Immunisation

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A difficult subject

The harsh reality of parenthood is that, whatever you do, you cannot prevent your children from being exposed to risk. Diseases are especially scary, the fear that your child could get sick is a potent one. Conversely, the fear that immunisations themselves could cause adverse reactions is very hard to accept. Any argument that is based on which choice should be feared the most is going to be fraught with acrimony, it is one of the most difficult of all subjects to discuss.

'Anti-vaxxers'

Alongside the fear is a globally growing sense of outrage, even hatred, directed towards anyone who chooses not to vaccinate their children. They are perceived as putting others at risk by reducing the 'herd immunity' and so-called 'anti-vaxxers' are seen as fair game for the deepest contempt and condemnation, particularly in social media.

Their concerns are dismissed as baseless, anti-scientific and stupid. Popular calls to ostracise 'anti-vaxxer's' children from normal society are being increasingly answered by legislative measures.

Baby Grace's story

So, is anyone who chooses not to vaccinate simply stupid and anti-science? What possible reason could a person have to go against the mainstream medical system and the great majority of popular opinion?

Different people with viewpoints that question immunisations will have their reasons. For me personally it is the first-hand experience, early in my practice in 1990, of meeting with a profoundly distressed mother with a baby called Grace who suffered permanent brain-damage immediately after her 6-month vaccinations.

In a pattern that has since been seen in others, albeit with less catastrophic consequences, Grace already had a mild cold at the same time that she was vaccinated, which may be a core reason why she had such an extreme adverse reaction. That is just speculation, what is fact is that within 48 hours of being immunised she began experiencing uncontrollable seizures. Grace was rushed to hospital, no doubt everything was tried that could be done but, tragically, she never regained normal brain function and permanently lost her sight. One of the worst things for the mother, that caused her incredible pain, was that no-one she spoke to would accept that the vaccination had anything to do with it and it was never reported into the system as an adverse reaction.

Grace's case has been, by far, the worst I have met, but I have heard a number of other accounts of adverse reactions over the years and It is a most worrying, consistent theme, that their concerns are always dismissed as speculative and never acknowledged or reported.

We must trust that the chances of such a catastrophic reaction as Grace's are extremely low but how low are they if they are not reported or at least questioned, and how common is it for other issues, such as allergies or other immune imbalances, to stem from adverse response to vaccination?

Informed choice

New Zealand has an exceptionally high immunisation rate by international standards. Most parents I work with choose to go with the status quo and this whole subject never even comes up. However, if a parent asks for my opinion I suggest that they explore this matter from more than one angle and consider the subject as deeply as they need in order to make an informed choice.

That said, they must understand that whatever they choose will have risks and that there is no path through this matter where you get to have no fear of what might happen.

The conventional advocacy of immunisations is fairly guaranteed to have been heard in a variety of formats, such as from nurses, doctors, pamphlets, other parents, grandparents, friends etc. There are also other voices out there if you want to hear a different point of view. For example, in New Zealand the group who advocates against immunisation can be heard at http://wavesnz.org.nz/

Proceed with caution

The basic principle behind vaccinations have been understood by some of the old traditions of medicine for thousands of years, but it is an inherently risky business.

The principle is to make a child ever so slightly sick with very low doses of infectious organisms so they will learn how to fight those infections and will be much less sick when they meet the same bugs the next time.

It's a good idea in principle, the risk is around those words 'slightly sick'. Not everyone at the same age is ready for the same challenges at the same time. What can be strongly recommend is that, assuming you will immunise your child, you ensure that they are in good health at the time of the vaccination. If not, wait, do not proceed!

There are further practical thoughts about immune health and how to best support it naturally here

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Andrew Bentley’s story

For another viewpoint on this difficult subject I have copied below a letter from an excellent and experienced American herbalist, Andrew Bentley, that originally came to me as part of an online discussion about the relative merits of tetanus vaccines; it is included here with his permission.

The "fear factor" is a pretty big force in human judgement, especially about diseases. Anyone who has seen another person or many people die from a sickness is likely to have some anxiety about it. It seems like just about every culture and time period have come up with some sort of culturally ingrained answer to that fear. In our culture, inoculations have become that deeply ingrained answer to the ancient fear of pestilence. This is why it is often a highly emotional discussion when people talk about them-- it is almost considered impious in many social circles.

When I was a teenager, I was traveling around trying to learn about different traditional systems of healing in the world. In one of the places I went, people believed that it was absolutely necessary to keep a blue glass representation of an eye above a child's bed or around their neck, to prevent the child falling prey to illnesses. Almost everyone I talked to believed this was the case. And these were not barbarians in some remote village, they were people who drove cars, talked on phones, had jobs and lived in a city of half a million people or so. Many of them were well educated or had travelled to other places, and held this opinion just as strongly as the people who weren't well educated or travelled.

I couldn't make this work with my understanding of how the world operated, so I questioned it. This actually upset people, because they felt I was trying to undermine how they kept their children safe. When I asked about evidence, I got all kinds of stories about this or that child, or a whole orphanage full of children, whose caretakers didn't provide them with blue glass eyes, and who met with terrible illness or untimely demise. I had people tell me about how they worked in the hospital, and after you've seen a small child dying or hooked up to a ventilator you just would never want to take the risk of not providing a child with a blue glass eye to watch over them. It was the culturally accepted way of warding off pestilence, and to deviate from it could cause harm not only to one's own child, but to any children around them who might catch their disease. It was like leaving the door open for death to walk in, and as such it was considered highly irresponsible.

But like I said, for me, it didn't seem like something that would work. I thought of disease in terms of bacteria, viruses, genetics, and things like that, because of where I came from, and could not conceive of a plausible mechanism of action whereby a blue glass eye would impact the aetiology of illness. But to them and to their way of thinking on illness (which I do not understand fully, but which had a lot to do with probability and respect and the will of god) it made perfect sense. And they had been using them since time out of mind.

In the end, a tearful old woman pressed one into my hand, giving it as a gift that I could not refuse without causing grave offense. And she begged in exchange that when I had children of my own, that I would hang it above their bed or around their neck. SO I took it and I went home, and years later I did have kids of my own. And it was hanging on the window over the bed (just as a souvenir of my journeys) when my first daughter was a baby. And she was healthy. And somewhere along the line, moving house I suppose, it got lost, and I forgot all about it, and didn't have it when my second daughter was born. And she had serious, life threatening respiratory problems that she struggled with for years. I imagine that everyone who told me about the blue glass eyes would sadly shake their heads and say that they told me so. I STILL don't think the glass eye had anything to do with it, but I might be wrong.

Vaccines fill this same cultural role for most of our society, regardless of whether they work or don't, or are safe or not. --I'm not saying that they do or don't work, or are safe or not safe, as a group. Really there are a lot of them and they are all very different substances and even have different proposed mechanisms of action. Speaking specifically of the tetanus shots, they appear to work pretty well and also have the highest reported rate of adverse events of any vaccine according to the government's Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (which is not very high quality data, but it is the data that exists).-- What I am saying is that when clinicians consider these interventions or discuss them with patients and other professionals, it is important to take into account not only the scientific information, but also the fact that these are the culture's charms against pestilence, and as such many people are extremely emotionally invested in them.

And yes, Tetanus was and is a very bad disease to come down with. Once it gets to the point where it is producing neurotoxins and making spasms happen, it is dangerous and difficult. Hygiene and proper wound care are extremely important for this and many other reasons, since no one is claiming that the vaccine offers perfect protection (actually the horse serum vaccine appears to offer pretty close, based on a large retrospective epidemiological study of soldiers who were given it, and also based on numbers from the Cuban health department, but it is so dangerous that it isn't used much anymore). It was pointed earlier out that the chance of getting tetanus is related to how long a wound remains dirty. The environment that tetanus really likes is a burn or penetrating wound that is co-infected with some other organism, in a part of the body that doesn't get much oxygen (like a joint, extremities, or the umbilicus of a newborn). Extra points if the injured person is immunosuppressed, very old, or very young. Many people even on this list of healthcare professionals seem to correlate rusty metal with tetanus, which is largely a myth perception. Tetanus lives in the alimentary canal of animals and in the soil; so bites and injuries from soiled objects (or injuries later contaminated by soil of faeces) are what introduces it into the body, and the rust is just there because metal left in the dirt tends to rust.

Andrew Bentley, Clinical Herbalist
Lexington Ky, USA
http://kentuckyherbalist.com

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© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd