[The following does not claim to be an unbiased article about the pros and cons of vaccination programs. It is an attempt to take on the methods and misinformation that the pro-vaccination (pro-vaxxer) faction uses to make their case.]
There was an article posted online at Halloween time, of a woman RN in Australia, a self-professed anti-vaxxer, who said she gave trick-or-treaters chicken-pox-infected lollipops, claiming they would ‘help other kids with life-long immunity’.
First, you’ve heard the wisdom of ‘consider the source’ when reading news? Well, this piece was posted on a pro-vaxxer group’s Facebook page.
That doesn’t mean it is fabricated or even that the truth was stretched. But it would be hard to come up with a more emotionally engaging story than this if your objective is to sway public opinion in favor of mandatory vaccination programs. It reads almost like a fairy tale of a ‘wicked witch’ (the mother) exploiting innocent children for her own ends. And nothing helps a story spread like arousing strong emotion, facts be damned.
While the local police are supposedly investigating and the story has yet to be verified as of when this post was published, let’s be clear: If this episode really happened, the anti-vaxxer was certainly misguided and wrong.
That said, the pro-vaxxer faction uses fear as their primary tool, and it is very powerful. If you read carefully and focus on fact-based claims only, pro-vaxxer arguments unravel. If someone does not want their child vaccinated, that should be their right, like most any other personal health choice. The pro-vaxxers want to take that right away by using the argument of the Herd Effect. While the Herd Effect sounds convincing when you first hear the idea, if that effort had any chance of working it is negated by the fact that people who get vaccinated are only protecting themselves – if even that, since there is evidence they are merely eliminating the symptoms.
That is because people who are vaccinated are STILL CARRIERS of the disease. Here is just one of multiple published scientific papers on this you can find online:
It’s called viral shedding.
Another pro-vaxxer argument that unravels under scrutiny is that we have proof that the Herd Effect works, starting with smallpox eradication (credited to English physician Edward Jenner). Historical records of the time show that changes to public sanitation and isolation of infected individuals got rid of smallpox. If you look at infection and death rates, they plummeted much faster than could be credited to the rate at which English villagers were vaccinated. In fact, relatively few people in those villages had been vaccinated when infection and death rates started dropping. When you see the charted number of deaths from smallpox compared to the rates that were reported for the widespread adoption of improved sanitary practices, a more convincing cause and effect become apparent.
Nor could the polio vaccine effort be credited with ending the polio epidemic in the 1950’s. Rather, the ‘epidemic’ was declared over because the disease was redefined and serological testing was introduced.
Does that mean smallpox and polio vaccines don’t work? That something as simple as washing and isolation are the cause of the eradication of those diseases? Stopping people from getting sick seems like a good way to end or even avoid epidemics, by preventing people from getting sick. And gee, it seems like a pretty big coincidence that merely improving sanitation and isolation practices stopped epidemics at a time when widespread vaccination efforts were undertaken in the interest of public health.
This is not to say that smallpox and polio vaccines are altogether ineffective. But the evidence does not warrant crediting either of those vaccines with stopping epidemics. Yes, the cowpox story is well-known, but it has had vital details sort of whitewashed. For instance, Edward Jenner, the physician credited with inventing the smallpox vaccine, did not have the science right on what he put together, and the reasoning behind what he did was flawed. (Remember, it was the early days of our learning about even the existence of germs and bacteria, much less how the infection process works.)
Those with the benefit of much more scientific research about viral infections have analyzed Dr. Jenner’s work. A lot has been learned over two centuries. They have shown it is not likely that those first crude efforts at creating a vaccine could have been very effective, given the methods he used, much less could they be credited with stopping an epidemic when you consider how little vaccine was produced and distributed.
And sure, preventing the spread would be a good thing, if it worked as purported. But the facts don’t support that argument. For instance, if you read about primary immunity (what is supposedly gained by the person inoculated) you find that studies show that the immunity conferred by vaccination is almost never lifelong, and usually lasts for less than 10 years. It even fails to even provide primary immunity in more than 10% of those receiving inoculation, so those individuals are certainly not adding to the Herd Effect, since they aren’t even protected themselves.
But let’s say you accept those limitations and figure well, at least an epidemic was headed off by keeping the large majority of people from getting sick. The facts don’t support that either. Secondary immunity is not conveyed by vaccines because of a phenomenon called viral shedding. That’s where those who are vaccinated may show no symptoms, but they are still carrying the virus and can infect others just like those who are openly sick from the virus.
Keep in mind people didn’t know a lot about how infectious diseases were transmitted in 18th century England. But starting to improve sanitation practices made a huge difference! Common practices of the time were different from what is common now, given what we have since learned about basic sanitation. Like sharing the same water bucket that drew water from a well, for instance. Not washing plates and utensils. And there were certainly no dishwashers with antiseptic soaps or high-temperature water that killed viruses, germs, bacteria, fungi and mold.
It’s not hard to imagine how just one carrier, like an infected butcher whose contact with food – his hands, his knives, his butcher block – could infect an entire community. Clothing was not washed nearly as often as do now, and again, it was washed without benefit of strong soaps or extremely hot water.
On and on, you can find examples of everyday practices that were improved to reduce the spread of infection. No, it’s not sexy. And it doesn’t make as good a story as the idea of a ‘silver bullet’ like vaccines. And because it doesn’t make money for big pharmaceutical companies, you never see slick ads for good sanitary practices.
But it makes a BIG difference. Indeed, those same sanitation fundamentals continue to this day to make vast improvements in third world countries. This continues because of the education efforts of public health officials where sanitation practices and conditions are improved where infection is rampant.
If our own population, where we smugly like to think of ourselves as well-educated, was aware of all of this, we might be a little more hesitant to surrender our right to choose whether to be vaccinated or not. The lessons to be learned are to simply take the time to educate yourself from factual sources, and don’t give into hysteria.