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A difficult subject

The first thing I want to say about this really very difficult subject is that I am personally neither pro nor anti-vaccinations as something that everyone should or shouldn't have. There are a great many instances where I would not hesitate to recommend vaccination to someone, including my own kith and kin, but there are also times when I would see it as a risk that could outweigh its potential benefit, for reasons that I will seek to make clear shortly.

A nuanced, individualised approach is surely necessary for making wise choices about all kinds of important life decisions, and the matter of vaccinations, including their timing and selection, is no exception to this.

The great difficulty about this matter, and why it is such a difficult subject to discuss, is that it is as a harsh reality of parenthood that, whatever you do, you cannot prevent your children from being exposed to at least some risk.

The prospect of our children being more vulnerable to disease, either through not being vaccinated or by being exposed to other children that have not been vaccinated, can be so fearful, so disturbing, that people have a visceral, even violent reaction to the subject so much as being raised! Let alone one that could need any discussion.

It is a terrible, horrible prospect that one's child could contract an avoidable, potentially serious infectious illness, especially one that could be avoided by having a vaccination. However, there is another, also rather frightening prospect, that cannot be swept aside by anyone that does even the most minimal research into this matter, which is that there is a real risk that immunisations themselves can cause harm. Including what, for some children, taken the form of severe and life-altering adverse reactions to vaccinations. No-one in conventional medicine denies this however, as they can say, with a strong and historical evidence-base, the benefit to the many outweighs the risk to the few.

Ok, nevertheless, the recognition of there being real dangers from adverse reactions to vaccinations for their child can also be very hard for a parent to accept. The risks are acknowledged by the medical system, they are, after all, well documented as touched on further below. There may be waivers that need to be signed or at least pointed out, that may seek to absolve the medical system from responsibility if the worst happens but, most parents won't want to believe it could happen to them, and will naturally want to trust that the medical system knows best in such matters and so will go ahead without any further discussion.

Okay, that is their choice to make, and I would never seek to dissuade or in any way influence a person away from such a path if it is of their choosing. In fact, I am never the first person to bring this subject up in my clinic, and it is only if one of my patients asks me that a discussion even begins. That said, clearly some parents do want to find out more information; for example, they may want to know about the potential downsides and risks of immunisations. They may want to know about what could happen if they choose to not vaccinate their child.

Such questions can be extremely hard to ask because, as soon as we seek the views and opinions of others it can be seen that this is a subject that causes deep polarisation and acrimony. Even to ask a question, to show any doubts about the matter, can be met with the kind of emotional response that brooks no further discussion.

If the person presses on anyway, and certainly if they put forwards the point of view that there are some real pros and cons to this matter, that there are two sides to it, then this in turn can quickly devolve into an argument on whether it is vaccines themselves or the lack of them which should be feared the most,. Such an approach is virtually guaranteed to bring up a lot of negative emotions, including feelings of fear, anger, and even hatred. All of which make it very difficult to discuss... anything.



What has been visible for some time now 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.

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?

I must reiterate my earlier statement of position, namely that I am personally not, across the board, with no exceptions, either pro or anti-vaccination but, even that I should advocate a non-black or white approach to this issue, and especially given the severity of the backlash against anyone who could question the need to vaccinate everyone, with no exceptions, I think that my personal point of view is best explained through the lens of an early, most formative, experience.


Baby Grace's story

For me personally, my first real cause to question the unequivocal benefit of vaccinations was meeting with a baby called Grace in my early days of practice, in 1990.

Grace's mother told me the story of how she had been a perfectly normal, happy and healthy baby right up to the point of her 6-month vaccinations.

In a pattern that has since been seen in others, albeit with far 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. Maybe.

What can be stated for a fact is that within 48 hours of being immunised Grace began experiencing uncontrollable seizures. She was rushed to hospital and no doubt everything was done that could be done but, tragically, she never regained normal brain function and permanently lost her sight. She was irrevocably brain damaged and blind for life.

Grace's mother described how one of the worst aspects of all this for her was that no-one she spoke to in the medical system would accept that the vaccination had anything to do with Grace's injury. The tragic event was put down as a virus and it was never reported into the system as an adverse vaccine reaction.

Grace's case has been by far the worst I have ever met in all the years since, and I believe that the chances of something as bad as this happening to someone are extremely low, but what continues to concern me is that, having heard other accounts from different parents about other types of adverse vaccine reactions experienced by their children, that It is a consistent theme, at least in New Zealand, that their concerns seem to always be dismissed as speculative and they are never acknowledged or reported by the mainstream system.

Admittedly, the majority of these reports would not be easy to make a direct connection to an immunisation, because the reactions that have happened are not almost immediate, as they were with Grace, but rather over the following weeks...

One issue I have been told about a number of times is the child who previously had no skin issues developing eczema and sometimes asthma starting to get their first symptoms within days of an immunisation. Eczema and asthma are 'atopic' allergic diseases. It seems that the child's immune systems may be switched into a level of vigilance by the vaccination, which in turn may lead them to become allergic or intolerant to food or environmental triggers that were previously well tolerated.

Another issue I have heard being associated to recent vaccination is the beginning of a series of lasting and recurring ear or upper respiratory infections in a child who previously seemed to be robust enough to throw such things off within a few days.

Lastly, more rarely, but potentially most seriously, is the possibility that an auto-immune illness that the child goes on to develop soon after an immunisation happens as a consequence to being vaccinated. This is a real possibility, and one that is now well established in the medical literature as an acknowledged adverse reaction; see note below from Roy Upton for more on this.


Comment from Roy Upton

Roy Upton is the Executive Director of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia and he shared the following comment from a medical friend 'The National Institute of Health (NIH) unequivocally acknowledges a connection between vaccines and certain autoimmune conditions. This is not contested even conventionally though isn’t necessarily known by most Doctors. This can be found on the cover page of the NIH white paper on vaccinations and there are papers on this in the medical literature. It doesn’t minimize the value of vaccines, but is something to be aware of...'

This subject is discused in much more depth in the textbook called 'Vaccines and Autoimmunity' which can be found by putting the following address into your server


Informed choice

New Zealand has an exceptionally high immunisation rate by international standards. The great majority of the parents I work with choose to go with the status quo and this subject never even comes up in the first place.

At no time have I ever, and nor would I, put it to one of my patients that they should consider not vaccinating their children. I only and exclusively ever even talk about it when a parent asks for my opinion on the matter. At that point I might then direct them to this article for a starting point and, what I hope, is a clear caution from the outset about just how difficult a subject it can be.

If we are in a consultation and, so long as we have time to discuss it, I will probably try to convey to them one of the key points written about above, namely that whatever path they choose they must understand that there will be some risks and that there is no way you can navigate your way through this subject to get to a point where you don't have to have any worries or anxieties about what might happen.

That's what makes people so crazy about the subject of immunisations, they already feel afraid of everything it represents, if you then start asking questions or digging deeper it is almost certainly going to make you more, not less, anxious. People don't realise this before they get into it, so I feel I have a duty to warn them of what lies ahead! When they realise this, many people just don't want to go there, and it is certainly not my job, or my life-mission, to try to make them go down that path!

That said, there are some people that will always want to know more and, especially given that this is going to make them more rather than less uneasy, they deserve our respect for wanting to make informed choices. They may deserve respect, but they will not get it from most quarters, and again, my own duty of care to my patients mental health means that I will want to make it very clear to them, either through this article, or in person, that if they go down the path of asking questions and then maybe not having their children vaccinated, that they are going to be in for a lot of flak from a lot of people, and that some of it will come to them in a very mean-spirited way indeed...

Once again, I want to make it as clear as I possibly can that I see a great deal of potential value for vaccinations for a great many potential people. I am categorically not an 'anti-vaxxer'.

That third time making the same statement in one way or another will have hopefully been enough that I can now, in good conscience, send you to a further resource that obviously does take an adversarial stance against vaccinations.

Given that 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, social media etc. I will now point you towards another voice out there, in New Zealand, of a group who advocates against immunisation and can be heard at


Proceed with caution

So, finally from me, if I am not categorically for or against vaccines, then what do I recommend? There is not one position I have on this, rather that I would say that some children and adults most certainly should be vaccinated and some children and adults would be wiser not to, or at least not until they had attended to some more pressing and immediate health concerns.

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. As you no doubt know, the method 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 organisms the next time.

It's a great idea in principle, and it works in practice, but I personally see that the vast majority of 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, I recommend waiting, do not proceed! Wiser to firstly build better natural immunity and resilience, with all the clear and tangible benefits that this will bring, including a greatly reduced risk of an adverse reaction to a vaccination.

When ready, if this issue is of personal concern, I suggest you learn more about the main things that can both harm or help immune health. For a detailed article on this important subject, read here


Andrew Bentley’s story

For another viewpoint on this difficult subject I have copied below a letter from the 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 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

Please understand that I cannot personally advise you without seeing you in my clinic.
This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!








© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd