I want my child to grow up dirty – in all her blackened bare feet, tangled hair, mud pie baking, snail racing, tree climbing, scraped knee-ness glory. I will be that weird mom that yells to her kid, “Rub some dirt on it and get on with your life”.
But I am not delusional about the medicinal properties of dirt. Dirt is good but rubbing dirt on your kid will not make them immune to measles, so just in case please vaccinate your kids in addition to letting them get dirty. Because dirt is not a miracle worker, but vaccines actually are.
I am equal parts enraged and bemused by the Anti-Vaccine movement that has gained considerable momentum in the past twenty years and has seemingly exploded in support and action since 2013.
And while I am a big supporter of the old adage, “If you have nothing nice to say, just STFU.”. In this instance, I believe honesty is the best policy. Honesty trumps politeness. Honesty trumps keeping quiet. Honesty trumps minding your own business. Because some choices we as parents make should not be a choice at all.
The first time I heard about this notion that vaccines were potentially dangerous or that some moms choose to forgo them was long before I myself considered becoming a mother, it was around about 2010, I was twenty-seven and was chatting to a mother to two young children.
I cannot remember how or why we got onto the topic, but vaccinations came up. She was vehemently against it, she said that none of her children were ever vaccinated and never would be. Vaccines, in her opinion, were incredibly dangerous and the risk their administration posed to her children far outweighed any protection they provided, a benefit which according to her was also debatable.
She had incredible tales of the danger of vaccines; “they are grown on the livers of live monkeys”, “they have mercury and other toxic chemicals in them”, “they weaken the child’s immune system”, “they can cause autoimmune disorders, why do you think there are so many kids with asthma nowadays”, “they don’t even work, it’s all a money making scheme by the doctors and big pharma”, “why when there is an outbreak of measles or whatever else, the majority of people who fall ill are vaccinated?” and the most common and popularised argument – “vaccines have been directly linked as a cause of autism”.
This was the first time I had ever heard of such a thing, I mean I was fully immunised and there had never been any debate as to whether I would be, my mom did as the doctor advised and immunised all three of her children. And we turned out fine, didn’t we?
I turned to Google to see what it had to say on the matter and I was amazed to see that it indeed was a real thing – people were against vaccinations and were choosing to not vaccinate their children.
And from that moment I concluded that these individuals were either incredibly gullible and would believe anything or were incredibly ignorant and didn’t fully understand the scientific research proving vaccines safe, and instead, they chose to believe an actress whose most significant achievement was appearing in Playboy magazine.
Now, I am no medical professional, no scientist, I do not currently, nor have I ever worked for a pharmaceutical company and I know very little about medicine or the development of vaccinations.
I am, however, semi-literate, live in a third world country in which people die every day from preventable and treatable diseases and I have an interest in history. And this is what I have to say on the topic.
- Vaccines biggest strength has become its biggest weakness
Vaccines are widely regarded as the greatest medical advance of the 20th Century. And this success has also seemingly been its downfall because it has been so successful that the moms of today, those aged fifty and under, in affluent and developed corners of the world from Cape Town to LA to Perth have had the luxury of collective amnesia.
Our generation has never seen the effects of the diseases, against which we vaccinate, in full force. How many of us have had our child suffer a permanent disability at the hands of Polio? Or had half our child’s school class die from a smallpox outbreak? Or have given birth to a child that is marred by blindness, deafness and a damaged heart because you were exposed to German Measles (or Rubella) in the early stages of your pregnancy?
I venture to say none to any of the above questions. Vaccines have allowed us as a civilisation to in some instances and areas of the world eradicate infectious diseases like smallpox and polio.
The first ever vaccination against an infectious disease was pioneered at the end of the 1700s in Britain, it was developed to fight smallpox, which was a massive killer around the world. In the 1600s and 1700s, 1 in 13 of all deaths in London was caused by smallpox. When the vaccine was introduced in 1796 the number of deaths caused by the disease sharply declined, and over the next 100 years, the disease was all but irradicated, as it accounted for 0,01% deaths in 1900.
Interestingly, in 1980, the WHO officially certified the global elimination of smallpox, the first ever eradication of a disease in human history, and at the time the organisation recommended that all countries cease vaccination and that all laboratories should destroy their remaining stocks. Surely if there was some massive conspiracy theory by big pharma, doctors and the medical fraternity they would have continued to vaccinate against this disease and reap the monetary benefits?
The last major outbreak of polio in the United States was in 1953 where 57 879 cases were reported and 3 147 of those cases resulted in death and many more of these cases would have resulted in paralysis or disability. According to WHO, polio mainly affects children under the age of five, so it is heart-breaking to imagine that the victims of this awful disease are pre-school children. If not for vaccinations, Izzy would fall into this vulnerable group.
It was in this decade – the 1950’s – that the first effective polio vaccines were developed, and it was in the second half of this decade and the beginning of the next that the polio outbreaks plummeted, and I mean plummeted, from the tens of thousands of cases and thousands of deaths in 1953 to 449 cases and 41 deaths in 1963. The number of cases and deaths has continued to decline, with only a handful of cases being reported yearly. The global push to end polio has reached its final stages, with just 3 remaining countries still working to eradicate this debilitating disease.
And this is the blissful ignorance that vaccinating has bought us. But with several decades of life without the horrors infectious disease reap on our children staring us in the face day-to-day, we have had the luxury of time and naivety to question the value of vaccinating, the ignorance to think that a vaccine’s benefits far out way its drawbacks and the arrogance to believe our Google degree in medicine supersedes that of an actual medical degree and countless years of experience at the frontline of disease and suffering.
All you have to do is talk to a historian and you will quickly gain a glimpse into the world before vaccines. Erika Holst, a historian, shares her opinion on the matter and recounts some of the writings from the 18th century she and her colleagues have encountered during the course of their work.
“I couldn’t help but notice that all my historian friends fell firmly into the camp of pro-vaccines. Even the crunchy ones, even the woman who home-schools her kids and gave birth at home in an inflatable pool.”, she says.
She explains further, “The reason for this is best summed up by my friend Kristen Wands, a curator in Wethersfield, Connecticut: “I read the letters and diaries of anguished 18th-century parents who lost numerous children to diseases we can prevent and treat today. I know what a world without vaccines looks like, and you wouldn’t want to live there.”
Holst goes on to share additional insight into a world where deadly illnesses are commonplace. “How necessary to live in constant readiness for death’s summons,” wrote Helen Edwards. Our ancestors lived with the acute awareness that death was never far from life, often ending correspondence “if you live” or “if I live”.
She goes on to say, “Try to imagine, for a moment, if every time your child got a runny nose, you wondered if that illness would be his last. Try to imagine loving your children and grandchildren, but not daring to assume that they would all grow to adulthood. Try to imagine families who had not buried their children being the exception, not the rule. Try to imagine if a quarter of the children you know would not live to see their fifth birthdays. Our ancestors, who watched their children die of the diseases vaccines prevent, would have given just about anything to have had them.”
Because I feel this particular topic requires the right amount of attention and due diligence, I don’t want to gloss over the issues and the facts, I have broken it into two parts so it is a little more easy to digest. So, look out for part two. Coming next week.