Posted on December 12th, 2011
I first became truly aware of vaccination when I was about eleven. I’d had my standard (Ontario) childhood vaccinations, but didn’t remember them, and hadn’t actually thought about them. Then I read a story about Edward Jenner in Cricket magazine – and I never forgot it.
As you may know, Jenner was the English scientist who discovered the smallpox vaccine. The story started with his own childhood, when he was deliberately given actual smallpox, via a scab from an infected person, in order to make him immune. This was accepted practice at the time. I specifically remember the phrase “For two weeks, smallpox raged through his small body.” He had a seething fever, vomiting, delirium. Luckily, he survived. When it was over, he was immune. He was just a little boy.
The story went on to say that as an adult, he was the one who noticed that the milkmaids never got smallpox. He deduced that their exposure to cowpox had given them immunity. He developed his smallpox inoculation using strains of cowpox. He is sometimes referred to as “the father of immunology.”
Imagine what life must have been like in the Western world, in the latter half of the 18th century. People died young a heck of a lot. Children died all the time. Bereaved parents were everywhere. They tried their best to keep their children alive despite the lethal diseases. The evidence is in the story: clearly, the fear of smallpox – not to mention the likelihood – was so great that parents would rather give their children smallpox in a controlled environment, even though they risked losing them, than leave it up to chance and possibly not realize until it was too late.
Imagine how magical the smallpox vaccine must have seemed.
To me, those sound like desperate times. I’m extremely thankful not to live in them.
If Jenner could see us now, I think he’d be rather shocked. Pleased, no doubt, that “his project” took off and is still going strong; amazed and thrilled that child mortality is so uncommon that we now have the luxury of addressing more subtle issues such as learning disabilities, autism, and psycho-social problems. Shocked that in some circles, the seeming miracle of inoculation is being vilified.
Today, people are asking: Is it a good idea to vaccinate our children? It’s a hot-button issue par excellence. Many parents believe it is not a good choice. Obviously, by the above title, you will have determined that I think it is.
I have been pondering this post for a long time. I have a lot in common with many of the parents who decline to vaccinate their children; very often, they are well-educated people who fit the definition of “attachment” parents. I’m one of those breastfeeding, baby-wearing, co-sleeping moms. Just like these other parents (and frankly, most parents), I love my child more than words can say, and I just want him to be healthy and happy.
If vaccinations exist to prevent disease, why do loving parents choose not to vaccinate?
I know several parents who have been dissuaded from vaccinating their children by a book called What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Children’s Vaccinations, by Stephanie Cave. I haven’t read it, but I visited the website of the same name (and author). I was expecting to find total denunciation of the immunization program, along with appalling tales of vaccine damage, but I did not. It was basically an information page, encouraging parents to be aware and informed of possible risks. I feel sure that the message has been attenuated since the book’s publication in 2001, as it questions the validity and safety of vaccines, but is carefully worded not to deny their usefulness. This got me wondering what happened in the last ten years to weaken the crusade.
The most recent anti-vaccine movement seems to have originated with an article by Andrew Wakefield in 1998, linking the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine with autism. Wakefield’s work was later discredited, but by then the issue had celebrity status: Jim Carrey (speaking out in the Huffington Post here) and Jenny McCarthy (founder of Generation Rescue) were on board: their son had been diagnosed with autism.
There have been groups objecting to inoculation and vaccination, for myriad reasons, since Jenner’s day. People are suspicious – naturally so – especially of things mandated by powers that be. Questioning authority is practically a human instinct. Today, a large faction of people still believe, wholeheartedly, that vaccinations harm children.
I’m not going to say that’s wholly untrue. After all, injecting a human with pathogens can’t be completely harmless.
The Vaccination Risk Awareness Network cites major increases in autism, obesity, allergies, juvenile diabetes, asthma, severe mood dysregulation, and ear infections in the last 30 years, coinciding with increased vaccination schedules. Their website also contains horrifying, heartbreaking stories of “vaccine damage”, in which people of various ages have received shots and developed serious illnesses. In one of these cases, a baby girl died. These stories are tragic, awful to read.
It is worth noting that these stories also demonstrate the fallibility of the medical profession and, in some cases, individual medical professionals. Our medical system in Canada, while high-quality in global terms, is still made up of humans who get stressed and overworked, and make mistakes sometimes. And as in basically every profession, I’m sure there are some bona fide jerks in there, too.
Here’s my question: Assuming that vaccines do cause serious and sometimes fatal conditions in certain vulnerable children, imagine if the actual diseases themselves resurfaced. Wouldn’t those same children be the first to die? Why are parents of these children encouraging other parents not to vaccinate their children? Think about herd immunity: since it is known that vaccines do not work on 100% of recipients, we need to make it difficult for those diseases to survive. If most of us are immune, it’s unlikely those germs will be floating around to harm those children who are susceptible.
It makes sense that a child with a compromised immune system might react badly to a vaccine. Clearly, we need to be investing energy and resources in figuring out who those children are, and what those vulnerabilities are, in order to avoid this kind of damage. If the general population is vaccinated, we can have a situation of “community immunity” in which more susceptible children could forgo the vaccine without threat of an outbreak.
VRAN also declares: “An emerging body of evidence indicates that vaccines can damage a child’s developing immune system and brain, leading to life-threatening or debilitating disorders like autism, ADHD, asthma, peanut allergy, juvenile diabetes, etc or to SIDS, death itself. If this is true, the number of vaccine-related deaths per year outnumbers deaths from so-called “vaccine-preventable” illnesses.”
[I am not convinced that increases in the above conditions can be attributed to vaccines. As an educator in a public school, I am well aware of incidences of ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and anaphylaxis, and I am personally much more inclined to blame over-processed foods, over-chemicalized household products, lawn poisons, TV and video game habits, etc. But that’s just my perspective, based on my personal experience.]
It must be noted that those disorders, while difficult, are not contagious. If we had an autistic child, we would have a lot of challenges to deal with, but one of them would NOT be the possibility of spreading a life-threatening disease to other children.
It seems that VRAN is proving the effectiveness of immunization with that last (I’m going to call it ridiculous) statement. The use of the phrase “so-called” is bizarre: we know these illnesses are “vaccine-preventable” because vaccines are preventing them at this very moment. “Vaccine-preventable” illnesses are not killing very many people… because most people are vaccinated. The shots are doing their job. Is VRAN really suggesting we should stop vaccinating and let those diseases just take their course? See what the numbers of deaths do then?
This is my biggest beef with anti-vaccine campaigners. Those diseases DO resurface – in communities with low vaccination rates. When vaccination rates go down, those pathogens seem to be waiting to attack, leading to the periodic resurrection of illnesses we’ve been fortunate enough to mostly forget about (pertussis, measles, diphtheria, polio). In his news article dated less than two weeks ago, Stephen Adams of The Telegraph gives some statistics on the resurgence of measles in Europe and the UK this year: 26,000 cases, 7,288 hospitalizations, 9 deaths. Adams adds: “Across the continent, 90 per cent of cases have been in those definitely or probably not vaccinated […] The outbreak is the result of the dip in uptake of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.”
In my research for this post, I looked up each of the diseases we regularly immunize for in Ontario. The diseases prevented by the much-maligned MMR vaccine, while unpleasant, don’t seem that bad at first glance. Mumps is painful swelling of salivary glands; measles and rubella are nasty rashes with equally nasty attendant symptoms; they are all highly contagious. None of them have “cures” – you just treat those symptoms – but they’re not usually fatal. The potential complications are more dangerous; those range from ear infections to bronchitis, pneumonia, and encephalitis.
This “renaissance” of measles is occurring in Europe (especially France) and the U.K. – highly developed areas with advanced medical systems. Twenty-six thousand is a lot of cases – and 28% of them resulted in hospitalization. Suddenly the measles don’t seem so innocuous (pardon the usage). The death rate is only 0.03%, but it is still too much. To put it mildly, this must have been a rude shock for the families of those nine humans who died of this easily preventable disease – one that has been almost eradicated, but for pockets of unvaccinated people.
This is what I think of when I read comments from people who cite graphs showing that “all those diseases were on the decline anyway – vaccines had nothing to do with it.” I don’t care if the graphs show a decline – most of those viruses are still out there. As mentioned above, they are not gone. They make a comeback whenever they get the chance.
While I was pregnant with E, I got a free lesson in epidemiology. As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I got myself tested for immunity to Parvovirus B19, a.k.a. fifth disease, a.k.a. “slapped-cheek”. In children, symptoms of fifth disease include a rash and the trademark bright red, blotchy cheeks. The symptoms only show up after it’s no longer contagious – so it’s spreading before you know it’s there. It’s not considered a dangerous disease – except to unborn children (it can cause miscarriage or birth defects – also true of rubella).
The previous spring, there had been an outbreak of fifth disease at my school; that same spring, I suffered a miscarriage. I don’t know if those two things are related, and I am not going to overthink that. Suffice it to say, I was relieved to find that I was immune the next year, because sure enough, the “slapped cheek” streaked through the school once again.
I was teaching three different groups of Grade 1’s at the time, and was very aware of those red cheeks. Every day, there were three or four more children who looked like they’d been backhanded. The kids didn’t seem to care – they went about their business with the same energy and zaniness as usual. To me, though, it was a chilling experience. Somehow, I couldn’t help imagining those same numbers with a lethal disease, such as smallpox. Those happy, innocent children would have been dropping like flies.
Here are some things I learned about other diseases we vaccinate for:
- In early stages, can be mistaken for a bad sore throat
- Toxin coats throat/nasal passages/airway; can cause heart, kidney, and nerve damage, paralysis; life-threatening
- Highly contagious – can be passed through coughing, sneezing, laughter.
Tetanus, a.k.a. lockjaw
- Poisonous infection that blocks nerve signals from spine to muscles
- Causes muscle spasms severe enough to fracture vertebrae and tear muscles, can cause cessation of breathing; life-threatening if untreated
- These bacteria are found around the world, and can enter the body through any open wound
Pertussis a.k.a. whooping cough
- In early stages, can be mistaken for a common cold
- Can cause cessation of breathing; can lead to pneumonia; life-threatening in infants
- Highly contagious
- Viral infection most likely to be contracted by children, pregnant women, and the elderly
- Life-threatening, though more often leads to disability (paralysis)
- Highly contagious – worldwide epidemic between 1840s and 1950s
Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib)
- Highly contagious virus that is the most common cause of meningitis in babies and children
- Meningitis is the inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord, which can lead to permanent brain damage, deafness, blindness, seizures, and developmental problems.
- The germ can also cause pneumonia, septicaemia, arthritis, pericarditis, etc.
Given how worried I get when E gets a cough or a fever or a stomach bug (admittedly, more so since we lost Sebastian), I can imagine how much worse it would be if these dread diseases were running rampant in this part of the world. I would worry ALL THE TIME.
I am exceedingly grateful not to be in that position.
And to be frank, it upsets me that there are people actively, deliberately undermining community immunity. They can afford to do so because the vaccinations have driven these diseases far from us – but not far enough that they won’t return. In large enough pockets of unvaccinated people, the viruses can make themselves at home, gain strength, and start taking lives. They can then infect those few vaccinated children for whom the shot didn’t “take” – and others, such as children who have received cancer treatments and cannot be vaccinated. This is not okay.
In Amy Wallace’s article An Epidemic of Fear, one reads about Paul Offit, a doctor/scientist who helped develop the rotavirus vaccine (after seeing a little girl die of rotavirus). Offit is a primary target of anti-vaccine vitriol, seen as the profiteering “face of Big Pharma”. (I get it: parents who have seen their children suffer, even die, want to blame someone.)
Here’s the stupidest, saddest part of this whole debate.
Wallace quotes Barbara Loe Fisher, cofounder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, as saying “The first to perish were the children. […] If we believe in compassion, if we believe in the future, we will do whatever it takes to give our children back the future that is their birthright.”
She also quotes Paul Offit: “I used to say that the tide would turn when children started to die. Well, children have started to die. So now I’ve changed it to ‘when enough children start to die.’ Because obviously, we’re not there yet.”
This rancour is not productive. The two sides of this debate are fighting for the exact same thing: healthy, living children.