For a perfect example of how hysteria governs modern debates over complex issues, witness what happened yesterday morning to Governor Chris Christie. For the apparently unpardonable offense of offhandedly suggesting parents ought to have some freedom to decide how their kids are vaccinated, the governor’s political career was declared over. The instantaneous eruption from America’s self-deputized thought police had the governor — only hours later — meekly offering “clarification” of his earlier comments.
The debate over vaccines, itself nearing pandemic proportions in the U.S., is following a familiar pattern. People are either pro-science or anti-; in agreement with the “consensus” or crazy “conspiracists” and “deniers.” Much like the debate over global warming, there’s no room for middle ground; preaching prudence is basically blasphemous. And just as many are calling for climate “deniers” to be ostracized and even arrested, critics and parents who question the conventional wisdom on vaccines are likewise condemned as threats against civilization itself.
Like most everyone else, I am neither a doctor nor even a scientist. But I am smart enough to know there are perfectly valid reasons to question conventional wisdom.
Take the current controversy over measles. From the looks of my Twitter feed and the comments sections under just about any vaccine-related article, you’d think we were talking about the bubonic plague. In fact, measles, despite being highly contagious, isn’t particularly dangerous. So long as your immune system is in decent shape, you’ll be fine. In fact, you might actually want it, as exposure leads to lifetime immunity.
Measles is basically a fever with an accompanying rash. It’s true that in the 1800s, outbreaks caused tragically large numbers of children to die — but these were concentrated in orphanages and hospital wards (places where malnutrition was rampant). As the world prospered, affluence spread, and health improved, in the U.S. the chances of dying after contracting measles dropped to 1-2 percent by the 1930s. By the time a vaccine was introduced in 1963, deaths from measles were virtually nonexistent. Asthma, according to “Vital Statistics of the United States, 1963,” claimed 56 times as many lives.
Today it’s popular to argue that measles would be totally defeated were it not for the Jenny McCarthys of the world. The only problem is that the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine does not actually immunize — as most people understand the word — against measles. The most we can expect is temporary protection. That’s because vaccines are injected directly into the body, bypassing the body’s natural immune response. “Most disease-causing organisms enter your body through the mucous membranes of your nose, mouth, pulmonary system or your digestive tract – not through an injection,” explains Dr. Joseph Mercola. “These mucous membranes have their own immune system, called the IgA immune system.”
Initially described as lifelong insurance, health officials realized in the ’70s, when an uptick in measles diagnoses occurred among vaccinated high-school students, that the vaccine should probably be administered more regularly. The CDC now advises receiving the vaccine at 12-15 months, 4-6 years, and again as an adult. The U.S. is also using its third version of a measles vaccine, after the first two proved ineffective.
Which should probably make it no surprise that many of the people catching measles today were vaccinated. Today’s measles cases are occurring in heavily vaccinated populations. When a 2006 outbreak among college students in the Midwest struck, the fact that most of the affected were vaccinated seemingly made no difference. When an outbreak of the mumps hit the NHL this year, many reflexively blamed “anti-vaxxers.” Almost no one reported that every affected player appears to have received the MMR vaccine. The Penguins’ Sidney Crosby received not only the initial MMR, but also a booster just before the Sochi Olympics. The director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Paul Offit, would only say “we know that the short-term effectiveness of the mumps vaccine is excellent.”
Still, none of this would suggest there’s any reason to avoid regular vaccines — were it not for side effects. And here comes another wrinkle: The MMR vaccine can itself give you measles. In 2013, measles began spreading in British Columbia after a two year-old girl contracted the virus from the vaccine, and then began spreading it to others. Though rare, there are other risks worth considering, too: According to the CDC, side effects to MMR can range from minor (fever, mild rash, swelling), to moderate (seizure, temporary low platelet count), to major (deafness, long-term seizures, permanent brain damage). Note that the latter two categories are worse than the disease itself. Perhaps a bigger problem is how these vaccines weaken the immune response among undernourished patients. “In developing countries, the use of high-titre vaccine at 4-6 months of age was associated with an unexpectedly high mortality in girls by the age of 2 years from infectious childhood illness,” a study reported in the British Medical Journal.
As recently as the 1970s, the CDC recommended children receive four vaccines. Today, per CDC protocol, children can receive around 40 shots between birth and the age of 6. What if that number grows to 100? 500? Will it always be unreasonable to ask, “Is all of this really necessary?”
Finally, this may come as a shock, but it’s actually possible for the government and the medical establishment to get things wrong. This year the CDC admitted its flu vaccine was created for the wrong strain — yet Americans are being instructed to get the shot anyway. Indeed, some parents are being threatened with having their children taken if they aren’t given this (almost certainly) useless flu vaccine. For more than a generation Americans were told to avoid as much as possible saturated fat, salt, and calories in general. More recent science shows that salt consumption has no causal relationship with blood pressure; eating healthy saturated fats like grass-fed butter is good for your heart, brain, and metabolism, and calories are actually a form of energy that gives us life.
Assigning responsibility for your children’s health and well-being to others — even “experts” — is precisely the opposite of parenting. Asking questions, educating yourself, soliciting more than one opinion: these aren’t the behaviors of people to be condemned and vilified. When someone insists you submit to the expertise of others, they’re actually asking you to stop thinking for yourself. And that’s a mistake. Vaccines, like so much of life, are more complex than a simple good-vs.-evil analysis affords. Universal solutions rarely work universally. Parents are right to do their homework.
Here’s Senator Rand Paul saying that most vaccines should be voluntary:
Editor’s Note: This article has been amended to clarify a point since publishing. If you have a disagreement with the facts presented or want to write a rebuttal then please email: DaveSwindlePJM AT Gmail.Com
image illustrations via shutterstock / Jovan Mandic, videos via Grabien