in the results obtained by scientists and thinking for ourselves that a vaccine is bad every time something happens to someone who’s been vaccinated. One thing does not always cause the other.
Actually, vaccines have a long history of ending major epidemics and continuing to protect us from the diseases that ravaged us pre-immunization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in “What Would Happen If We Stopped Vaccinations?,”
“Nearly everyone in the U.S. got measles before there was a vaccine, and hundreds died from it each year. Today, most doctors have never seen a case of the measles. More than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria in 1921, before there was a vaccine. Only one case of diphtheria has been reported to the CDC since 2004. An epidemic of rubella (German measles) in 1964-65 infected 12 ½ million Americans, killed 2,000 babies, and caused 11,000 miscarriages. In 2012, 9 cases of rubella were reported to CDC.”
Consider that in 1950, here in the U.S., there were 120,718 cases of pertussis and 1,118 deaths, yet only 2,063 cases and 6 deaths in 1978. Following the vaccine scare of the 90s, and families choosing not to immunize, the number of cases disturbingly shot up in the 2000s into the 10s and 20s of thousands (“Reported Cases and Deaths…”).
This isn’t to say there have never been any injuries associated with vaccines, of course. In the 80s, the National Vaccine Compensation Program was developed in order to investigate claims, compensate for vaccine-related injuries, and take the responsibility of compensation off the doctors and nurses providing the vaccines (“National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program”). What might be less known about this program, however, is that about 75% of the cases filed for compensation are dismissed (“Statistics Reports”), and, possibly most importantly, that most vaccine-related injuries are due to anallergy to the vaccine (“Vaccine Injury Table”), not that vaccines are causing autism, SIDS, and gastrointestinal problems.
So, while we have a very large benefit to humanity in being able to protect most people from so many of the ruinous illnesses of our past, we also have a very small amount of actual vaccine-related injuries, or side effects, if you’d rather. Personally, I’m a teacher working with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers and I’ve been in this field for over 12 years. For the first time in my 12 years, one of the two year olds I work with had a bad reaction to the flu shot this fall. Because she was still at the tail end of a cold, (and you aren’t supposed to get the shot when sick or if you have an allergy to eggs) a couple of days after the shot, she could no longer hold her own head up and she had to be flown to specialists in Portland, OR. She was paralyzed the entire month of October, spent November re-learning how to hold her head up, and sit, and crawl, and is finally walking and running again, talking regularly about how strong she is. The message from the specialists to her parents was that they see a bad reaction like that to the flu shot every once in a while, especially if the patient has just been sick with something, but it’s never fatal. They see far too manychildren in their hospital die from the flu, on the other hand. Between the influenza vaccine and influenza, only one of them is potentially fatal.
In addition, it’s important to note a very common theme of responses from parents who are asked why they don’t inoculate their children from diseases. In one assessment,
“…some very interesting results emerged… Between 50% and 70% (depending on the particular vaccine) either had not heard of the vaccine, had not got around to it, or mistakenly thought their child was too young to have the vaccine. Around 15% to 20% either opposed immunisation or were concerned about side effects, and about 13% had medical reasons for failing to immunise, or the vaccine was unavailable (Donahoe).”
Again, many parents are choosing to withhold disease-preventing immunizations from their children because they believe media hype and are otherwise uneducated about the science and safety behind this form of medicine which has spared so many of us from the epidemics of the past!
Sadly, diseases still devastate communities in third world countries where they don’t have the privilege of being able to afford vaccines. To be clear, that’s thousands of families who would probably give an arm to have their children immunized and protected from the diseases killing people all around them. Those of us choosing not to inoculate our children here, do so in the ignorant bliss of having no clue what it’s like to live in a society riddled with disease. For those who have no choice but to go without inoculations in third world countries and those who cannot receive them here (due to cancer, AIDS, allergies, etc.), can you imagine the difference between being regularly exposed to a bunch of healthy people versus a bunch of sick or potentially sick people? What would we want for our children then?
In hindsight, I was 20 years old when I did my “research,” and I jumped for the answers that rang true with what I already wanted, which was to raise my son without immunizations just as my mama had raised me. Working with children and studying health and nutrition for the last 12 years, however, has shown me that most vaccinated children are not compromised by the injections in any way. Inoculated children are the reason a child with cancer can go to preschool and not come down with a life threatening case of the measles from her peers. Inoculated nurses, and other adults, are the reason we can go to the hospital for a sprained ankle and not come home with potentially devastating polio. I like this safety buffer we’ve developed, those of us who look at the science and history of safety behind vaccines, because, personally, I don’t want to know what it was like to live pre-vaccine, in the dark days of plague, smallpox, and skyrocketing infant mortality rates. And neither do my children.
“What Would Happen If We Stopped Vaccinations?” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC.gov. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
“Reported Cases and Deaths from Vaccine Preventable Diseases, United States, 1950-2011.” Center for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC.gov. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
Donahoe, Mark. “Immunisation – Lessons from the current debate.” Vaccination? the Choice is Yours! May 1997. Vol. 3. Issue 2. Alt Health Watch. 28 Nov. 2014.
“National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
“Vaccine Injury Table.” Health Resources and Services Administration. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
“Statistics Reports.” Health Resources and Services Administration. Web. 28 Nov. 2014.
Scheibner, Viera. “Embracing Vaccination…Lamentably Wrong!” Chiropractic Journal. Oct.1994. Vol. 9 Issue 1, p39. 4p. Alt Health Watch. 28 Nov. 2014.
Recame, Michelle A. “The Immunization-Autism Myth Debunked.” International Journal of Childbirth Education. Oct. 2014. Vol. 27. Issue 4. Academic Search Premier. 3 Dec. 2014.
Horton, Richard. “The Lessons of MMR.” The Lancet. March 2004. Vol. 363. Academic Search Premier. 3 Dec. 2014.
“Six Common Misconceptions About Immunization.” World Health Organization. Web. 5 Dec. 2014 “Vaccine Delivery.” The Bill & Melissa Gates Foundation. Web. 5 Dec. 2014