Sharing points about vaccinations
Vaccinations has become a hot topic, especially with the new outbreak of measles throughout our country. The idea of allowing a virus to be injected into your body to allow the body to learn how to protect itself works. The previous eradication of the disease and others proves it. But how safe is the process of providing mass supplies to all Americans? Are there cultural issues that may need to be considered? The following viewpoints are meant to provide you with information and firsthand experiences on vaccines.
Viewpoint I: The decision is yours to make, but educate yourself first
Some of us follow our doctor’s advice and automatically get our children fully vaccinated. Some of us follow a spread-out timeline, while others of us choose no vaccinations.
When pregnant with my firstborn, I read all things related to parenting. Topics included childbirth, infant potty training, breastfeeding, homemade baby foods, circumcision, and vaccines. The latter two I began to realize were the most controversial and least openly discussed. Efficacy of vaccines, duration of immunity after vaccination, ingredients of vaccines, duration of sickness if disease is contracted, treatments for disease, and adverse reactions to vaccines were areas I decided to learn more about.
By the numbers
If the American Academy of Pediatrics’ required vaccine schedule is followed, a child receives 39-44 vaccination shots by the time he or she turns 18 years old, although as many as 69 doses of 16 vaccines are recommended. Vaccines are not entirely effective (85% to 90%) at preventing disease, and most last 10-15 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the estimate of 2018-19 effectiveness against all influenza (flu) virus infection associated with medically attended acute respiratory infection was 47% (https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/68/wr/mm6806a2.htm).
In his book titled, “The Vaccine Book,” Dr. Robert Sears calculated from the reported adverse reactions from vaccines, the risk of a serious vaccine reaction is:
1 in 100,000 chance for each separate vaccine
1 in 35,000 chance for each round (more than 1 vaccine) of vaccines
1 in 2,600 chance for the entire 12-year vaccine schedule
Adverse reactions ranged from a sore shoulder to anaphylactic shock to death. On the flip side, a child has a 1 in 600 chance of suffering a severe case of a vaccine-preventable illness over the first 12 years of life. Statistics may show I am taking a larger risk by not vaccinating my children, but I think the number of adverse vaccine reactions, especially in the long-term regarding autoimmune diseases, is under reported.
The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) was created almost 40 years ago to analyze and track reports of possible side effects from vaccinations. This national database is co-managed by the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and is publicly accessible at wonder.cdc.gov. I did a quick search from January 2016-January 2019 for all the United States and scanned through 210 total reported events. Another quick search for the last 10 years in Texas only and for ages younger than 17 years old produced a report of six total events, all deaths. Case notes are often provided with entries. The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) is a system for resolving vaccine injury petitions and is managed by the Health Resources and Services Administration (www.hrsa.gov/vaccine-compensation/index.html).
What is in a shot?
I am concerned with human error and assumptions (due to lack of studies) with ingredients in vaccines. Ingredients in vaccines include aluminum, cow serum (the liquid part of a cow’s blood), formaldehyde, gelatin (animal collagen extracted from bones and connective tissue), human albumin (proteins from blood), chick embryo proteins, polysorbate 80 (surfactant), 2-phenoxyethanol, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/B/excipient-table-2.pdf). Tissue from aborted human fetuses have also been used, particularly for live-virus vaccines, as well as cow fetuses and blood from other primates (e.g., monkeys).
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. and maintains the website, www.ewg.org/skindeep/, with information on some of these ingredients, with data sources referenced.
Aluminum is a light metal used as an adjuvant in many vaccines, meaning it boosts the body’s immune response to the vaccine. Some literature describes it as a toxin and/or neurotoxin. Yes, aluminum is omnipresent in today’s world (food, water, air, and soil), but there is a difference between ingested and injected aluminum. No FDA documents show that aluminum in vaccines has been tested and found to be safe.
Other items of note about aluminum:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require aluminum warning labels on vaccines although it does for all other injectable medications
The FDA recommends no more than 25 micrograms of aluminum per liter of IV nutritional solutions for patients
The American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition recommends a limit of 5 micrograms per kilogram of body weight per day for patients with kidney problems and premature babies, beyond which would risk aluminum toxicity
Depending on the brand type of vaccines, the total aluminum dose given at a 2-month old baby’s visit for vaccines can result in 1,875 micrograms of aluminum injected in one day, and this is repeated at four and six months. (Each vaccine can be looked up on the CDC website for ingredients and amounts of each.)
Aluminum toxicity is difficult to detect, especially through visible symptoms only.
Aluminum can build up to toxic levels in the bloodstream, bones, and brain when injected.
Aluminum exposure has been shown to elevate levels of cytokines IL-6 and IL-17 in the brain.
What diseases have led to vaccinations?
Some diseases vaccinated against are more common and/or deadlier than others. Chicken pox, for the vast majority of people, is not a harmful disease. Many people my age and older had chickenpox and most gained lifelong immunity from having it. My parents’ generation contracted measles, and many had mumps. Today, the chickenpox vaccine and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccines are administered to prevent the corresponding illnesses.
You may have heard or read about the recent measles outbreaks. Measles is a virus that causes fever, rash, runny nose, and cough. In most cases, especially children, it lasts a week without any complications. Infection usually creates lifelong immunity. However, on extremely rare occasions, measles can infect various internal organs. Bad things could happen if you contract measles, but sometimes things could also go really wrong should an individual react to the MMR vaccine.
The product insert for the MMR vaccine highlights two particular reactions to the vaccine: chronic arthritis and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). No precise accounting of the statistical chance of these reactions has been determined for sure. In a recent paper by the Danish researchers Dr. Hviid and others in 2019, titled, “Measles, Mumps, Rubella Vaccination and Autism: A Nationwide Cohort Study,” which some has said strongly supports MMR vaccinations do not increase the risk for autism. The study was funded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and research completed by Danish vaccine maker Statens Serum Institut.
Withstanding the obvious conflict of interest, I would like to see studies in the future on American children with the American immunization schedule. I’m curious as to whether or not there would be a significant difference, are you?
Consider this: In Dr. Thomas Cowan’s book, “Vaccines, Autoimmunity, and the Changing Nature of Childhood Illness,” he references five peer-reviewed scientific publications and summarizes, “Children who successfully go through measles at the usual ages have less heart disease, arthritis, allergies, autoimmune diseases, and overall better health than those who never get measles. The measles program has turned us, immunologically speaking, into Native Americans before they encountered Europeans, with the very old and the very young highly susceptible to devastating infection.”
CDC’s webpage states, “Hepatitis B is transmitted when blood, semen, or another body fluid from a person infected with the hepatitis B virus enters the body of someone who is not infected. This can happen through sexual contact; sharing needles, syringes, or other drug-injection equipment; or from mother to baby at birth” (https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hbv/index.htm).
With this information, I realized my newborn son was not going to contract Hepatitis B because I didn’t have the virus, and my baby wouldn’t be sharing needles or having sex with others. I decided the Hepatitis B vaccine could wait until at least my son came out on the other end of puberty. Ditto for the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine. Diphtheria is virtually nonexistent in the United States, though it continues to be reported more in underdeveloped countries. If contracted, diphtheria’s rod-shaped gram-positive bacteria can be treated with antibiotics or the diphtheria antitoxin. There is also a tetanus antibody injection (in case my kids incurred a cut from rusty metal that was too deep for me to adequately clean) and a chickenpox antiviral medication. Pertussis (whooping cough) was concerning because the disease can be lengthy (about 30 days) and can be deadly for non-vaccinated infants. After the age of 6 months, pertussis no longer is life threatening. Same with Rotavirus and Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib)
As my kids mature into young adults or if we/they decide to extensively travel abroad, I am open to revisiting this issue. I actively keep a list of vaccines, such as mumps and rubella, for which I will consider for them when they are young teens. In very rare cases, mumps can render adults sterile. Although not a deadly disease, rubella can cause stillbirth and birth defects, but has been effectively eliminated from the U.S. population due to vaccines.
My first step would be to request titers (blood tests) to see if they happened to be exposed earlier during their childhood, which would render them immune from the disease. Shingles scare the heck out of me. We have almost always lived on an island near a large port city with immigrants coming in from around the world and as such, I listen and watch the pulse and news on our island for disease outbreaks. I focus on keeping my family healthy through good diet, exercise, time spent outside, avoidance of pesticides, and adequate sleep. By helping them build healthy immune systems, their little bodies will be able to orchestrate successful cell-mediated responses when confronted with viruses.
Viewpoint II: Why it’s more urgent than ever to vaccinate
Sometimes science works in funny ways. Whoever thought that in order to prevent a terrible virus, you would want to inject yourself with that very virus? Counterintuitive to say the least, but that’s exactly how vaccines work. Generations ago, brave parents allowed themselves and their kids to be injected with the diseases they feared and had seen people die from, and voila. In just a few generations, some of the most awful illnesses (polio, mumps and measles) have been almost completely eliminated.
However, in 2017, the CDC released a report showing Houstonians have the lowest rate of children vaccinated against measles in major U.S. cities. With just 87.8% of our children vaccinated, coastal kids are falling below the rate of herd immunity, the percentage of the population that needs to stay immunized for vaccines to be effective. It’s recommended to keep immunizations at 90% to 95% to maintain this herd immunity and prevent a major outbreak of an otherwise preventable disease.
But if vaccines are important for our health, why are fewer parents immunizing these days? Perhaps vaccines have been too effective for their own good. Odds are, you cannot bring to mind the image of someone suffering from smallpox or measles. To a concerned parent trying to do the best for their kids, the perceived risk of autism, which can be clearly visualized, is read by the brain as more threatening than measles, which we haven’t seen much of since vaccines started kicking the virus’ butt.
More than a dozen peer-reviewed studies have shown that there is definitively no link between vaccines and autism. A doctor, who decades ago wrote a study linking autism to vaccination, has been charged with deliberate fraud for the purposes of financial gain, and has been barred from practicing medicine, and the findings of the study thoroughly debunked.
Unfortunately for public health, to a community of anti-vaccinators this was fuel for the fire. If you search online on this topic, you’ll find thriving forums where groups support the idea that vaccines are linked to autism and other health risks. Which begs the questions—who to believe?
In writing this article, I was told by a concerned parent (who had vaccinated her child on a delayed schedule), “Now that we have the internet, you can get online and they can’t stop you from reading real people’s stories. Parents out there said that their kids were fine before the vaccines and then the day after the vaccine there was something wrong.”
There’s no doubt that we are living in a time when truth and facts feel hard to come by. But what our day-to-day life is built on, from the understanding that the earth is rotating around the sun to the idea tiny invisible things called germs make us sick, is the scientific process. We run an experiment, and if we can observe that we get the same results time after time, and enough other scientists try out the same experiment and get the same results, then we go with the findings, even if they seem really weird (like the idea of germs first was) or belief-shattering (like the idea that the earth goes around the sun and not the other way around).
As amazing as the internet is, anecdotal evidence, such as stories you find on the internet, cannot measure up to the empirical evidence we acquire through running experiments. In the case of anecdotes, such as the internet stories, personal biases often color the memories of the person telling the stories. The human mind is amazing, but it’s been shown to make all kinds of cognitive biases that can skew our reasoning, especially when we are thinking about something emotionally triggering. Empirical evidence is the scientific stuff — not as thrilling as that story your friend-who-knows-a-friend told you, but the essential, unemotional observation of data, recorded and then analyzed and then tested over and over.
When it comes to vaccinations, the emotionally charged nature of caring for our children’s health can make the “debate” online feel like the two sides are almost equal, when in fact a fear-mongering minority is putting the health of the collective at risk.
What’s the harm in a little debate?
A 2011 study has shown that parents who think about vaccines before their child is born are eight times less likely to vaccinate. In other words, just like vaccines themselves, questioning vaccines is counterintuitively more harmful than simply trusting scientific consensus. As Americans, we naturally tend to buck the notion that we should just trust the experts and mind our own business.
Isn’t authority there to be questioned? Shouldn’t I have a choice about what happens to my body or my child’s body? Here is where things get complicated. Because we also operate with the understanding that we have complete personal freedom in our choices as long as we’re not hurting anyone else. Personal choice does not affect entire communities. Because vaccinations only work when 90% to 95% of the community is immunized, we are all in this one together.
Every friend who wants to start an innocent discussion on why you might want to think about the risks of vaccinating is sowing a seed in the mind of present or future parents that makes them eight times less likely to vaccinate. Every discussion, every article published in non-scholarly papers that provides a platform for spreading the idea that vaccines are risky, is increasing the risk of vaccine-preventable disease.
We cannot afford to encourage conversations and misinformation spreading about vaccine risk when the Houston area is already below what is considered a safe rate of herd immunity. If you overhear this discussion, saying nothing may lead to someone getting sick. Step in and say something — statistics and science have your back.
Who suffers most when outbreaks occur?
There are two main communities who have lower rates of vaccination. White, upper-to-high class families who tend to express concerns of mistrusting the medical community, and families of color with a single mother raising their children in poverty.
While the first group often frames vaccination as a matter of personal choice, the second group generally misses some, or all, of their vaccinations because of complications in regularly getting full medical coverage. Under-vaccinating by the second group is not a conscious choice, but an accident of being born into a life where instead of having the free time to DIY internet research, they may miss the doctor’s appointment due to working a second or third job.
Of course, viruses don’t care how much money you have in the bank or what color your skin is. Should an outbreak occur, anyone who is unvaccinated has a likelihood of getting sick. But to a middle-class mom, taking a week off work and attending to unexpected medical bills for a child sick with measles is an inconvenience. For a mother in poverty, a week off work might mean that she could lose her job, and medical expenses would cause a huge disruption in the life of the family. Vaccination does not only affect public health, but also economics.
Vaccine hesitancy, the reluctance or refusal to have one’s children vaccinated, has been listed by the World Health Organization as one of the top 10 global health threats of 2019. The alarmingly low rate of vaccinations in our community may just be the alarm signal we needed to become more aware of the risks of not vaccinating. When we vaccinate, we’re not just protecting our kids, we’re helping keep our whole community safe.
Viewpoint III: To vaccinate or not vaccinate?
While I have my strong opinions on vaccinations, I am really hesitant to share them. After all, I’ve never studied immunology, seen an adverse vaccine reaction, or even seen a case of a disease that can be vaccinated against.
No, I take that back. My son had chicken pox. Full-blown chicken pox. An itchy welt rash all over his torso and face chicken pox. His socks were taped onto his arms, so he wouldn’t scar himself chicken pox. When it happened in 2007, the pediatrician brought all the other doctors and residents at the clinic in, so they could see what an actual case of chickenpox looks like. He said they didn’t see many actual cases anymore since most kids have been vaccinated. My son was a museum worthy exhibit. He was limp, miserable and polka dotted.
My history with vaccines as a parent
Although I am completely vaccinated myself, I began my parenting journey as an “anti-vaccer.” My vaccine stance came from first person anecdotal evidence of a friend whose two kids had thimerosal poisoning perhaps caused by out-of-date vaccines. Both kids went from absolutely perfect to autism within months. One mild, and one devastatingly severe. Their lives were suddenly fraught with screaming inconsolable children, specialist visits, chelation therapy and guilt and anger.
After a few days of online research, support from my friend group, and not seeing the studies disproving the link between autism and vaccines, I decided the risk was too great and my kids would not be vaccinated. After my son’s birth, I made the pediatrician beg to put the erythromycin my baby’s eyes to keep him from blindness. I didn’t want his helpless little feet stabbed to test for diseases he probably wouldn’t have. I declined formula. Pure and natural. His chicken-necked body was strong and perfect and could handle everything. But not chemicals and foreign, artificial substances shot into his veins to mess up his natural immunities. My choices were never challenged by whooping cough, measles or and of the other serious diseases early childhood could have thrown at us. I had two more kids. Healthy. Lucky.
A slow change in opinion
Vaccines were still a touchy subject. Slowly, I started to doubt my decision. Something felt wrong when filling out the exemption forms for preschool. At yearly well child visits, it was hard to defend my choices to our pediatrician. She was kind and respected my wishes, but also repeatedly gave me compelling information and statistics. No pressure, but a consistent message. A flood of research came out. So many studies showing the statistical safety of vaccines. The news highlighted a few clustered outbreaks of measles. Remember when the swine flu was a huge threat one season? As parents kept their kids home from kindergarten, I couldn’t justify it by the astronomically slim chance that my boy would catch it.
We changed course and began timidly to vaccinate the kids, but on a “slow schedule.” But something about my decision was still nagging and wrong. I had always been a lover of all things science. I love when we find the “why” about anything in the universe. I read books about the discoveries and share the spectacular ones on my Facebook. I trust engineers to design planes that fly and architects to design buildings that withstand hurricanes, and safety features in cars that save lives.
I trust and am in awe of modern medicine. Crazy cool stuff dreamed up in science fiction of the past is being developed now. Microscopic cameras that can be injected into your body. Robotic cells to attack viruses. At UTMB, researchers are creating 3D printed lung “scaffolds,” filled with the patient's own cells to prevent transplant rejection. Better treatments for the scariest of diseases such as HIV, Ebola and cancer are all in the works. Personally, I have been saved by blood thinners, antibiotics and even surgery when I couldn’t deliver my babies. Beloved family members have been brought back from the brink with lithium and antipsychotics or given years of life with cardiovascular care or chemo. I don’t hesitate to take an ibuprofen or use Neosporin.
My friends who are medical professionals or researchers are amazing and brilliant people driven by altruistic motives. They love my kids. They genuinely want to help people live healthy lives. Certainly, there are abuses in the system, but I hope that mostly it is propelled by the good.
Why was I so against the science that saves lives?
The “slow schedule” I forced on my kids wasn’t ever studied. Immunologists told me how to best use their miracles, and I ignored them because I was inexperienced and uncomfortable. How could I change the oil religiously in my car on a recommended schedule and then totally disregard best practices for vaccines?
That’s when I flipped on vaccines. We got the kids on schedule. Nothing bad happened. Literally nothing negative. Not even a cranky evening. In fact, my kids are pretty much the same. I’m different. I am comforted by the protections we gave them.
I am more hopeful of a healthy future for them. I can breathe when I hear about meningitis cases at a high school. Having struggled through the horrific and tragic death of a friend from cervical cancer, I felt powerful and proud explaining to my son that the Gardasil shot might eventually keep his wife safe from cancer.
I can’t take back my choice. My son suffered through the chicken pox and gave it to his partially vaccinated baby sister. Her illness was milder, but still bad. There is no do over. My kids now have a higher chance of developing shingles when they are older. And if you’ve seen how incredibly painful and debilitating shingles is, you will know how heavy that is on my heart. I hope that my kids can forgive me if they get it. I hope the shingles vaccine works when they need it.
In the end
Vaccines —it’s a controversial topic. It can be uncomfortable to have conversations about it with your friends, family members, neighbors. Each one of us has the freedom to make decisions for our own bodies and our children. Instead of living in a world where we don’t listen to each other, especially when it comes to polarizing topics, we should instead enter discussions with decorum and open minds. Include this topic of freedom into your next discussions.