back to the vaccination debate

I went to a health fair on Thursday at the Travis school. There were lots of different fields represented. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an acupuncturist; not everything I believe has to have been proven through double-blind studies. I was assigned a table next to the School of Metaphysics, and we had some interesting conversations about dream interpretation and the mind-body connection.

I also have a strong background in science and a twitchy BS-ometer, and I realize how easy it would be to mount a fear campaign against dihydrogen monoxide. (It’s used in the manufacture of pesticides! It’s a major component of acid rain! It contributes to the greenhouse effect! Promotes corrosion and rust! Injection in pure form causes cell death! It’s in our oceans, lakes, and streams! It’s…water.)

At the fair, we were provided with a packet from a clinic, with a refrigerator magnet and an explanation on how nutrition can help the body, with outrage that we spend so much money for drugs against noncommunicable diseases. That, I can’t say I find objectionable. However, there was also a note with instructions about vaccination exemption, lists of various chemicals and biological substances and the questions “Do you really want this in your body and in your children?” “Did you get a swine flu shot? (scary list of things, implied though not explicitly stated as ingredients in said shot) What did you get?”

I hope the community of a TAG school would be interested in learning more and being informed. I hope that people are smart enough to get their information from informative materials, rather than from advertising. Because make no mistake, that packet was advertising. There will be many posts on this blog that are advertising. This is not particularly one of them. But be aware that while we alternative practitioners rail against Pharmaceutical Corporations, it’s still advertising when we suggest your dollars would better line our pockets instead of theirs because _________. Advertising is not a bad thing; without it, the business owner could hardly stay afloat, even those who don’t make a living out of peddling fear. You should still seek information elsewhere. For this, I suggest the CDC, WebMD, and the Institute for Vaccine Safety.

I know that many of my colleagues have issues with vaccination. I admit I am not the ultimate authority on anything, and there is a lot I don’t understand. I concede that people should have a degree of autonomy. However, vaccination isn’t so much about personal choice as it is about protecting public health, which is why there are requirements for kids in school.

I’m glad there are skeptics who ask questions and don’t implicitly trust authority. There would be no innovation if everyone accepted norms. In this case, I’m not sure what the point is except to instill fear for personal gain, and that is not an ethical way to run a practice.

How do vaccines protect public health? Vaccines increase immunity in most people to the pathogen in question. No, they aren’t a guarantee, but as you can see with smallpox, polio, measles, and mumps, fewer people in the population get sick when most have been vaccinated. And, it’s true, vaccines are not as effective in babies, the elderly, the immunocompromised. Which is why it’s so important for the rest of us to get vaccinated, so we don’t pass disease onto them; they won’t bounce back as easily as we will.

Every decision or nondecision in the world will probably expose you to something that someone could convince you is a hazard. Life is a collection of risks. For the individual, the question is, is the risk greater to vaccinate or not vaccinate? Who has calculated those risks? Where are you getting most of your information?

For the alternative practitioner, where did YOU get your information? If you did not stand to profit financially, would that change your reasoning? Are you sure that your patients are going to follow your immune-boosting protocol? Whether they do or don’t, are you confident that you have stopped the spread of the communicable disease in question more effectively than by vaccination? It’s easy to rail against The Establishment, but remember that people depend on you. Wield your authority responsibly.

Why I got a flu shot

I’m not going to tell you to get one or not to get one, but I’ll tell you why I got mine. I’m unconvinced it was the flu, but I’ve lost work to illness the last couple of winters, and I don’t get paid sicktime. It’s been years since I had a flu shot, so I said to myself in my sickbed this February, “I’ll try it and see if I get sick this year.”

So why had I been avoiding it? Well, I hadn’t had a flu shot since they were free in the corporate world. When I did get one, I got sick. I heard things about mercury and autoimmune disorders. I was underinsured.

Obviously, I don’t need a double-blind study for everything I believe; I’m an acupuncturist! I drank the Kool-Aid about vaccination for a while, but I have to tell you, being a complementary medical practitioner and being a scientist are not mutually exclusive. And I never stopped believing in germ theory; wash your hands, people. All the yu ping feng san in the world won’t make you invincible.

Vaccination doesn’t make you invincible, either. Viruses mutate. There are many different strains of flu; every year, the vaccine makers pick which they think are going to be the key players. If it’s a good match, vaccination can decrease infection rates from 70-90% in healthy adults. Sometimes the shot isn’t a good match, and sometimes the recipient isn’t healthy. The vaccination doesn’t work as well in the elderly, the very young, and those with decreased immune systems, in other words, the people who need its protection the most. It takes a couple of weeks for the body to build antibodies, anyway; if you are exposed to the flu the day you get the shot, you may be SOL. Sometimes it makes people feel sick for a day or two (rather than the 2 weeks of awful that is, not just a cold, but the actual flu).

So, getting a flu shot is a gamble; it might not actually protect you from the flu at all. Or it might. So let’s look at some other things the rumor mill would say are a big risk. Mercury, for example. There is four times as much mercury in a can of tuna than there is in a flu shot. The autism thing has been disproven. Guillain-Barré. One of the scare articles I’ve been spammed with says, “an undisclosed number of people” receiving swine flu vaccination have come down with it. In my life, I can’t remember hearing about swine flu, so I Googled it. You know when the last time swine flu vaccinations were a big thing? 1976. You could say an undisclosed number of people who got that shot had car accidents, and it would make about as much sense. I’ve read around 500 out of millions and that it is not out of line with the regular rate of this disease.

Now, critics of western medicine and Big Pharma will say that corporate representatives advertise their products to the general public and schmooze doctors to get their products used, whether the research backs it up or not. Here’s the thing, though, the same thing happens in alternative medicine. I can’t even tell you how much spam I got in email and phone calls from every player in the herbal market once swine flu started making headlines. (And unlike with the medical doctors, they don’t even bring me breakfast or promotional gifts! This is not because supplement companies are more honest, it’s because I have less purchasing power.) Do I carry a vitamin D product? Sure I do. I’m not promoting it as a panacea, though.

These days my asthma/allergies are under a lot better control than they were a decade ago, which may be a reason I had no complications from the shot this time and took ill for a couple days last time. It didn’t hurt me, though some of my friends have complained about sore arms. I’m fully expecting a bill, since I remain underinsured, but the pharmacist said it was covered.

Now, as far as swine flu, I do plan on getting that one, too, since there have been cases in my city. I didn’t panic when swine flu hit the media, and I’m not panicked now, but I’m going to go ahead and get vaccinated if I can. The way I see it is, if I get sick, I probably won’t die, but I might. And getting sick is mighty inconvenient anyway. To me, the risk of some rare but horrible side effect is worth a chance at preventing very common illness.

There are lots of scary articles out on the internets, but I rather enjoyed these: