The Vaccine Debate
To say that many issues have become polarized in today’s culture is an understatement, and we owe this, at least in part, to the deepening wedge between the left and the right, our tribal sense of belonging, and a social media culture that constantly feeds the beast. It seems to require very little to stoke the flames and turn a seemingly harmless discussion into a full-fledged slug fest, and anybody with a horse in the race – or, frankly, just an opinion – is suddenly an expert, no credentials required, or benefit of the doubt allowed. Often, the conversation, drifting ever further from the original subject, spirals out of control in no time at all and takes on a life of its own.
But nowhere is this truer than when the subject matter is vaccines.
Follow any thread on either side of the debate, and it begins derailing about three lines in. The vaccine supporters accuse the anti-vaxxers of being uninformed, dangerous quacks who get their medical information from questionable sources and spread lies without an iota of conscience, while those who question vaccines label all those who support them as sheeple who have blindly accepted the word of Pharma the Almighty and are being duped about the safety of the ingredients injected into their babies and children.
Both sides are so busy shouting each other down and calling each other names – and we all know how conducive this is to a rational discussion - that nobody has really taken the time to establish any common ground as to what specific issues, exactly, are at play. Besides, do those who support vaccines really agree that all vaccines are safe, that all vaccines are necessary? That Big Pharma is beyond reproach, always looking out for the people’s best interest rather than its own pocket book? That there’s no reason to be cautious? I wouldn’t know, because that conversation has never taken place, but I doubt it. Conversely, do anti-vaxxers say that every vaccine should be rejected? That there’s no wiggle room and that maybe, in some cases, it makes sense to have your child inoculated? Again, we don’t know because we have never made it this far into the conversation.
So let’s begin with the presumption of innocence, and that the industry really does care about having a healthy population and protecting its weakest from any unnecessary and avoidable hazards. There will likely never be a shortage of diseases to treat, and it’s safe to assume that pharma will not go bankrupt due to lack of patients. And while the oft-recurring meme “The pharmaceutical industry does not create cures, it creates clients” is a popular soundbite, it reeks of cynicism and misplaced scorn as we have all been, at one point or another, the grateful recipients of medication that has helped us heal and get back on our feet. It’s just as difficult to imagine that a pediatrician - who has put years of blood, sweat and tears into his or her studies, passing the most gruelling exams, from the first admission test to finally being licensed to practice medicine 10 years later, driven above all by a deep concern for the health of infants - would wilfully ignore any signs pointing to dangers in vaccines or, worse yet, purposely agree to harm children.
Let us also safely assume that parents on both sides of the debate want only the best for their offspring, and that their intent is to protect them by any means possible. Regardless of the actual details of the issues at stake, nobody can accuse the other of acting in bad faith or against their child’s best interests. We have to, at the very least, be able to agree on this, and accept that all parents involved are acting out of concern and love.
Which leaves us with the actual issues.
Diseases eradicated by vaccines
The most common argument in favour of vaccines seems to be that their introduction has led to the eradication of certain diseases such as polio and the measles.
The polio vaccine came about in 1955, by which time the disease had pretty much run its course. The argument is made that sanitation, clean water systems and plumbing had had a lot to do with this, and that the vaccine was introduced at a time when polio had become almost irrelevant in terms of a real threat. The same can be said about Pertussis (whooping cough) and Diphtheria.
By comparison, diseases such as Scarlet and Typhoid fever saw a parallel decline at the very same time (around 1950) despite the complete absence of any vaccine to counter them, so it doesn’t seem that far-fetched to question to what degree, if any, vaccines were responsible for reining in some of those diseases.
The liability of vaccine companies
In 1986 Congress passed the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act (NCVIA), allowing for a party alleging a vaccine-related injury to file a petition for compensation in the Court of Federal Claims. Thus the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program was created, taking the burden of responsibility - and compensation - off the pharmaceutical companies, with taxpayers left holding the bag. 42 U.S. Code § 300aa–22 states, “(1) No vaccine manufacturer shall be liable in a civil action for damages arising from a vaccine-related injury or death associated with the administration of a vaccine after October 1, 1988, if the injury or death resulted from side effects that were unavoidable even though the vaccine was properly prepared and was accompanied by proper directions and warnings.”
Vaccine companies, understandably, did not want to have to deal with legal matters and one might argue that it was critical to allow them the ability to continue their operations while letting a separate entity deal with the fallouts. That said, there is no denying that this court was set up, in the words of the US code itself, specifically to deal with vaccine injuries and/or deaths, so there is no argument about whether or not vaccine injuries occur, and $4 billion – billion, with a “B” - in payouts since then confirms that these occurrences are neither random nor exceptional.
The World Health Organization (WHO) itself lists the potential hazards for each vaccine, such as the MMR, so - just to be clear - the dangers may be downplayed or flat-out denied by doctors and the population in general, but they are very much on the radar of the companies producing vaccines.
The numbers game
Given that we have to admit that people do suffer injuries and even death as a result of vaccines, the question becomes, crudely: what’s the cost-benefit ratio? Depending on the vaccine, there are only single-digit occurrences of deaths for a million doses given (officially anyway). Do vaccine defenders feel that this is just a case of applied math and that the low numbers of deaths are negligible and thus justifiable? That one death is preferable to potentially many children infected? Do anti-vaxxers state the opposite? And how do we even know what the number of infections would be? We have no way of assessing the probabilities, or the level of impact.
Also worth mentioning is that the vaccine schedule has changed dramatically over the years. The dose has more than doubled between 1983 and 2017 for children by age 6, and almost tripled for children by the time they are 18.
Compare that to 5 doses in 1962, and we are not in Kansas anymore.
Are all of today’s vaccines critical and necessary? If supporters agree that they are not necessarily so, does it make sense to take them all anyway “just in case”? Besides, does anyone really believe that we have reached the end of this chapter? New vaccines are constantly being worked on, including one for the common cold. Is there a line that even vaccine supporters would not cross, a dosage amount that would be considered one too many? Should people be allowed to decide for themselves which vaccines are relevant? Which are not worth the risk? Is it really necessary to inject your newborn on his first day on earth with a shot against Hepatitis B, a disease you only contract through needles and sex and that becomes ineffective by the time your child is old enough to be exposed to needles and sex? What about chicken pox and measles? Were they not, just a short while ago, simply uncomfortable periods children suffered through as a rite of passage? Not to mention that contracting the disease usually affords you lifelong immunity from ever catching it again, compared to the shelf life of a vaccine.
Which brings us to the concept of herd immunity. Considering that most adults today have not had a vaccine or booster shot since turning 18, or 14, or 12, and that the effectiveness of vaccines wears off after a certain amount of years, exactly how much herd immunity do we really have?
A lot has been said about the dangers posed by the vaccine ingredients. The vaccine companies are quite forthcoming about what they include: aluminum, formaldehyde, thimerosal (mercury, still in flu vaccines), polysorbate 80 and aborted fetal cells, among some of the headscratchers. The argument by those in the industry is that their amounts are so minimal that it is ridiculous to worry, and that the form under which they are injected differs vastly from the actual raw chemical element we would find in a lab. But for those of us who are not pharmacists, chemists or scientists in general, it is difficult to understand how, exactly, this is different. And if it is normally dangerous to ingest any of these orally, how can it carry no risk whatsoever to inject them directly into the bloodstream of a tiny human being? If we are advised to control our intake of fish due to mercury, even though our body eventually rids itself of the food, how is it perfectly alright to inject aluminum, which the body doesn’t shed and which usually travels to the brain and settles there? No amount of research is going to help us see clear on this one. We are being asked to blindly trust that all is in order and not to ask any questions.
Except it is clearly not, because otherwise there would be no Vaccine Injury Compensation program. So if there are risks, why are parents not told about them? When we buy food, we not only have access to the information list of ingredients, it is required by law that food companies provide this to the consumer. When we pick up our prescribed medication at the pharmacy, we are handed a sheet of information listing all the possible side effects of said medication, all the precautions we need to take, all the warning signs we need to look out for.
How are parents not afforded the same consideration with vaccines? Allowed to weigh the pros and cons themselves and decide if they would like to proceed?
Without additional contributing factors, the parallel rise in vaccine doses and the rate of autism spectrum disorder is insufficient to establish a connection. Likewise, the US’ abysmal child mortality rate, which hovers around 6 deaths per thousand, placing it in 28th place worldwide, is likely mostly due to the absence of accessible universal health care.
But that doesn’t disprove, or rule out, vaccines as contributing factors to both autism and child mortality, especially considering that a connection has in fact been established, and not just in Dr Andrew Wakefield’s study – the famously retracted paper being held up as vindication by vaccine supporters who claim this was the only study creating a link between vaccines and autism. In reality, there have been numerous studies showing such a link, and to ignore them seems reckless. Examples, which can be found on the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) government web site, are given at the end of this article.
And finally, there are the parents. Those who know their children better than anyone. Those who watch their progress every day, who can tell you exactly what their child is capable of doing at every stage of its young life. And when a parent sees their child turn from an active, curious, agile little tot to a lethargic, non-reactive lump who can no longer utter words he could say the day before, or walk like he did all week, and that this all happened within 48 hours of a vaccine, then it becomes extremely difficult to chalk it up to sheer coincidence.
A badly needed dialog
We must get back to the basics of rational discussion and address the issues while steering clear of ad-hominem attacks – the modern-day equivalent of “Kill the Messenger”. If we are going to make any headway, vaccine supporters, and especially those involved in the production, promotion and dispensing of vaccines, need to address the vaccine skeptics’ legitimate points and concerns because, as we have shown, there is no shortage of those. This is not about being right, or feeling morally superior, or about making a point. It's about having all the info - on both sides - and evaluating the situation objectively so that we can make informed decisions regarding those that matter more than anyone else in the world and who do not have a voice, or a say, in the matter: our children.
Even with the best of intentions, it may not be enough.
But it would at least be a start.
Annals of Epidemiology, Hepatitis B vaccination of male neonates and autism diagnosis, NHIS 1997-2002. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21058170
Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, Porphyrinuria in childhood autistic disorder: Implications for environmental toxicity https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16782144
Journal of Child Neurology, Developmental Regression and Mitochondrial Dysfunction in a Child With Autism https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2536523/
The Neuroscientist, Large Brains in Autism: The Challenge of Pervasive Abnormality https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16151044
Journal of Pediatric Neurosciences, Pediatric Autoimmune Encephalitis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5588635/
Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, Anti-N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptor encephalitis: an unusual cause of autistic regression in a toddler. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24092894
Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry: Do aluminum vaccine adjuvants contribute to the rising prevalence of autism? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22099159
Surgical Neurology International, Immunoexcitotoxicity as the central mechanism of etiopathology and treatment of autism spectrum disorders: A possible role of fluoride and aluminum. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5909100/
Metabolic Brain Disease, The putative role of environmental aluminium in the development of chronic neuropathology in adults and children. How strong is the evidence and what could be the mechanisms involved? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5596046/
Transnational Psychiatry, Atopic diseases and inflammation of the brain in the pathogenesis of autism spectrum disorders, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4931610/
Journal of Alzheimers Disease and Parkinsonism, Natural and Synthetic Neurotoxins in Our Environment: From Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5059837/
Journal of Immunotoxicology, Theoretical aspects of autism: causes--a review. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21299355
Sandra is a blogger, life coach and activist.
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