I want my child to grow up dirty – in all her blackened bare feet, tangled hair, mud pie baking, snail racing, tree climbing, scraped knee-ness glory.
I will be that weird mom that yells to her kid, “Rub some dirt on it and get on with your life.”
But I am not delusional about the medicinal properties of dirt. Dirt is good, but rubbing dirt on your kid will not make them immune to measles, so just in case please vaccinate your kids in addition to letting them get dirty. Because dirt is not a miracle worker, but vaccines actually are.
I am equal parts enraged and bemused by the anti-vaccine movement that has gained considerable momentum in the past twenty years and has seemingly exploded in support and action since 2013.
And while I am a big supporter of the old adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, just STFU,” in this instance, I believe honesty is the best policy. Honesty trumps politeness. Honesty trumps keeping quiet. Honesty trumps minding your own business. Because some choices we as parents make should not be a choice at all.
The first time I heard about this notion that vaccines were potentially dangerous or that some moms choose to forgo them was long before I myself considered becoming a mother. It was around about 2010, I was 27 and was chatting to a mother to two young children.
I cannot remember how or why we got onto the topic, but vaccinations came up. She was vehemently against them, insisting that none of her children were ever vaccinated and never would be. Vaccines, in her opinion, are incredibly dangerous and the risk their administration posed to her children far outweighed any protection they provided, a benefit which according to her was also debatable.
She had incredible tales of the danger of vaccines: “They are grown on the livers of live monkeys.” “They have mercury and other toxic chemicals in them.” “They weaken the child’s immune system.” “They can cause autoimmune disorders, why do you think there are so many kids with asthma nowadays.” “They don’t even work; it’s all a money-making scheme by the doctors and Big Pharma.” “Why when there is an outbreak of measles or whatever else, the majority of people who fall ill are vaccinated?” and the most common and popularized argument – “Vaccines have been directly linked as a cause of autism.”
This was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing. I mean, I was fully immunized and there had never been any debate as to whether I would be, my mom did as the doctor (and all major medical organizations) advised and immunized all three of her children.
I turned to Google to see what it had to say on the matter and I was amazed to see that it indeed was a real thing – people were against vaccinations and were choosing to not vaccinate their children.
And from that moment I concluded that these individuals were either incredibly gullible and would believe anything or were incredibly ignorant and didn’t fully understand the scientific research proving vaccines safe, and instead, they chose to believe a random actress with absolutely no merit.
Now, I am no medical professional, no scientist. I do not currently, nor have I ever worked for a pharmaceutical company and I am not a medical professional.
I am, however, semi-literate, live in a third-world country in which people die every day from preventable and treatable diseases, and I have an interest in history. And this is what I have to say on the topic.
1. Vaccines biggest strength has become its biggest weakness.
Vaccines are widely regarded as the greatest medical advance of the 20th century. And this success has also seemingly been its downfall because it has been so successful that the moms of today, those aged fifty and under, in affluent and developed corners of the world from Cape Town to LA to Perth have had the luxury of collective amnesia.
Our generation has never seen the effects of the diseases, against which we vaccinate, in full force. How many of us have had our child suffer permanent disability at the hands of polio? Or had half our child’s school class die from a smallpox outbreak? Or have given birth to a child that is marred by blindness, deafness and a damaged heart because you were exposed to German Measles (or Rubella) in the early stages of your pregnancy?
I venture to say none to any of the above questions. Vaccines have allowed us as a civilization to in some instances and areas of the world eradicate infectious diseases like smallpox and polio.
The first ever vaccination against infectious disease was pioneered at the end of the 1700s in Britain, it was developed to fight smallpox, which was a massive killer around the world. In the 1600s and 1700s, 1 in 13 of all deaths in London was caused by smallpox. When the vaccine was introduced in 1796 the number of deaths caused by the disease sharply declined to reach 0.50% – 2% of deaths.
Interestingly, in 1980, the WHO officially certified the global elimination of smallpox, the first ever eradication of a disease in human history, and at the time the organisation recommended that all countries cease vaccination and that all laboratories should destroy their remaining stocks. Surely if there was some massive conspiracy theory by big pharma, doctors and the medical fraternity they would have continued to vaccinate against this disease and reap the monetary benefits?
The last major outbreak of polio in the United States was in 1953 where 57,879 cases were reported and 3 147 of those cases resulted in death and many more of these cases would have resulted in paralysis or disability. According to WHO, polio mainly affects children under the age of five, so it is heart-breaking to imagine that the victims of this awful disease are pre-school children. If not for vaccinations, Izzy would fall into this vulnerable group.
It was in this decade – the 1950’s – that the first effective polio vaccines were developed, and it was in the second half of this decade and the beginning of the next that the polio outbreaks plummeted, and I mean plummeted, from the tens of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths in 1953 to 449 cases and 41 deaths in 1963. The number of cases and deaths has continued to decline, with only a handful of cases being reported yearly. The global push to end polio has reached its final stages, with just 3 remaining countries still working to eradicate this debilitating disease.
According to the WHO, “Vaccines have prevented at least 10 million deaths between 2010 and 2015, and many more lives were protected from illness (like whooping cough, mumps and measles).”
And this is the blissful ignorance that vaccinating has bought us. But with several decades of life without the horrors infectious disease reap on our children staring us in the face day to day, we have had the luxury of time and naivety to question the value of vaccinating, the ignorance to think that a vaccine’s benefits far out way its drawbacks and the arrogance to believe our Google degree in medicine supersedes that of an actual medical degree and countless years of experience at the frontline of disease and suffering.
All you have to do is talk to a historian and you will quickly gain a glimpse into the world before vaccines. Erika Holst, a historian, shares her opinion on the matter and recounts some of the writings from the 18thcentury she and her colleagues have encountered during the course of their work.
“I couldn’t help but notice that all my historian friends fell firmly into the camp of pro-vaccines. Even the crunchy ones, even the woman who home-schools her kids and gave birth at home in an inflatable pool,”, she says.
She explains further, “The reason for this is best summed up by my friend Kristen Wands, a curator in Wethersfield, Connecticut: “I read the letters and diaries of anguished 18th-century parents who lost numerous children to diseases we can prevent and treat today. I know what a world without vaccines looks like, and you wouldn’t want to live there.”
Holst goes on to share additional insight into a world where deadly illnesses are commonplace. “How necessary to live in constant readiness for death’s summons,” wrote Helen Edwards. Our ancestors lived with the acute awareness that death was never far from life, often ending correspondence “if you live” or “if I live.”
She goes on to say, “Try to imagine, for a moment, if every time your child got a runny nose, you wondered if that illness would be his last. Try to imagine loving your children and grandchildren, but not daring to assume that they would all grow to adulthood. Try to imagine families who had not buried their children being the exception, not the rule. Try to imagine if a quarter of the children you know would not live to see their fifth birthdays. Our ancestors, who watched their children die of the diseases vaccines prevent, would have given just about anything to have had them.”
2. Vaccines do not cause autism or any other disorder.
Time and time again, vaccines have been proven to be safe. While there have always been the fringe conspiracy theorists who distrust most things, vaccines included, the watershed moment for the anti-vaccine movement occurred in 1998, when Andrew Wakefield (I cannot bring myself to call him a doctor but at the time he was) published a medical paper in medical journal, the Lancet, suggesting a link between the combination measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and gut problems in children who had autism.
The paper featured the cases of eight children – not hundreds, eight. He went on to advise at a press conference against the vaccine, which spurred the press to run sensational stories featuring children whose autism became evident around about the same time as their MMR shot. This type of tabloid reporting sent parents into a panic and that panic is seemingly still aflutter twenty years later.
Not long after publishing, the paper linking the MMR vaccine and autism was retracted from the Lancet, the gastroenterologist lost his job and, in 2010, Wakefield’s license to practice medicine was revoked as he was struck from the medical register.
Wakefield’s credibility was further destroyed by revelations of numerous conflicts of interest. Before publishing his paper, he had filed a patent for his own version of the MMR vaccine. He was also discovered to have been paid hundreds of thousands of pounds by the UK Legal Aid Fund for expert testimony in a class action suit against MMR manufacturers. None of these conflicts of interest were declared by him at any point.
While it has been firmly established scientifically and medically that there is no link between vaccines and autism, would I change my mind even if it was proven that there was a link? I can say with absolute certainty that I would rather risk my child developing autism than dying of horrific death at the hands of a preventable disease.
My child is not autistic so I cannot comment on the various challenges and hardships both the parents and the child must face throughout their lives, I am sure there are many, but surely as a parent, we would not choose death over autism, nor would our children?
Jenny McCarthy, a prominent anti-vaccine advocate, mother of a child with autism and former reality TV star, was once quoted as saying, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the fucking measles.” I find this statement incredibly hard to believe. What’s more, I find this kind of statement derogatory when viewed in light of how people with autism feel about themselves and their neurodiversity.
Some of the most gifted human beings, those who have enriched the human race have been on the spectrum of neurodiversity – scientists, poets, filmmakers, artists, philosophers and inventors. And many were gifted because of their neurodiversity not in spite of it.
Even if a link was found to exist between vaccines and non-life threatening neurological disorder, are we really implying that autism is such a fearful and horrendous condition that parents and children are safer refusing vaccination in order to avoid the risk of developing autism? Are measles, mumps, rubella, polio really the safer options, the less scary illnesses, the preferred choice?
3. It is absolutely everyone’s business.
Those of us who believe there is a choice when it comes to vaccinating, or believe it is a parent’s right to refuse vaccination, that the only ones affected by the choice are your child and your family. That this is a private and personal decision that is nobody else’s business. When parents think this way, it acutely reveals the levels of ignorance and misunderstanding in relation to vaccines and how they work.
It reveals exactly why we need to listen to medical professionals and not our sisters’ hairdresser’s auntie. It reveals exactly why misinformation is so dangerous as a video made by a relatively unknown source with soft music, questionable statistics and hard-hitting statements shared on Facebook is more credible than your family doctor.
Your child is not an island and your decisions do not only affect your family’s health but other children’s as well. The reason for this is because vaccines do not just protect the individual, they are at their most powerful and effective when a certain percentage of the population has been vaccinated.
Vaccines work in two ways. The first is by using dead or damaged pathogens, our bodies are exposed to a small amount of the actual illness you are being vaccinated against in order to force a response from your immune system. This provides our bodies with the opportunity, in the absence of any real danger or symptoms, to develop antibodies and forming an immunity against that particular illness. This does not mean one cannot contract the disease, albeit the chances of this are significantly lower, but if on the off chance one does get sick the effects should be far less severe.
The second way they work is termed herd immunity. Basically, what herd immunity means is that each contagious disease has a magic number that acts as a barrier to this disease progressing and resulting in an outbreak. If enough people are vaccinated against disease (typically 90% and higher), it has trouble spreading because there are so few susceptible people left to infect.
This herd immunity is important in several ways – it lessens the severity of an outbreak, it has the potential to eradicate a disease entirely, and almost the most important benefit is to those members of our communities who are most vulnerable.
Herd immunity protects those who are too young to be vaccinated (like newborns), those who have allergies and cannot be vaccinated, and/or those who are autoimmune compromised either from an autoimmune disease or other illnesses and their treatments – HIV/AIDS, lymphoma, leukaemia, undergoing chemotherapy or radiotherapy.
In fact, the above-mentioned examples are not exhaustive, there is a myriad of instances where children require their community to provide them with protection from contagious diseases and infection. And the only way to protect the whole herd is by everyone who can vaccinate vaccinating.
Nobody can force another person to succumb to medical treatment, it is not ethical nor is it legal, however, those parents who choose to forgo inoculating their children against these diseases need to be ready to accept being rejected by the greater herd. Essentially, these parents have broken a social contract that we all agree to when we choose to live amongst others.
Perhaps they should form their own herd that is excluded from the greater population – this mini herd should not be allowed to attend schools, hospitals, public transport, communal areas with the greater vaccinated herd because they have chosen to reject the norms that keep that herd safe.
4. I dare you to show me a completely natural and modern lifestyle in the 21st century.
Some vaccine skeptics site the ingredients of vaccines as being problematic. Many people freaked out about the preservative thimerosal (an antifungal agent used to preserve multi-dose vials) and its dangers – which are non-existent – because it also contains a mercury atom in it and mercury is bad. Really bad. The mercury in thimerosal is ethyl mercury which gets flushed from the body, unlike methyl mercury which is actually pretty bad for us.
So, perhaps next time a vaccine skeptic is enjoying some tuna sashimi, which incidentally does contain the bad mercury, remind me again why we don’t vaccinate our kids.
Because of this outrage, thimerosal was removed from vaccines, which didn’t achieve much other than increasing the price of vaccines as the cost efficiency of multi-dose vials was lost.
Other troublesome ingredients include formaldehyde, aluminium and hydrochloric acid. Not only are all of these ingredients present in such minuscule amounts they are negligible, our environment offers higher doses of these chemicals on a daily basis.
There is more formaldehyde in an apple than in a vaccine, in fact, your body produces formaldehyde as a natural metabolic by-product. Hydrochloric acid is used to make the alkaline vaccine pH neutral, thus the acid is neutralised. On average, every day, we breathe, eat or drink 30-50mg of aluminium, more than 20 times the maximum allowed dose in a vaccine.
In all seriousness, I am not trying to pretend that chemicals and toxins are good for you and that we shouldn’t worry about what we put into our bodies. But what I am trying impress is that we need to retain perspective when considering these things – we are probably exposed to higher doses of chemicals and toxins sitting in traffic, colouring our hair or eating processed food than we are going to inject through a vaccine.
I feel it is far more unnatural for us to stand by and watch a large number of children dying from contagious diseases that are entirely vaccine preventable.
As one mom on Facebook, so eloquently put it: “People say ‘well what did people do before vaccines/antibiotics/pasteurization?’ as if that’s an argument for going natural. They died, Carol. A lot of people died.”
5. Vaccines do work; just ask small pox.
Some vaccination skeptics believe that vaccines do not work. And while it is true that they are not 100% effective, no drug is. I for one would rather give my child even a 50% chance of protections versus no protection at all.
This belief is reinforced by bad math. Often when an outbreak of a disease does occur, more vaccinated people often fall ill than non-vaccinated. Well, duh, people. The History Of Vaccines Project by The College of Physicians of Philadelphia offers an excellent explanation of why this occurs. Basically, it boils down to the fact that the number of vaccinated people is much higher than unvaccinated people so the number of vaccinated people will also be higher though the percentage of vaccinated people who get sick will be much lower.
But I guess the best way for us to learn the value of vaccinations is to see the resurgence of the awful diseases that have been all but eradicated. With outbreaks of Measles and Mumps being seen around the world, including South Africa and Europe seeing a four-fold increase in measles cases in 2017 and 37 deaths in the first half of 2018, the highest numbers in a decade, we will soon learn the hard way what our choice has cost us or worse what is has cost the other children our unvaccinated child encounters.
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