When it comes to vaccines, reason and nuance are in short supply and, in any case, despised on both sides of the argument.
It’s time once again for one of my least favorite topics: vaccinations. Why do I have such a problem with the topic? Quite simply, no one wants to listen to a nuanced opinion that doesn’t come down firmly on one side or the other. Everyone, on both sides of the argument, believes that anyone who doesn’t agree with their position 100% is evil and ignorant. Anti-vaxxers don’t want to listen to anyone who won’t unreservedly condemn vaccines as more dangerous than the plague and swear they provide no ostensible benefits. Meanwhile, the medical community and, therefore, the mainstream media believe that anyone who doesn’t drink the Kool-Aid they’re selling that vaccines are perfectly safe and completely effective is an ignorant quack. In fact, as I have stated on numerous occasions, vaccines:
- Are not as effective as the medical community and the media promote.
- Nor are they as safe as promised.
- On the other hand, they are not as ineffective as many in the alternative health community believe.
- Nor are they quite as dangerous as claimed.
Unfortunately, as I’ve already said, when it comes to vaccines, reason and nuance are in short supply and, in any case, despised on both sides of the argument. Alas, thanks to a new study, things are likely to get worse–much worse.
We’ll talk about the study in a moment, but first I would like to tell you a true story. As I suggested at the top of the newsletter, every time I write an article on vaccines, the staff here at the Foundation has to brace itself for a hail storm of complaints. Here’s one such email we received the last time I wrote anything about vaccines.
“There is so much evidence against the dangers of vaccines, publishing this article does you no favours! Here in the UK hundreds of thousands of young children’s lives have been so terribly damaged by vaccines, they will never live a normal life. Their parents have such a burden to carry, the whole business is beyond words. The government’s response…………….they shut them up!
“The molecular structure of vaccines are highly toxic to the body’s cellular system. This is what keeps the body in good working order. To damage it in this way (by pumping individuals with nasty chemicals) then blame them, their parents for the ill health, which will undoubtedly ensue, is the height of barbarism.
“Nature knows best. Always will.”
Our staff responded.
“In his article, Jon acknowledges that vaccines are not as safe as claimed, but your claim that ‘hundreds of thousands of young children’s lives have been so terribly damaged’ in the UK alone seems a skosh high. Do you have any references that can validate that number in any way other than just an article on the net written by someone asserting it? We can find validated numbers that show 2,000 new cases of measles every year in the UK, whereas, just a few decades ago it was virtually non-existent.1 “Confirmed cases of Measles, Mumps and Rubella 1996-2013.” The National Archives Public Health England. (Accessed 21 Aug 2015.) http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140505192926/http://www.hpa.org.uk/web/HPAweb&HPAwebStandard/HPAweb_C/1195733833790 This represents a 20-fold increase in the incidence of measles in just the last decade–a timeframe that mirrors rapid growth in the anti-vaccination movement in the UK. Incidentally, measles kills over 150,000 children worldwide every year.2 “Global Measles Mortality, 2000–2008.” CDC MMWR December 4, 2009 / 58(47);1321-1326 http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5847a2.htm And that number is documented. And that is indeed “such a burden for parents to carry–beyond words.”
“Ultimately each vaccine must be evaluated on a case by case basis–risk vs reward. We don’t think anyone really wants a return to the days when children were mowed down by diphtheria and crippled by polio. Would you really want to console a family that lost half its members to small pox last century with ‘nature knows best?'”
Not surprisingly, we didn’t hear back on our request for documentation. In fact, between 1993 and 2,000, the number of claims made by families in Great Britain against vaccine manufacturers totaled just over 1,000, which is a far, far cry from hundreds of thousands. So was the person who wrote in lying? I highly doubt it. They seemed quite sincere. What I believe is that they read on some website that hundreds of thousands of children had been damaged by vaccines in Great Britain, and since that narrative fit their preconceived narrative and was also decidedly scary, they accepted it as fact, without ever bothering to verify. And the problem is that when enough people pass the same misinformation back and forth amongst themselves often enough, it acquires the “mantel of truth” simply by virtue of repetition. Hey, this is hardly restricted to the anti-vaccination movement. How many doctors believe and have passed on the “fact” that the flu vaccine is 90% effective. It’s not, of course. As the CDC itself has pointed out, effectiveness for the flu vaccine ranges from 20-60%. In fact, the vaccine for the last flu season was only 23% effective.3 “Protection from Flu Vaccination Reduced this Season.” CDC. January 15, 2015. (Accessed 21 Jan 2015.) http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/p0115-flu-vaccination.html
So, do I think our response changed the commenter’s mind? Not at all; it didn’t fit her paradigm. And, unfortunately, facts rarely penetrate paradigms. I have a friend who is always sending me the latest conspiracy theory he’s seen on the net. You might think that when I send him back categorical proof that the so-called conspiracy is nothing more than a long running hoax, it might serve to change his mind. Not a chance. All it does is make him angry that I didn’t believe it anyway, so I no longer even bother.
And that’s the problem when it comes to vaccines: everyone’s position is already fixed. Any facts that contradict someone’s preexisting position are immediately dismissed as irrelevant or fabricated, and any data, no matter how fantastical, that supports your position is accepted without question, without verification. Unfortunately, vaccination is far, far too important an issue to be debated in terms of misinformation that caters to our worst fears.
And as I said at the top of the newsletter, thanks to a new study, it’s about to get even worse.
The Study: Countering Anti-vaccination Attitudes
In 2000, measles was thought to have been eradicated in the United States. Since then, however, it has made a comeback. The reemergence of measles has been linked by the medical community to an increase in the number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children. According to authors of a study that came out earlier this month, parents who refuse vaccines cite fears that vaccinations have harmful side effects–specifically a causal link between certain vaccinations and a child’s risk for autism.4 Zachary Hornea, Derek Powellb, John E. Hummela, and Keith J. Holyoakb. “Countering antivaccination attitudes.” PNAS 2015 ; published ahead of print August 3, 2015. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2015/07/28/1504019112 The medical community claims that any studies that link vaccines to autism have now been discredited.5 T. S. Sathyanarayana Rao and Chittaranjan Andrade. “The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud.” Indian J Psychiatry. 2011 Apr-Jun; 53(2): 95–96. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3136032/ , 6 Taylor LE, Swerdfeger AL, Eslick GD. “Vaccines are not associated with autism: An evidence-based meta-analysis of case-control and cohort studies.” Vaccine 2014 Jun 17;32(29):3623-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24814559/ [And in fact, they might be right on this particular point. But they also claim that this proves that vaccines are perfectly safe, which it doesn’t. We’ll talk more about this later.] In any case, as the researchers state, despite efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undermine anti-vaccination attitudes and almost universal support for vaccinations among healthcare providers, vaccination rates have declined and the incidence of measles has gone up. In 2014, there were 644 cases of measles reported in the United States–three times as many cases as were reported the year before.7 “Transcript for CDC Telebriefing: Measles in the United States, 2015.” CDC January 29, 2014. (Accessed 13 Aug 2015.) http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/t0129-measles-in-us.html In Europe, where the anti-vaccination movement is even stronger than in the US, the numbers are much worse. Between 2010 and 2013, an average of 30,000 cases of measles were reported each year.8 “Measles incidence drops in Europe, but transmission continues.” WHO 13-02-2015. (Accessed 25 Aug 2015.) http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/communicable-diseases/measles-and-rubella/news/news/2015/02/measles-incidence-drops-in-europe,-but-transmission-continues Notably, as vaccination rates in Europe finally began to improve, the number of cases dropped dramatically–effectively halving in 2014.
As the study points out, it was assumed by the medical community that, having “disproven” the harmful effects of vaccines, doctors and health organizations should have simply been able to reassure parents about the safety of vaccines through direct scientific education. However, recent findings have led researchers to question whether direct pro-vaccine messages actually work, even raising the possibility that they may be counterproductive.9 Nyhan B, Reifler J, Richey S, Freed GL. “Effective messages in vaccine promotion: A randomized trial.” Pediatrics 133(4):e835–e842. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2014/02/25/peds.2013-2365.full.pdf One study, for example presented parents with pro-vaccine information from the CDC website, but these pro-vaccine messages failed to improve the parent’s attitudes toward vaccination.10 Nyhan B, Reifler J. “Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information.” Vaccine Volume 33, Issue 3, 9 January 2015, Pages 459–464. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0264410X14015424 In fact, these studies reported a “backfire effect.” Vaccine skeptics formed even stronger negative opinions about vaccinations after being given information intended to undermine the supposed connection between vaccinations and autism.11 Lord CG, Ross L, Lepper MR. “Biased assimilation and attitude polarization: The effects of prior theories on subsequently considered evidence.” J Pers Soc Psychol 1979, Vol. 37, No. 11, 2098-2109. http://synapse.princeton.edu/~sam/lord_ross_lepper79_JPSP_biased-assimilation-and-attitude-polarization.pdf (Remember, I did say that facts rarely penetrate paradigms.)
Given this background, the researchers then determined the focus of their study. “We suspect that a stronger direct message holds promise for influencing parents’ vaccine attitudes. A normative analysis of vaccination decisions implies that parents’ decisions to accept or refuse vaccinations for their children should depend on not only the risks associated with vaccinating, but also the risks of not vaccinating. This reasoning suggests another avenue by which people’s attitudes might be influenced. Rather than attempting to overcome vaccination myths by convincing parents of the safety of vaccines, pro-vaccine messages might be more effective if they work to convince parents of the dangers of failing to vaccinate their children.”
Or, to translate into English: scaring the bejeebers out of parents might be the surest way to get them to vaccinate their children. Or, in other words, let’s use the tactics of the anti-vaxxers–but even stronger!
The participants in the study — led by University of Illinois researcher Zachary Horne — were randomly assigned to one of three groups: (1) disease risk intervention, (2) autism correction intervention, (3) or a control intervention.
Group 1 was essentially the scare tactics group: They learned about the disease risks by reading three pieces of information taken from the CDC website in randomized order: (i) a paragraph written from a mother’s perspective about her child contracting measles, (ii) a picture of a child with measles, a child with mumps, and an infant with rubella, and (iii) three short warnings about how important it is for people to vaccinate their children. The clincher might have been “i”, the written account of a mom’s experience dealing with her 10-month-old boy’s life-threatening bout with measles. “We spent three days in the hospital fearing we might lose our baby boy,” Megan Campbell wrote. “He couldn’t drink or eat, so he was on an IV, and for a while he seemed to be wasting away.” Internalizing Megan Campbell’s fear seemed to be the thing that sealed the deal.
Participants assigned to group 2, the autism correction condition, read information taken from the CDC website summarizing recent research showing that vaccines do not increase the risk of autism in children. This is essentially the standard approach currently in place that has proven largely ineffective.
And participants in group 3, the control group, read an unrelated scientific vignette about birds.12 Hornea Study, Supplemental Information http://www.pnas.org/content/suppl/2015/07/28/1504019112.DCSupplemental/pnas.1504019112.sapp.pdf
The chart is pretty clear: those who were fed stories about the terrible things that can happen as a result of avoiding vaccines (far left, in green) recorded the greatest change in attitude–by a lot. Quite simply, debunking doesn’t change minds–fearmongering does!
As the study’s authors write, “Rather than attempting to dispel myths about the dangers of vaccinations, we recommend that the very real dangers posed by serious diseases, like measles, mumps, and rubella, be emphasized.” Even better, they suggest that parents are likely to be more responsive to “warnings (in the form of graphic pictures and anecdotes) of the severity of these diseases.”
In other words, I see your fearmongering, and I raise you.
Ballot Measure to Repeal SB-277
On June 30th of this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law California Senate Bill 277, which prohibits students from attending public school without getting vaccinated. Before 277, parents were allowed to obtain an exemption from their doctors, which allowed their children to avoid being vaccinated against more than a dozen highly contagious and sometimes deadly diseases before entering school, purely on the basis of personal belief.
And in California, over the past few years as a result of some information that was indeed true and other information that was not, thousands chose exemption. In some areas of the state, particularly well-to-do areas such as Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, Marin County, and Santa Cruz, as many as 30 percent of families opted out of the required vaccinations. Note: according to the CDC, you need vaccination rates of at least 95 percent in a community to create “herd immunity” in which highly contagious diseases are unable to gain traction and spread. Before 277, it is estimated that as many as one quarter of all the schools in California had measles-immunization rates below the 95 percent mark.
The measles outbreak in Disneyland earlier this year proved the tipping point.
Gov. Brown asserted when signing SB 277, “The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases. While it’s true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.” Interestingly, as I mentioned, the push for 277 was largely driven by the Disneyland measles outbreak. But much of the information being circulated was simply not true. Quite simply, the outbreak was blamed on children who were not vaccinated, but that ignored the fact that almost half the people who caught measles during the outbreak were adults, not children. And yet, somehow, nebulous evidence became proof that anti-vaxxers were at fault. In fact, according to the CDC’s most recent 2015 data, of the 159 measles cases recorded between January 4 and April 2 of this year, 60 were adults–not children.13 “Measles — United States, January 4–April 2, 2015.” CDC MMWR April 17, 2015 / 64(14);373-376. (Access 22 Aug 2015.) http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6414a1.htm?s_cid=mm6414a1_e Again, facts rarely penetrate paradigms, and both sides are locked into their paradigms.
The bottom line is that it really doesn’t matter if what you say is true or not, the best way to break through a paradigm is to make what you say scary enough and say it with conviction. In any case, under the new law, one of the toughest in the country, children will no longer be allowed to attend public school without all of their shots. The only exemptions will be for those children who have an actual medical exemptions approved by a qualified medical doctor. Personal belief no longer qualifies. Now, it is crucial to understand that 277 does not force parents to vaccinate their children. Yes, they have to be vaccinated if you want them to attend a public or private elementary or secondary school, child care center, day nursery, nursery school, family day care home, or development center. But despite scare stories circulating in the anti-vaxxer blogosphere, this is not a fascist decree. Parents who refuse to vaccinate will be allowed to home school or group together in an as yet undefined off-campus “public independent studies” program.
Not surprisingly, that’s not good enough for the anti-vaccination movement, and so they are turning both to legal challenges and the initiative process to overturn 277. In truth, legal challenges are unlikely to gain much traction with the courts. The initiative process, however is likely to go further. In fact, California’s secretary of state has announced that proponents of a ballot measure to repeal the state’s new mandatory vaccination law can begin collecting signatures for their effort. The initiative was submitted by former Republican state Assemblyman and one-time candidate for governor, Tim Donnelly. Proponents will need to collect nearly 366,000 signatures for the initiative to appear on the 2016 ballot–something they are likely to do. But then they will need half the voters in the state to agree with them–something they are significantly less likely to do. Quite simply, most people don’t care or if they do, are likely to come down on the side of their doctors and the mainstream media.
Considering past history, not to mention the fact that the recent study has shown that fear works better than reason when arguing your vaccination position, we can look forward to some really scary propaganda filling the airwaves on both sides of the question. Think Walking Dead for children.
Finally, it should be noted that more than 30 other states are moving to enact vaccination laws similar to California’s, or at least trying to improve “public education” about the “dangers” of non-vaccination.
I’ve talked about herd immunity in some detail in previous articles, but we probably need to explore it again in some detail since it really is the crux of the argument when it comes to mandating vaccines or not. So what is herd immunity?
Vaccines are not ironclad protection when used in isolation. Think of them as providing resistance to a pathogen, but not an unscalable barrier. A major portion of a vaccine’s effectiveness comes from herd immunity. When vaccination levels reach 80-95%, there is virtually no way for a pathogen to gain access beyond a handful of individuals and infect the herd/community at large. The greater the infectious capability of a pathogen, the higher level of herd immunity you need. Measles, for example, is extremely infectious; therefore, you need close to 95% vaccination rates to achieve herd immunity for measles. With less infectious diseases, that number drops. Once herd immunity is achieved, one person may come down with a bug, but it cannot spread. Herd immunity is particularly crucial for protecting people who cannot be vaccinated. This includes children who are too young to be vaccinated, people with compromised immune systems, and those who are too ill to receive vaccines (such as some cancer patients).
Ultimately, it is herd immunity that provides the unscalable barrier to pathogens, not individual vaccinations. Beyond the unprotected, when you do not have herd immunity, then it is possible for a bug to gain entrance to the herd, mutate, multiply, and infect even those who were previously vaccinated—but against the unmutated version of the pathogen.
The bottom line is that your choice to vaccinate or not is not a purely personal choice. Your choice affects the immunity of the herd. Your choice not to vaccinate your child could ultimately lead to the infection and death of someone else’s child.
Now here’s the tricky part. If fewer than 5% of parents refuse to vaccinate, all is cool. They don’t have to get vaccinated; the herd’s immunity is fully maintained. The problem is that anti-vaccination has crossed the 5% mark several times over in many, many communities throughout the developed world. Herd immunity had been widely compromised, and that’s why diseases such as measles are making a comeback. That’s why Europe is now seeing 15,000-30,000 cases of measles a year.
But keep in mind, despite everything we’ve said, herd immunity by itself does not morally justify governments forcing vaccinations on all of their citizens. Ultimately it depends on:
- How virulent is a particular pathogen?
- What are the mortality rates and serious side effects associated with that particular pathogen?
- How effective is the vaccine against that pathogen?
- What are the side effects and incident rates of the vaccine used to combat that pathogen? Again, $3 billion in payments to the families of damaged children says they are not insignificant.
- Does the vaccine contain additives that may be particularly questionable for children?
- And most important of all, is the government truly mandating the vaccination of your child, or merely saying that if you don’t vaccinate, your child can’t attend public schools. In the same way that you should have the right to opt out of vaccination for your children, other parents should have the right not to put their children at risk by enrolling them in schools with compromised herd immunity.
There is a way for everyone to have their rights protected here, but only if we have a rational discussion. The odds of that, of course, are very low.
It probably should be noted that the just published fearmongering study runs contrary to previous research that concluded that it doesn’t matter whether you use fear or reason, there is simply no effective way to change minds about vaccines.14 Nyhan “Does correcting mths” On the other hand, these studies used different designs, which might explain the different results. But they also point out that the newest study is by no means the final word. Nevertheless, the new study “sounds” good, and the medical community and media seem to be taking it to heart. So again, we can look forward, when it comes to vaccines, to ever greater levels of fear mongering and ever decreasing levels of reasoned discussion.
Again, my position on vaccinations is very clear, at least in a 50 shades of gray sort of way. Do I believe that vaccinations work? Yes, to some degree, but the effectiveness varies from vaccine to vaccine–and it always comes at a cost. Most people, such as Governor Brown, probably believe that cost is worth it, but I don’t believe they’ve ever actually looked at how profound it is. By 2010, the US Vaccine Injury Compensation Program had paid out nearly $3 billion dollars to vaccine victims for their catastrophic vaccine injuries, even though two out of three applicants have been denied compensation.15 “Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP)” National Vaccine Information Center. (Accessed 25 Aug 2015.) http://www.nvic.org/injury-compensation.aspx I’m sorry, Governor Brown, that’s a lot of collateral damage. And if you or one of yours happens to have a severe reaction to the vaccination and paid “the price” for herd immunity, then you might not think it’s worth it.
Ultimately, the decision to vaccinate should be a personal one. Unfortunately, governments are feeling ever more empowered to mandate the practice. Yes, as some people claim, pharmaceutical money and politics are involved, but in truth, most protectors of the establishment believe in Mr. Spock’s dictum from Star Trek (or John Stuart Mill for those who know better), “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” This is another way of saying that if your decision only affects you and your family, it’s your decision, but if your decision can provide a vehicle for a major “deadly” contagion to spread far and wide and cause serious harm to a neighbor’s child, then it becomes a community issue. Unfortunately, that also can be used as an excuse for ambitious or ill-informed bureaucrats to force dangerous or ineffective health protocols on an unsuspecting community. It should not be forgotten that today’s scientific fact can become tomorrow’s public health horror story. (Remember the oral polio vaccine which seemed like a good idea at the time.)
The bottom line is that this discussion would be a lot more fruitful if people on both sides of the debate stopped exaggerating the facts to make their point and stopped resorting to fear mongering. When medical authorities tell you that the flu vaccine is 90% effective and has no harmful side effects, or that all vaccinations are harmless, they are not helping their cause. Once you realize that both statements are patently untrue, why would you believe anything else that “authority” has to say on the subject? And when people in the alternative health community state that vaccines are a complete lie, totally ineffective, and harmful to everyone who uses them, that is equally untrue. Again, gross exaggeration about even one “fact” to make a point undermines everything else you have to say on the subject–even those things that are true. In fact, each vaccination should be debated on a case by case basis with a clear presentation of risk vs reward. Every vaccination has both. Ultimately, the question comes down to risk vs reward. Would you be willing to risk a one in 10,000 chance of having your child suffer from serious side effects from a vaccination? Doesn’t that depend on what the disease is and what the odds of your child getting that disease (and possibly giving it to a neighbor’s child) are without vaccination?
And finally, it’s worth remembering that in the early 1900’s, 30% of all children died before their first birthday. That rate is now down more than 90%–a stunning achievement.16 “Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999: Healthier Mothers and Babies.” CDC MMWR October 01, 1999 / 48(38);849-858. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm4838a2.htm Yes, improved sanitation, pediatric care, and obstetrics contributed, as did improved treatment of infectious diseases and surgical techniques. But make no mistake, despite all claims to the contrary and despite all the problems associated with them, mass vaccination played a major role in that reduction of infant mortality.
- The number of indigenously acquired cases of measles declined 22-fold in just five years after implementation of the Childhood Vaccine Initiative (CII).17 “Status Report on the Childhood Immunization Initiative: Reported Cases of Selected Vaccine-Preventable Diseases — United States, 1996.” CDC MMWR July 25, 1997 / 46(29);665-671. (Accessed 22 Aug 2015.) http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr//preview/mmwrhtml/00048515.htm In fact, in the United States before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, there were four million measles cases with 48,000 hospitalizations and 500 deaths every year.18 Julia Belluz “9 things everybody should know about measles.” Vox Science & Health Feb 19, 2015. (Accessed 22 Aug 2015.) http://www.vox.com/2015/1/26/7907707/measles-symptoms-vaccine I’m sorry, but to maintain that vaccines don’t work or that measles just disappeared on its own when the incidence of measles went from four million to virtually non-existent after the introduction of vaccines is simply an untenable position. But please understand, that is not the same thing as saying that vaccines work flawlessly; they don’t. And it doesn’t mean that vaccines are perfectly safe; they are not.
- Before the introduction of a vaccine, in the 1920’s, diphtheria affected 100-200 out of every 100,000. Now, the incidence is approximately 0.001 per 100,000. That represents better than a 99.9% reduction.19 “Diphtheria: DBMD.” Right Diagnosis. December 2001. (Accessed 22 Aug 2015.) http://www.rightdiagnosis.com/artic/diphtheria_dbmd.htm
- As for polio, the 1952 epidemic produced 57,628 cases with 3,145 deaths and 21,269 left with mild to disabling paralysis.20 “History of Polio.” The History of Vaccines. (Accessed 21 Aug 2015.) http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/timelines/diseases-and-vaccines#EVT_100321 Since the introduction of the polio vaccine, the United States has been polio-free since 1979. Yes, I understand that the oral polio vaccine actually caused a number of cases of polio, not to mention untold numbers of cases of brain cancer, but the benefits of 57,000 cases of polio to none is undeniable.
- And then there’s smallpox, the first plague to actually be wiped from the face of the earth as a result of vaccination. No small achievement.
The bottom line is that once you begin to treat the discussion rationally and consider each vaccination on its own terms, it becomes clear that not all vaccinations are the same and that we may come to different conclusions when we look at the risk VS rewards for each of them individually.
Sadly, as we learned from the study of the moment, that kind of reasoned discussion looks less likely by the day. In fact, we can pretty much guarantee that the upcoming debate on the SB 277 repeal initiative will, instead, be marked by extensive fearmongering and irrational, hostile argument.
It seems that many readers are having a hard time understanding the concept of immune system memory and herd immunity. There seems to be a deeply ingrained belief in the alternative health community that herd immunity is not real, that it’s a myth promulgated by the medical establishment to trick people into getting vaccinated. This is usually followed by, “All you need is a strong immune system and you won’t get sick.”
These, however, are misconceptions. I’m going to give you an historical example of both the validity and importance of herd immunity, but first, I want to discuss immune system memory. As I just stated, when people say “All you need is a strong immune system,” that’s based on a misconception of what the immune system actually is and how it works. People believe that a strong immune system simply means that your immune cells are “jacked up,” and that prevents you from ever getting sick. But your immune system is so much more complex than that. For example, the probiotics in your gut may account for as much as 60-70% of your immune function. And then there’s immune system memory. As I have explained in other newsletters:
Once an invader is defeated, most of the active T4 and T8 cells dry up and disappear. However, the T4 cells produce a clone of themselves called Memory Helper T-cells, which can last a long, long time (anywhere from several years up until the day you die) to resist the next invasion of that specific antigen. This is an amazing advantage when you consider that building that first recognition response can take up to a week or ten days. That’s a lot of time for an invader to have free rein in your body — more than enough time to make you extremely sick, or even kill you when faced with an aggressive invader. However, having Memory Helper T-cells in place cuts that time to just a matter of hours.
Consider the example of a mother taking care of her child with measles. How does her previously acquired immunity prevent her from getting measles? Surprise! It actually doesn’t. Every mother actually “catches” measles from her child no matter how many times she’s been vaccinated or had measles herself. But because of her immune system’s “memory” of measles, her immune system’s response is so fast that she totally eradicates the invader before she even gets one single symptom. This is a really, really important point to understand about your immune system. Even if you have immunity, you’re still going to get the disease, if the virus enters your body. The virus absolutely starts reproducing in your body, but the response is so fast that it kills the virus before it can ever really get started. It’s gone before you ever even knew it was there. And just as important, it kills the invader before it ever has a chance to multiply enough to become infectious. That’s how immunity works. But it’s not only the speed of the response that’s increased, it’s also the strength. The response triggered by memory cells during second exposure to an invader can be as much as a 1000 times stronger than the initial response. This is known as an anamnestic (or accelerated) response. And that’s how a trained immune system protects you against a foreign invader — virus, bacteria, fungus, whatever. And in fact, approximately one in every 200 immune systems can even protect against seemingly “unprotectable” viruses such as HIV AIDS. Pretty amazing, not to mention being indicative of opportunities for optimizing your immune system through both natural and medical means.
I mentioned that there is a historical example of both the validity and importance of herd immunity. It shows you what happens when these things are not present–if all you’re relying upon is a “strong immune system” with no memory or herd immunity to support it, as so many people advocate. I’m talking about the American Indians.
By all accounts, before the Spanish arrived, the native populations in North and South America lived the lifestyle idealized by those of us in the alternative health movement. They ate fresh, natural foods. They lived in villages, not cities. They were physically fit, with everyone involved in active labor. There were no factory workers, no shopkeepers, no clerks sitting for hours tabulating numbers and writing in ledgers. By any account, these people would have had as “strong” an immune system as it is possible to have. What their immune systems didn’t have, however, is any memory of diseases such as measles, influenza, chicken pox, typhus, typhoid fever, dysentery, scarlet fever, and diphtheria that had been widespread in Europe for centuries.
But of all of the diseases the Europeans brought, smallpox was the most devastating. It was carried by some of the African slaves Columbus brought with him to be used as laborers on sugar plantations in the West Indies. The Lakota Indians called this disease the running face sickness. Ultimately, smallpox was lethal to countless Native Americans, bringing sweeping epidemics and affecting the same tribes repeatedly.
There may have been as many as 100 million Native Americans living in the New World at the beginning of the European invasion. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, American Indians were remarkably free of serious diseases. As the European explorers and colonists began to arrive, this changed, and the consequences were disastrous for Native American peoples. In 1495, just three years after Columbus’ first visit, 57-80% of the native population of Santa Domingo, and in 1515, two-thirds of the Indians of Puerto Rico were wiped out by smallpox. Ten years after Cortez arrived in Mexico, the native population dropped from twenty-five million to six and half million, a reduction of 74%. Ultimately, the native population was reduced by 80-95%. (Even the most conservative estimates place it at 65%.) Quite simply, lack of immune system memory is why individuals succumbed to these diseases in the first place. And lack of herd immunity is why entire tribes vanished from the face of the earth so quickly.
That’s why immune system memory and herd immunity are so important.
Now, that said, that does not mean that vaccination is 100% effective, that it lasts a lifetime, or that it’s perfectly safe. None of those things are true. It is not 100% effective. When you vaccinate people with weak immune systems, those systems don’t respond strongly. The immune system memory established is very weak. Then there’s the fact that different vaccinations have different “life spans.” As I’ve explained previously, some immune system memory is lifelong, but some, such as from the rabies vaccine, only lasts about 2 years, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine about 10 years. And they are far from being perfectly safe. As I mentioned several times above, $3 billion in payments for people damaged by vaccination is clear testament to that fact.
So once again, this article is not an endorsement of vaccination. It is an endorsement of reasoned discussion–with both sides backing off from fear mongering and hyperbole. Unfortunately, based on the initial response to this article, I am more convinced than ever that’s not going to happen anytime soon. And without reasoned discussion, the anti-vaccination movement is out-gunned, out-moneyed, and out-politically-resourced. Unless the movement changes tactics, it will lose across the board– and is, in fact, already losing. And that should be of concern to everyone.
References [ + ]
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