When discussions about vaccinations for children occur, it is the more deeply held beliefs behind the discussion – the skeleton of the argument- that divides debaters most. This is true for all passionately felt and complicated positions. In the abortion dispute, the skeleton argument is when the moment of life begins, i.e. if there is a traditional belief in God. A person who believes in God, who believes that spirit enters the flesh at conception, is going to have a different view on abortion than even an individual who believes in a higher power and whose ideology is more flexible regarding the spirit. All facts about the physical process of abortion are filtered through these beliefs or non-beliefs.
What is the skeleton argument around full vaccinations for children? When I had my first baby, I was a single mother of 19 and overwhelmed with the practicalities of my situation; I was, in many ways, simply too busy surviving to even wonder if I needed to look deeper into the orders of my doctor. My son was fully vaccinated, on the traditional schedule. With the birth of my next baby, I was older and, in what was the sea change for me, had accumulated enough information through journalism, books, college and life to be suspicious of any directive given to me regarding my children. By then, I knew that there was no Great Adult in charge of important organizations; in other words, I had let the child’s idea of a Grown Up God go, and accepted that no organization, however intelligently staffed, morally founded and bountifully funded could be trusted implicitly. I knew that human fallability entered into every aspect of adult life and created, even at the highest levels of society’s functioning, enormous mistakes that only years, decades later were recorded as so in the history books.
By the time I had to decide if, when, and how to vaccinate my second baby, it would be more accurate to say that my trust of the sources of information on vaccines had altered, versus my trust of the actual vaccines themselves: I wasn’t sure if the vaccines were hurting my child or not, but I was sure that the organizations telling me they were safe had a history of duplicity and serious mistakes. The slow doubt began with my oldest son’s burgeoning mysterious health issues. Breastfed as a baby and fed healthy meals as a little boy, he began to have a cross-section of unexplained maladies: hives, stomach pain, headaches, fatigue, under eye circles and then the onset of occasional breathing difficulties. After allergy testing and multiple emergency room and doctor visits, we were told he had exercise induced asthma and was given an inhaler and steroids. To my questions about his other symptoms, the doctors could only shrug and offer that maybe he would “grow out of it.” My inquiries about possible reactions to food additives or a food related inflammatory process or probiotics were condescendingly brushed aside (this was before probiotics were regularly recommended alongside antibiotics).
After six months of fiddling with my son’s diet and giving him specific, targeted supplements along with probiotics, he was as good as new. His ‘exercise induced asthma’ disappeared, along with all other symptoms. His teachers stopped asking me if he got enough sleep at night, and I stopped worrying that one of the ER trips would turn into something more serious. This complete turnaround whose implementation had been totally unsupported, even mocked, by more than one doctor was the first crest of my sea change. Why, I wondered, had I assumed that doctors had the final word?And why had my son’s pediatricians been so dismissive of alternative solutions when traditional medicine failed to supply them?
When my daughter was born in 2002, I was aware of a small, humming discontent around vaccines, without the hurricane level of media storm that occurs today around the issue. Curious, and at this point a more independent thinker, I began to read. And the more I read, the more I needed to read. And the more I needed to read, the broader my reading became, until I was, as they say, more confused than when I started. Here was the turning point: I knew enough to be very concerned, but not enough to be sure exactly what to do. Here also lies the problem- we want to know what to do when it comes to our children. We want to protect them, and ourselves, from serious illness and death, of course! The desire to believe that we have a solution with an acceptable risk profile is enormous, and of course, the danger there is that we will not be open to negative information about a vaccine or all vaccines, that we will shut our ears, eyes and mouth and jab the needle.
The assumptions of my nineteen-year-old self around vaccines were that they were necessary to prevent deaths, that vaccines were largely a safe and sensible solution to horrific diseases with some very rare reactions that occur in some very unlucky rare children who receive them. But, by and large, I believed that vaccines were safe and we were being told all important truths about them. Everyone told me so. Who was everyone? My pediatricians, their waiting room pamphlets, advertisements on TV, health organizations and many of my friends who were mothers. The pressure to vaccinate was enormous and fear and shame based, just as it is now. If you don’t vaccinate you are a bad mother, a shitty American who doesn’t care about protecting other people with weakened immunity, an uneducated zealot, an idiot who will wish you had vaccinated when your child dies of some horrible disease. The words used are the same today. Take this comment I pulled from a Facebook post on my feed, written by a blogger and mother with lupus:
And again I ask those of you who choose not to vaccinate- how dare you when you KNOW it could mean my children will be motherless? Why do you CHOOSE my death over your privilege?
In Forbes, Stephen Salzberg lumped those who are concerned with vaccinations into one group, ‘ anti-vaxxers ‘ and writes that they have “faux concern for the children” and are “characters.” The lumping of all those concerned with vaccinations into ‘anti-vaxxers’ is hardly Salzberg’s territory alone; many arguments for vaccinations are written parallel with this kind of sloppy journalism where anyone with a serious concern about the safety or necessity of a vaccine is a cartoon character with no brains. Celebrity Jenny McCarthy has been a perfect mark for this kind of reductive argument, a former Playmate who used to be best known for ads where she sat on a toilet, underwear round her ankles, and who now is the face of the argument that vaccinations cause autism. Cue jokes. This kind of aggressive characterization is the most predictable and simplistic reaction to any argument against a mainstream held belief or action, and does nothing to convince anyone who reads them to think anything other than exactly what they came into the piece already believing.
When finding these kinds of character attacks in articles both for and against vaccinations, my desire was to sift through, distill the facts, and then more importantly, keep clarifying until the source of the facts, and all important information about that source, were clear. If this sounds like information you can gather from your doctor’s office, What To Expect in the First Year and a few blog posts on the World Health Organziation’s website and Stir.com, you would be wrong.
The amount of reading that I was getting into illuminated my first mistake — I should have begun the moment I found I was pregnant. But how many women have the time or focus to research and read this amount of information while postpartum and most likely exhausted and overwhelmed? I received a message this week from a new mother, asking me what I thought about vaccinations. I don’t know what to do, she said. Her baby is one-month-old. I know that she and I are not alone in this timeline. There is so much to consider and read while pregnant, especially the first time, that vaccinations rarely come into the forefront. This does not bode well for a highly educated decision, which we can all surely agree is the best way to make such a serious choice- often the first serious choice we make for our child.
The story of Dr. Peter Aaby’s discoveries on the mortality rate of girls receiving the DPT vaccine is rife with examples of why my skeleton beliefs regarding vaccines consist of the belief that I cannot trust the larger corporations in charge to tell us the truth- or all the truth- and why you cannot either. Also illuminated is the kind of protracted reluctance for further research and exposure in the face of a clear-cut evidence that those things are necessary, despite every protest to the contrary.
It’s important to state here — to be clear about my purpose for writing this, which is to inform, not to direct — that I gave my daughter born three years ago the DPT vaccine, and had the booster myself. I am not anti-vaccine; I am pro-information.
The American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013 recommended 17 vaccines (48 total as some are given more than once for what is considered adequate protection) including 113 vaccine antigens over six years. This is a a heavier load than European children carry, and quite more vaccinations than America itself offered just twenty years ago. The first obvious conclusion from those facts is that we have no idea what the schedule of vaccinations we now give is doing to our children’s health over the long term, but our first indication has arrived.
The first study done to look at the effect of immunizations on a child’s immune system was reported on in the BBC in 2011. Dr. Aaby is a well-respected scientist who has spent the last thirty years of his life researching the children of Guinea-Bissau. After discovering that the children there were dying not from malnutrition as other organizations had concluded, but from densely clustered groups of children ill with measles that were creating an unusually powerful measles epidemic, Dr. Aaby happily began immunizing the children with a new measles vaccine, but he did not stop there. Dr. Aaby did what no other scientist has done and reported; he closely followed the children being vaccinated in the years afterward.
The former Deputy Director of the British Medical Research Council’s laboratories recalls how Dr. Aaby explained furthering his research:
“At that stage, Peter said look, one of my beliefs is that we should not only look at the specific effect of vaccines, and whether is stops measles, but I also want to look at the total effect on a community in the longer term. Does it actually reduce mortality.”
The data revealed terrible truths. Girls who took the vaccine died of other conditions at a quickening rate. The vaccine was withdrawn, and the old measles vaccine put in its place. Dr. Aaby was not satisfied that the newer measles vaccine was the culprit; he wanted to know why the vaccine had affected specifically girls this way, and researched the problem. This resulted in a game changing discovery: it was the effect of the measles vaccination interacting with the DPT vaccine that was causing the increase likelihood of death in girls.
Aaby’s conclusion was that DPT weakens a child’s immune system. His conclusion went here: he believes that the DPT vaccine causes a 50% greater mortality rate from infants ages two months to nine months of age for all types of mortality.
One of the scientists on the team in Guinea-Bissau stated: “If it all gets accepted in the end, proven, it will be a paradigm shift in the way we think about vaccinating children, and paradigm shifts in the scientific community are very frightening.” The big threat? These questions: “Could we do it different? Could we do it better?” Some scientists fear Dr. Peter Aaby is a danger to the global health care system.
The World Health Organization (WHO) sent over a team of scientists to pour over Dr. Aaby’s research. Dr. Kim Mulholland, now Professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, but at the time the WHO team leader, was surprised that Dr. Aaby could account for and provide all the necessary research. Not only that, Dr. Mulholland could find no holes in the research; it was solid. He took his team back to WHO headquarters in Geneva and reported the information, expecting to be asked to give a presentation on the team findings. He was not, and ten years later is still worried by the outcome. “Nobody really talked to me much after that, ” he says uncomfortably. People were hoping we were finding some major flaw…to say these were flawed studies.”
WHO concluded, despite their own team’s report, that there was no cause for concern, or further research. Nothing was done. Professor Mulholland says, “It’s worrying…some years ago I did a calculation of what this could mean in terms of mortality, locally, and it’s quite alarming. Why is it that the international community is sitting on their hands and ignoring this, that’s a good question.” Professor Mulholland is, according to his own page on the London School of Hygiene, a ‘leader in the Hib Initiative’ – clearly not anti-vaccine. His concerns come from facts. Meanwhile, Dr. Aaby has written and presented 34 papers on the DPT vaccines lethal effect on girls, dogged in his quest to look further into what can be done to alter the outcome of the DPT and measles vaccinations in girls, and to incite the scientific community to demand a change.
This is exactly the kind of information that forms my personal skeleton beliefs, the sieve which I filter through all information I receive about vaccinations that themselves filter down from the largest fish in the pond, like WHO, to the corporations to hospitals, schools, and local doctors. Obviously, it’s not only this information, but that this particular piece of information reflects the kind of secrecy, unsupportable slowness in addressing serious concerns in any way and reluctance toward change on the part of large corporations that I take into account alongside all discussion regarding vaccinations.
Thirty-six leading scientists have formed a group calling to study a close look at what they call “the non-specific effects of vaccinations.” Dr. Katie Flanagan of the British Research Council reiterates my own concern, that there are no long-term studies on the developing immune systems of children in relation to vaccinations. Dr. Flanagan is currently researching, in real-time, the measurable blood effects of the DPT vaccine in girls and boys. On her own research on Dr. Aaby’s data on the effects of DPT and measles vaccines in succession she says this:
” It is very striking … we are seeing clear differences in the actual inflammatory profile, if you give the vaccines together- the DPT and the measles- compared to giving measles alone, and the effects are completely different in boys and girls. I think I’m beginning to find some very clear immunological patterns that could explain why Peter Aaby is seeing these things, and to support his data, basically.”
Here is what the CDC says about the possibility of vaccine damage to the immune systems of children:
“No evidence suggests that the recommended childhood vaccines can ‘overload’ the immune system. In contrast, from the moment babies are born, they are exposed to numerous bacteria and viruses on a daily basis. Eating food introduces new bacteria into the body; numerous bacteria live in the mouth and nose; and an infant places his or her hands or other objects in his or her mouth hundreds of times every hour, exposing the immune system to still more antigens. When a child has a cold they are exposed to at least 4 to 10 antigens and exposure to “strep throat” is about 25 to 50 antigens.
“Adverse Events Associated with Childhood Vaccines, a 1994 report from the Institute of Medicine, states: ‘In the face of these normal events, it seems unlikely that the number of separate antigens contained in childhood vaccines …would represent an appreciable added burden on the immune system that would be immunosuppressive.’ ”
Clearly more research needs to be done, there are not complete answers here. What is the effect of the measles vaccine alone on infant girl’s immune system? The evidence found by scientist looking so far is, according to the BBC report, that vaccinating has long-term, unexpected effects on the immune system of children, sometimes good, but also sometimes negative, especially in girls. What is the mechanism causing inflammatory process in only girls? Is the order we are giving other vaccines putting children at risk? Are other vaccines damaging our children’s immune systems- are we, in some cases, trading one kind of death for another? What changes need to be made at WHO so that this kind of information suppression does not occur- and more.
What is the skeleton belief behind a choice to fully vaccinate a child on the recommended schedule? If it is that our resources for the most important information about vaccines are honest and forthcoming, we need to look again at the evidence. The story of DPT is not, by far, the only story surrounding vaccines that as a parent, makes my stomach drop. It is one important, documented accounting of the exact, life threatening concerns we all need to keep in mind when we look at each vaccine and decide if it should be injected into our children. My own desire to protect my children and to do the right thing for everyone has at times made it difficult to accept some of the information I come across in my research. How to vaccinate my children has been one of the most difficult decisions of parenting my four children, because the information is complicated and incomplete and the propaganda laden with hyperbole and guilt.
The fact that BBC reported this story with virtually no re-reporting in other major or minor news outlets also begs the question of how much important information we are getting from our sources. I am curious why editors pass on these stories, and inclined to think that they are afraid of people not vaccinating when confronted with concerning information. A scientist interviewed about negative information a large study found about giving girls vitamin A at birth said that she submitted her study to many scientific journals and publications, none of which would publish her work, until finally it was published in the Journal Of Immunology. When asked why she thinks her study was not accepted for report, she replied that she believes no one wants to publish any studies that might discourage people from accepting and taking ‘preventative health care’. In other words, we are having our information curated for us with a strong bias. Is this acceptable?
We often need to look further than we do, toward the bigger picture, all the way, for example, to Guinea-Bissau.
You can listen to the original BBC newscast that this article was based on here.
Maggie May Ethridge is a writer and novelist completing her second novel. She is mother to four kids ages two through 19 years old and while a Southern girl at heart, lives in San Diego, CA. More of her work can be found at Role/Reboot, Huffington Post, Diagram and her blog, Flux Capacitor. Connect on Twitter or Facebook.