When it comes to emotive topics, child mortality is certainly one of the top choices, especially when it comes to the debate over vaccination. While disease inoculation has been widely accepted by most of the medical profession and the public, there is a passionate community of “anti-vaxxers” who claim that the procedure causes more damage than it is supposed to fix. Those in favor claim that a high percentage of people need to be vaccinated in order to create “herd immunity” to prevent against communicable diseases. Although those against may have varied reasons, a January report found that the most common is fear of side-effects.
“Where there is risk, there must be choice…”
The World Health Organization labeled vaccine hesitancy a top health threat in 2019, noting that measles has increased by 30% worldwide – an idea with which lawmakers in Washington state may well agree. In response to a recent outbreak, the state has proposed multiple laws to force reluctant parents into immunizing their kids, a move which hundreds came out to protest.
Washington Measles Outbreak
Washington Governor Jay Inslee (D) proclaimed a health emergency this January in response to an outbreak of 26 cases of measles, bringing the military and emergency services to assist with the “public disaster.” As of February, the state’s Department of Health has confirmed 53 cases, most of which are in Clark County, where 22% of kindergarteners were not fully vaccinated in 2017 – compared to the state average of 15%. So far, no related deaths have been registered.
Washington is currently one of 18 states that allows parents to seek vaccine exemptions for philosophical reasons, including moral or personal beliefs. That may be about to change, however, as 15 lawmakers have sponsored bipartisan bill HB1368 to make the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine mandatory before a child can attend day care or school, except in cases of certified religious or medical reasons; personal and philosophical objections would not be tolerated. It is curious that the seemingly hasty and reactionary bill would only remove the exemption for MMR and not the various other diseases that infants are immunized against, such as polio, mumps, and whooping cough – although there are numerous other proposals in the works regarding vaccines in the state, including Senate Bill 5841, which stipulates similar rules for all immunizations.
State Representative Paul Harris (R-Vancouver), who sponsored the bill, said that local health professionals are “concerned about our community, its immunity and the community safety.” John Wiesman, the State Secretary of Health, told the House Health care and Wellness Committee that the bill is “about safe schools and protecting vulnerable children,” adding that “the outbreak we are dealing with right now is larger and infecting people faster than recent history” and “the MMR vaccine is extremely safe and highly effective – 97% effective in preventing measles after two doses of the vaccine. Serious adverse effects are very rare.”
While some hesitant parents have responded to the outbreak by deciding to get their kids vaccinated after all, others remain resolute against the idea and turned out in the hundreds to protest on the day of the committee hearing. Why are some parents reluctant to have their children inoculated? According to one doctor, it’s simply the luxury of a highly immunized community. “It’s happening because people aren’t scared of the diseases,” said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “I think vaccines in some ways are victims of their own success.”
But is that all there is to it?
Are Vaccines Safe?
Rumors of vaccine-linked autism have swirled for years, albeit with denials from the medical community, who say the research was discredited. Most of the criticism around the anti-vax moment stems from a study by Andrew Wakefield, which was identified as erroneous. The idea remains highly controversial, but while much of the anti-vaccine debate centers still on autism, there are other issues that rarely get mentioned. While many scientists and non-scientists are quick to dismiss anti-vaccine arguments based on the Wakefield study, few are willing to question other criticisms surrounding inoculations as they currently exist.
Vaccines are intended to stimulate an immune response to the administered disease, and therefore prepare the body to fight the same disease upon a real-life exposure. However, vaccines are not simply “pure” versions of the harmful bacteria or virus, they also contain a cocktail of additional ingredients, which can vary from one formula to another. One reason some Christian groups do not approve of immunization is because some of them (including MMR) contain tissue from aborted fetuses, and the MMR vaccine also contains genetically modified human tissue. Ingredients added to vaccines include known or suspected neurotoxins formaldehyde, monosodium glutamate (MSG), aluminum, and mercury-containing preservative Thimerosal. While the medical field is quick to assure the public that these ingredients are unlikely to cause adverse health complications, it is perhaps not surprising that some parents are hesitant to inject them into young children. One 2011 study, published in Current Medicinal Chemistry, stated:
“Aluminum is an experimentally demonstrated neurotoxin and the most commonly used vaccine adjuvant [ingredient used to promote immune response]. Despite almost 90 years of widespread use of aluminum adjuvants, medical science’s understanding about their mechanisms of action is still remarkably poor. There is also a concerning scarcity of data on toxicology and pharmacokinetics of these compounds. In spite of this, the notion that aluminum in vaccines is safe appears to be widely accepted … the possibility that vaccine benefits may have been overrated and the risk of potential adverse effects underestimated, has not been rigorously evaluated in the medical and scientific community.”
There are also questions about whether some vaccines actually function as advertised – highlighting the relative infancy of the practice and the lack of data on long-term effects before they’re rolled out en masse. While the MMR vaccine was sold as a preventative for life, Science Mag reported in March 2018 that college students were experiencing a resurgence of mumps. It now appears that the immunity wears off much sooner than scientists expected. There is an ongoing lawsuit against vaccine producer Merck by whistleblowers who claim the company inflated the effectiveness data of their formula.
Medical doctor Tony Burke, who witnessed multiple adverse reactions while running a pediatrics hospital unit, told legislators that there have only been two deaths from measles in the U.S. since 2003, compared to over 400 deaths resulting from the vaccine itself. She suggested that 10-15% of patients susceptible to such reactions are “being left out in the rain without an umbrella,” and pointed out that:
“While it sounds good and well that vaccines are safe and effective just so you understand that they are legally classified as unavoidably unsafe and the manufacturers are not liable this is a liability free product that is being mandated on children who have epigenetic susceptibility to injury and the injuries are serious including death and chronic.”
A Matter of Liberty?
Susie Corgan from Informed Choice Washington told legislators that “Where there is risk, there must be choice, and there is risk with this vaccine as there is with any other medical procedure.” One protestor in Olympia went further, telling reporters: “When you take away a person’s freedom and medical choice, mandating vaccines for education, that is coercion and it leads us into a totalitarian regime.”
The contagious nature of these diseases and the concept of “herd immunity” muddy the waters when it comes to individual rights and vaccination. Are vaccines primarily responsible for the decline in contagious diseases in the modern world, or do improved sanitation and nutrition play a significant role? So often the immunization debate is immediately shut down by a wall of intransigence from a scientific and medical establishment that refuses to examine its own presuppositions and institutions. Perhaps the solution is not to mandate people submit to medical procedures against their will, but rather to open a transparent examination of the industry and let it stand on its own merits – whether it can or not.