Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Vaccination Controversy, Part 1

Lately I have been getting a lot of questions from clients in my practice about vaccinations. This is a controversial topic about which there are mostly extreme and contradictory points of view. As always, I will do my best to approach it in a balanced way and will likely upset people on both ends of the spectrum. I even risk ridicule by calling it a "controversy" because most people's perspective on this issue is so extreme that they simply believe that they are right, it's obvious, and anyone who disagrees is ignorant. For example, with the recent outbreaks of measles in several North American cities, there has been media blitz aimed at demonizing anyone who opposes vaccinations. Even supposedly "liberal" media such as the CBC have jumped on this bandwagon.

As I'm sure is apparent from my other blog posts, I try to be as thorough as possible. However, this is a very complex topic and it would take a whole book or possibly even several books to fully explore it. I am going to do my best to look at vaccinations in as holistic a way as possible and to provide as much information as I can within the limitations of this format. As a result, it will be necessary to cover the subject in three posts. In this first post I am going to lay out the broader issues. In Part 2 I will look at some of the pros and cons of vaccinating and introduce a couple of good resources where you can get more information, and in Part 3 I'm going to present some basic protocols that can help boost immune function and reduce the incidence and severity of infectious conditions and the potential side-effects of vaccinations. The recommendations that I will provide will be useful for anyone regardless of the choices they make regarding vaccinations.

What I am not going to be able to do is to make your decision for you. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of good information out there and there are way more questions than answers. The kind of studies that need to be done to more clearly demonstrate the health consequences of vaccinating, both positive and negative, are not being done and probably no longer can be done. The best we can do is educate ourselves; approach the information that is available with an open mind; recognize that, no matter how rational it sounds, a lot of that information is coming from extreme positions; and then make the best decision that we can. It is best if our decision is as informed as possible, but ultimately we'll need to make it with our heart because their simply is not enough good information available to know with certainty what the "right" decision is. We have to accept that, no matter what decision we make, some of our kids are going to get sick and a few of them very sick. When that happens, although there are going to be many people out there who will point their fingers and use the less fortunate as statistics to "prove" their point of view, the truth is that we will never know if things would have been different had we made a different decision. All we can do is our best.

The last thing I should point out before getting into this topic is that I live in Canada and have the benefit of living in a privileged society. My experience is coloured by living in one of the more affluent "First World" nations. I can not speak with the same level of confidence about poorer countries where proper sanitation, clean water and decent nutrition are not available to a significant proportion of the population. The discussion of infectious disease and vaccinations is different in those parts of the world. The information that I will be presenting is still relevant in those countries, but the priorities are different.

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? That is the question!

When it comes to vaccinations, people tend to fall into one of three camps: the mainstream medical-industrial complex and those who completely buy into their medical dogma; those who distrust mainstream medicine and think that vaccinations are the cause of much of what ails us; and those who are confused by all of the contradictory information and are trying to make their way through the rhetoric. I am mostly speaking to people in the last group because most of the proponents of the other two points of view have already made up their minds and no amount of reasonable discourse is going to change it. However, I hope that these posts will also be helpful to some of the advocates and opponents of vaccinations whose views are a little less extreme.

In approaching this topic, one of the important things to keep in mind is that regardless of where everyone falls on the spectrum of opinions, they all want the same thing: to protect the health of their families, themselves, and their society. Unfortunately, with emotionally charged issues such as this, it is almost impossible to be objective because people's perspectives are mostly based on fear: fear of microbes; fear of disease; fear of people with a different point of view; fear of being wrong; fear of what we can't control; fear of the unknown. This is an unfortunate characteristic of human nature - at least how we've cultivated human nature in the modern world. Even the self-proclaimed rational, scientific types can't see that their rationality rests on a foundation of fear. It's a big, beautiful, mysterious world that we live in! A world in which what we experience as suffering, disease and death are an integral part. We will never be able to understand or control more than the tiniest fraction of the world, and even then our "understanding" and "control" are largely an illusion. The world and Nature have their way and we are part of it. It's better to embrace the mystery and learn to flow with the world rather than attempt to mold it to our ideas about how it should be. We do that at our own peril, the consequences of which are all around us.

OK, enough philosophy! In approaching this issue, it is important to remember that we do have options: we can choose to follow the directions of our doctor; we can choose an alternative vaccination protocol getting only some of them and/or changing the timing of them; and we can choose to avoid them altogether. The degree to which we can exercise these options depends on where we live. It is important to find out what the options are in your local jurisdiction. It is also important to keep in mind that sometimes people in authority will lie to you. They will tell you that you don't have options when you really do. Sometimes it may be because they just don't know. If few or none of the other parents in a school have made alternative choices, the situation may not have come up for the person you are dealing with. However, more often than not they are trying to manipulate you. Once more it's important to realize that they are doing it out of fear and because they believe it is the right decision. It is not out of malicious intent.

Another thing you might come across are doctors who are unwilling to alter the vaccination protocol or who might not even be willing to treat your children if they aren't fully vaccinated. All of these factors affect our options. If we feel strongly about our choices it might necessitate changing our doctor, daycare, school, or even moving to a different province or state. All of these things need to be considered.

So lets start at the beginning...

Every region has its particular ecosystem based on the features of the landscape, soil, climate, and all of the various organisms that live there. There is an ebb and flow and, contrary to the "survival of the fittest" model of ecology, although competition is a component to a larger extent ecology is about cooperation between species. Yes, individuals die and sometimes entire species disappear, but life is really not about individuals. The ecosystem is a living organism and the relationship between species like us to the whole is more like the relationship of bacteria on our skin to our body as a whole. We are just one of many species integrated into the whole.

Life in balance!

What we think of as "disease" organisms are also important parts of the ecology. Among other things, they help to keep things in balance by providing healthy immune stress for individual organisms, weeding out the weaker members of a species, and keeping populations in check. I am sure that they have many other roles that we don't understand, but these are their most important functions for the purposes of this discussion.

Outbreaks of illnesses associated with particular microorganisms come and go in accordance with natural cycles. For the most part, as long as a particular species and the local ecosystem as a whole are in balance, these outbreaks are not too destructive. However, if a species is out of balance they can be devastating. Similarly, when an organism that isn't a natural part of the local ecology is introduced, the results can potentially be catastrophic. For example, it is estimated that the introduction of European diseases resulted in the death of 40-80% of the population of First Nations peoples in North America. Such tragedy is beyond comprehension! On a different level, Dutch elm disease devastated the native elm populations in North America when the fungus that causes it and at least one species of beetle that spreads it were introduced from Europe. In both of these situations it is important to keep in mind that the arrival of Europeans in North America disturbed the balance of the local ecosystem and the social structure of First Nations peoples in many ways. The introduction of novel species is just one of them.

Viruses are people too!

Most of the vaccinations that are part of public vaccination programs are for cyclic illnesses that were once common. When I was a kid in the 60s, illnesses such as measles, chicken pox and mumps cycled through on a regular basis. When they did, adults rarely got them because they had a natural immunity having been exposed as children. Among the children who were exposed, many of them were asymptomatic. This means that their immune system was strong enough to bring the infection under control before any symptoms developed. The kids that did develop symptoms experienced symptoms of varying degrees of severity, with most being mild to moderate and very few being severe enough to be considered serious. The relative severity of the symptoms will always be directly proportional to the overall health of the individual and the strength of their immune response. In my lifetime I have only heard of a few severe cases of any of these illnesses (in my circle of experience, not in the media). All of them were measles. All of them were vaccinated! More on that in Part 2...

There are a few illnesses for which vaccinations are given, such as tetanus and diphtheria, that are more serious. However, these illnesses have always been much more rare, so the potential for any particular person to develop serious symptoms is similar to the more common illnesses.

There was a time not so long ago when the disparity between the rich and the poor was greater, most people lived in crowded, unsanitary conditions, and access to good nutrition was limited. It is not a stretch to conclude that in those conditions a significant proportion of the population was immune compromised to some degree. The conditions that most people lived in were very out of balance and ideal for the spread of infectious agents. Not surprisingly, in those days when cyclic illnesses moved through the population many people died, often as a result of the consequences of high fever. As a result, people have come to fear fever even though it is a normal, healthy part of our immune response.

I was about four years old when I got "the measles". The itching was one of the most irritating things
I have ever experienced, but having gone through it I now have a life-long immunity.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the situation changed significantly in industrialized countries. Sanitation, living conditions and access to a fresher and more diverse food supply all improved. As a result, the incidence and severity of infectious diseases declined. Advocates of pharmaceutical medicine and, more specifically, vaccinations would like us to believe that this reduction is mostly due to the advent of modern medical practices. However, the evidence doesn't support that. Most of these illnesses had significantly declined prior to the implementation of vaccination programs and the development of modern drugs. The only exception was the discovery of antibiotics!

In response to people who uncritically advocate the benefits of modern medicine I'm going to go one step further. According to the most recent statistics it is estimated that in the US alone 1,000 people die and another 10,000 people suffer serious health consequences of medical errors each day [see http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=how-many-die-from-medical-mistakes-in-us-hospitals&page=2 and http://www.healthcareitnews.com/news/deaths-by-medical-mistakes-hit-records]. These are not statistics from anti-medicine extremists. They come from prestigious medical journals. Unfortunately, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Many medical errors go unreported and the statistics we do have come almost exclusively from hospitals. We know a lot less about medical errors that occur outside of hospitals in everyday medical practice. These tend to be even more under-reported. Nor do these statistics include people who suffer less dramatic chronic health complications. It is also estimated that there may be a similar number of deaths and adverse reactions to drugs and medical procedures that are appropriately administered!

Enough about the limitations of modern medicine, now lets look at the arguments on the other side. Opponents of vaccinations like to claim that the reduction in the incidence of diseases for which vaccinations are available would have occurred to the same degree as they have even if vaccination programs had not been implemented. This is also not true. Although the issue is very complex and it is impossible to determine exactly how much each factor contributed, there is no doubt that vaccinations have played their part. In fact, there was almost certainly a synergistic interaction between all of these factors. For instance, improvement in the immune function of the general population due to the various social factors that I mentioned probably had a significant impact on the effectiveness of the vaccines. No matter how we look at it, vaccines have definitely made an important contribution to the reduction in the incidence of these illnesses and continue to do so today.

This is the end of Part 1 of this series. In Part 2 I'm going to look at some of the pros and cons of vaccinating and introduce a couple of good resources where you can obtain more information.


1 comment:

  1. Thanks for addressing this very challenging issue, Michael. I've been frustrated with the obvious bias of the current media focus on this topic and appreciate your more objective approach. Looking forward to the next two posts!

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