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curving path with tall orange logs on either side with Japanese writing and a lantern hanging from the ceiling

Torii path with lantern at Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. Photo by Basile Morin

Americans love a shortcut. I’m not sure how it became wedged in our culture so deeply, but there it is, and it plays out in so many different ways that end up hurting the collective.

It’s definitely a human trait to want to avoid the hard work and the arduous journey and find a way to leap right to a more comfortable place, but I think it’s important for us to assess the cost of these short-term fixes so we can determine whether or not they are actually helpful in the long run.

For months and months we’ve been pinning our hopes on a vaccine for Covid-19, hoping that it will release us from the new reality we’ve been living with masks and hand-washing and decreased opportunities to go to the movie theater and restaurants and have big celebrations with our beloveds. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, but in the absence of other things we could have been doing to mitigate the pain and suffering so many people have endured in the meantime, it speaks to our overriding desire for instant gratification. While other countries have managed to strongly limit the spread of disease by supporting their citizens with basic needs and universal health care, we have been over here railing against the virus and the leaders who dare to make difficult choices for us all (without actually supporting individuals and communities as they implement those measures). We are here clamoring for a series of shots that will keep us from having to actually build communities that can withstand catastrophe.

But it turns out there really is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.

Time and time again we look for systemic solutions, policy changes, and “leaders” who will create innovative new technologies to serve the masses, all while disregarding the basic, bedrock fact that our American culture isn’t built on caring for each other and uplifting community.

A vaccine won’t save us. To date, while the vaccines that have been approved have shown to prevent vaccinated individuals from developing an illness from the virus (if they have both shots), it is completely unknown whether they will keep the vaccinated individual from carrying the virus and transmitting it to others. Meaning that, because there is no way every single individual in your vicinity will receive the vaccine for a number of reasons, if we are to prevent spread of the disease, we will still have to practice the same social distancing and protective measures we have been living with for most of 2020. And people who can’t have the vaccine because of their health status will be at increased risk the more that others go back to “business as usual,” forcing them to even more severely curtail their social activities.

It will take years to know what the effect of these vaccines is on individuals and the collective, so what are we going to do in the meantime? Looking to other countries whose culture is more about belonging to each other, we can learn how to mitigate some of the devastating effects of this disease on community. Much of the upset about small businesses closing has to do with people losing their ability to pay rent and eat with any sort of regularity. We can fix that. There is enough money. We have enough money to test people often and accurately, we have enough money to ensure that health care workers have the proper equipment. We have enough money to ensure that landlords and tenants are taken care of and nobody loses their home. We have the resources to feed and house every single person in this country while we wait to learn more about how best to develop medications to fight Covid, what effect vaccines will have, and why some people don’t get sick from this virus while others are impacted heavily.

It’s a choice. The choice isn’t between whether or not to put kids back in physical school buildings. It’s not a choice between the economy or individual health. It is a choice between doing the hard work of making sure that every single person is as cared for on a basic level as they can be and pretending that there is some magic bullet out there and all we have to do is find it.

There is no magic bullet. There is only us. And, I’ll say it again, there is no substitute for actually giving a shit about each other.

Part 1 is here
Part 2 is here


I would like to go on record as saying that I don’t think vaccines are a bad thing, in and of themselves. I do think that they have served an important function in our understanding and the prevention of many diseases. However, I don’t think there is such a thing as a panacea, as much as we would like there to be, and over the past few decades, the medical-industrial complex has become so interwoven with the public health system that I’m not certain it is serving the people it claims to serve any longer.


One example of this phenomenon lies with the development of HPV vaccines. I wrote about this in 2013 here, detailing my issues with the vaccine Gardasil. Since that time, more countries have either banned or started investigating this particular vaccine because of the high number of adverse side effects, and yet in the US, our public health officials continue to advocate for its use within an even wider population. It is now recommended that boys have this vaccine and that all children have it starting at a younger age (an age at which NO trials have been done to determine safety or efficacy). If we were truly interested in long-term public health and not making money for pharmaceutical companies, we would proceed cautiously with this vaccine which has been shown to have some correlation with teenage-onset menopause and severe neurological issues.


Another example of the rush to develop vaccines that (I believe) are unnecessary is the chickenpox, or Varicella zoster, vaccine. Ours is one of the few countries that routinely and widely vaccinates our children for this disease that has not been shown to be deadly in the vast majority of cases. This article found at the National Center for Biotechnology Information illustrates the reason why, after much scrutiny of the matter, the United Kingdom does not push chickenpox vaccines on its children as a matter of routine. The conclusion of the physicians there was that there are two main areas of concern regarding this vaccine:

1. “…introduction of a routine childhood vaccination drives up the age at which those who are and remain non‐immune get the illness and chickenpox tends to be more severe the older you are,”


and



2. “…what will happen to the epidemiology of shingles if chickenpox vaccination is introduced in the United Kingdom?”



The answer to these questions from pediatricians I have taken my children to are as follows:


1. If your kids don’t get the disease naturally now, because all the rest of the kids are vaccinated for it, they will more likely get it when they’re older, when it is much worse, so they might as well follow the crowd and get the vaccine. What they neglect to mention is that the efficacy of the vaccine has been shown to be between 3 and 5 years, which means indefinite booster shots for the rest of their lives. And if they don’t – say they forget for a year or two when they first move out (like in college, when they’re exposed to tons of different infectious diseases), they’ll likely get a horrible case of it. They also neglect to mention that, had we not developed this vaccine and given it so widely (as opposed to just kids who are immunocompromised or otherwise indicated to have it), we wouldn’t have the issue of kids not getting it naturally. 



2. There’s a shingles vaccine. Don’t worry. Great, so now, on top of the multiple chickenpox vaccines my kids will be getting for the rest of their lives, they have to get shingles vaccines? 


If you’re a pharmaceutical company, you’ve created a solution to a problem that didn’t really exist. But with the CDC on your side, you are guaranteed to have a captive audience for your vaccines for years to come. And in my state, physicians are given financial incentives (higher ranking with Medicaid and state insurance programs as well as payment) if they have a significant percentage of their patients who vaccinate fully. Thus the pressure I get every time I take my kids to the doctor for a check up.




It seems that, in the UK, they have decided to be more conservative with their recommendation and follow the research instead of the money. Interestingly, it turns out that in households with children who acquire chickenpox naturally, there is a smaller incidence of shingles. What that means is that there is likely a protective factor against shingles for adults living with children who have naturally acquired immunity to chickenpox. 
So, why the development of the chickenpox vaccine? Previous to the development of this vaccine, fewer than 100 people per year (out of 4,000,000 who contracted the disease) had complications that led to death. One hundred people sounds like a lot, but that is 0.0025% (or 0.000025) of the people with the disease. And the rest of those people had not only naturally acquired immunity, but some protection against shingles as adults. The normal lifetime risk of getting shingles is 10-30%, but the UK researchers noted that, with a chickenpox vaccine program, the incidence of shingles rises 30-50% until everyone is vaccinated, which could take decades. 


In my opinion, this particular vaccine has become a boon for pharmaceutical companies despite the fact that it protects very few people from the serious side effects of childhood chickenpox and instead, opens up an entire generation of young adults to risk for adult chickenpox infection and future shingles. If you add in the risk associated with multiple vaccines (some reported side effects of the Varicella vaccine include shock, seizures, encephalitis, thrombocytopenia and Guillian Barre syndrome), you’re looking at a lifetime of risking your health again and again versus the risks associated with acquiring chickenpox naturally and suffering it’s side effects.


Back when vaccines were first developed, they were designed to combat highly infectious, deadly diseases, and they were mostly developed by pure scientists who had little financial stake in the outcome. These days, pharmaceutical companies who are concerned with their stakeholders’ satisfaction commission their own scientists to create vaccines that may or may not be immediately necessary (the “fast tracking” of Gardasil is one egregious example of a corporate push to market that was altogether unnecessary) and gradually increase the population and number of boosters that are given, continually growing their market share. Until we can be assured that the entities who are recommending the vaccine schedule have no conflict of interest and have done truly independent studies on safety, efficacy, and necessity of each and every one of the vaccines on our current US schedule, it is unfortunately up to the consumer to advocate for themselves, their families, and follow the money. 






In case you missed, it, Part 1 of my writing on vaccines in the US can be found here.



I suppose that, like most other very controversial subjects, it shouldn’t surprise me that the vaccine debate tends to get framed as an all or nothing, black and white, choosing sides issue. Whenever we are driven by fear, human beings tend to lose the ability to think rationally and begin to believe that there is a Right and a Wrong answer, and the question of whether or not to vaccinate can certainly be a fearful one.
I do continue to be mystified, however, by people who should know better – public health officials and medical practitioners, for starters – that position vaccines as an all-or-nothing proposition, and here is why:
Vaccines are not all created equal. Accusing me of being “anti-vaccine” because I am concerned about the safety and/or efficacy of some vaccines or the current US vaccination schedule is akin to saying I am “anti-car” because I wouldn’t consider driving a Volkswagen but I might choose a Toyota.

  • There are a vast array of vaccines available, some of which were created decades ago and some that are fairly recent. 
  • Some vaccines on the market are multivalent (that is, they are designed to inoculate against more than one disease-causing organism) and others are monovalent (for one organism only).
  • Some vaccines were created to work against bacterial disease and others were designed for viruses.
  • Some vaccines contain adjuvants (chemicals that are supposed to increase the body’s immune response to create stronger immunity) such as aluminum and others do not.
  • Some vaccines are designed to be injected once in a person’s lifetime and others require multiple boosters in order to maintain a high level of immunity.
  • Some vaccines contain inert ingredients derived from animal parts, others from human fetal tissue, and things like MSG (monosodium glutamate).
  • Some vaccines have been tested many times over a long period of years on individuals of all ages, genders and races, and others have been “fast-tracked” which means that there was a determination that there was some public health risk that necessitated them getting to market faster, so there hasn’t been the same rigorous level of testing. 
I could go on, but hopefully it is imminently clear that the vaccines Americans are encouraged to give their children (and have themselves) are very different from one another. Much like buying a car, it is important to do research on each individual vaccine in order to determine a risk/benefit ratio and decide what is comfortable for you. For example, when my daughters’ doctor recommended the chickenpox vaccine for them, I researched it as thoroughly as I could and ultimately chose not to have them get those shots because I felt as though the risks outweighed the benefits. Similarly, they have not had the HPV vaccine and I don’t foresee either of them getting it anytime soon. (If you’re curious about why, you can read this post particular to the Gardasil vaccine. Since I wrote it, there has been a great deal more information published by other people who are critical of both Gardasil and Cervarix that shouldn’t be difficult to locate online.)

Please don’t think that I am under the impression that doing research on the safety  and efficacy of individual vaccines is a simple endeavor. I am fully aware that it is not, and I know how lucky I am to have both the time and the educational background to locate, digest, and mostly understand the data. Many, many people are unable to do what I have done, and the system is unfortunately not set up to support any kind of patient education regarding vaccines or any other pharmaceutical, for that matter. Many vaccines are available through drugstores and grocery stores in America, which makes it a challenge to have an in-depth conversation with the provider regarding risks and possible complications. Even if you go to a physician for vaccines, many of them aren’t as well-informed about the individual attributes of each vaccine as they could be, and a great deal of them are unwilling to have a candid conversation about the ingredients of individual vaccines. In a perfect world, the person who is recommending that you inject your child with something would have looked at the studies done on that drug to determine whether or not it is a good idea, but the amount of information is incredibly huge. The doctors I’ve met are content relying on the word of the CDC that vaccines are safe, but because these drugs are created and sold by massive
corporations who may or may not be interested in the greater good of public
health, but who are nevertheless incentivized to create a product that they can
bring to market quickly that will produce enormous profits for their
shareholders. In turn, these corporations use that money to lobby lawmakers who
wield a great deal of power over government agencies responsible for
determining whether these vaccines are safe and effective and when they get to
go to market, as well as recommending where in the vaccine schedule they ought
to be placed. There is a very clear conflict of interest for many physicians
and scientists working on vaccines who are being paid by large pharmaceutical
companies to create new vaccines. And, in many states, regular family physicians are paid by the state to give patients vaccines, so the more children they inoculate, the more they are rewarded. 


Ultimately, this issue is much more nuanced than many of us would like to believe, and because it is so complicated, we often fail to have productive conversations about it. In my heart of hearts, I believe that we are all striving for a country with healthy children, but if we are going to get there, it will, at some point, mean that we sit down together without fear or anger or labels and get everything out on the table with that singular goal in mind. 











 

For more than a year, I’ve been holding my tongue on the subject of vaccines for a whole range of reasons. The conversation seems to wax and wane, but now that it is front-and-center once again, I feel as though I am ready to put some of my thoughts and experiences out there.

I will do this in parts because the issues are incredibly complicated and I think they deserve a thorough examination, but because of an experience I had a year ago, I will start with the following letter.  I was invited, by MomsRising to be part of a gathering with Dr. Vivek Murthy, US Surgeon General, to talk about the MMR vaccine. It was positioned as a smallish group of folks that would dig in to the questions and issues surrounding the measles outbreaks that had recently occurred and I spent over a week doing research, asking other moms what they wanted to know, and crafting intelligent questions. When I got to the event, I learned that they had invited hundreds of other people to phone in and listen and instead of a conversation, it was to be a presentation by Dr. Murthy with a few select questions asked at the end (questions vetted by the presenters with no opportunity for follow up clarification or dialogue). Needless to say, I was disappointed and I later discovered that Dr. Murthy was on a tour of cities at the low end of vaccination rates and this was more PR than conversation.

When I asked Kristin, the head of MomsRising, about the format following the event and indicated that I had several unanswered questions, she seemed surprised and offered to forward all of my questions to Dr. Murthy so that I could get answers. I emailed her this letter with the subject line she suggested and have, to date, received no response.

The letter itself is lengthy, I admit, but despite that, I feel as though it barely scratches the surface of the complex issues surrounding vaccines. In Part 2, I will explain my overall thoughts on vaccines and I implore you to either ignore these posts or read them thoroughly and thoughtfully and respond with curiosity versus vitriol.

—————————————————————

Dear Kristin,
Thank you and the other folks at MomsRising for all you do
to rally, educate, and advocate for parents and children across the country.
The work you do is so important, based on what actual moms say they want and
need, and has thus far been amazingly effective. I appreciate your efforts to
get the Surgeon General in the room to address the concerns and questions of
parents regarding measles and the measles vaccine. I am keen to build on the
momentum and develop Tuesday’s event into a robust conversation that goes much
deeper.
I understand that the logistics of the event prevented it
from becoming an actual dialogue, but I think it’s important to recognize that
much of the substance of the issue has yet to be discussed. Because there was
no opportunity for folks to follow up on answers Dr. Murthy gave in real time,
or to clarify any of his answers by having an actual exchange with him or the
other two physicians on the call, I believe that there is much more work to
do.  Indeed, as demonstrated by the
poll taken during the conversation, 56% of the listeners report being either
“somewhat” or “very” concerned about the safety of the MMR vaccine. To me, that
speaks volumes.  I am writing to you
in the hopes that you will forward these questions on to Dr. Murthy or find a
way to engage him in another, more conversational meeting where these issues
are discussed. 
I am writing to you as a mom of two neurotypical kids who
have had most of their vaccines to date. I am also writing to you as a woman
with a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry who worked for
years in direct patient care as a medical/surgical assistant and then moved on
to work in Quality Assurance for the Washington State Mental Health Division.
While I agree that this letter is long, it is the result of several
conversations with other mothers who have concerns beyond what was discussed
the other day. I hope that you will take the time to read it and reach out to me
with any questions you have.
The vast majority of our questions have to do with the
safety of the MMR vaccine and, from your quick poll, I see that we are not
alone among the people who attended this event on Tuesday. Our main issues
around efficacy of the MMR are two:
  1.     Using global statistics to demonstrate the
    effectiveness of the MMR is an unfair comparison. To say that “there have been
    over 15 million lives saved by the MMR vaccine since 2000 alone,” as Dr. Murthy
    did in his closing statement ignores the reality that many of those lives would
    have been lost because the children are living in third world countries without
    proper nutrition or sanitation. It is incendiary and doesn’t adequately portray
    the situation here in the United States to use global numbers to talk about
    domestic issues.
  2.       I can locate no long-term studies that have been
    done to determine whether people of my generation (born in the late 1960s and
    early 1970s) who received their full recommended MMR vaccinations actually
    still have blood titer levels that show that they are immune to measles. In
    response to one person’s question, “Does immunity wane as people get older?”
    Dr. Murthy answered, “There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that suggests
    that.” I’m concerned that this conclusion has been reached without any actual
    scientific studies and it may, in fact, “seem” that immunity doesn’t wane
    because of the drastic drop in the incidence of measles in the US. It would
    seem to be a fairly simple examination to undertake a study of adults across
    gender, ethnic, and socioeconomic populations and determine whether or not they
    are still immune to measles thanks to the MMR vaccine. The term “herd immunity”
    or “collective immunity” gets used an awful lot with regard to vaccines, but I
    don’t know that it has ever been tested with regard to vaccinations. There is
    evidence that this phenomenon holds true in animal populations and with
    naturally-acquired disease, but I would like to see a study that shows that it
    is valid for vaccine-acquired immunity. We can’t base public policy on a
    theory.

The following are questions regarding the safety of the MMR vaccine.
  1.            On Tuesday, Dr. Murthy assured MomsRising
    supporters for the second time that they ought not to be concerned about the
    MMR vaccine shedding live virus. “Don’t worry about exposing others,” he said.
    “Carry on about your lives.” However, parents of children who are immunocompromised,
    either naturally or due to medications like chemotherapy drugs, are often told
    by their physicians NOT to get their other children vaccinated with any live
    virus, including the MMR. In addition, the vaccine insert produced by the
    manufacturer, Merck, is written as follows: “Excretion of small amounts of the
    live rubella virus from the nose or throat has occurred in
    the majority of susceptible individuals 7 to 28 days after vaccination.” (emphasis mine). Additionally,
    this article
    http://www.cnbc.com/2015/03/03/globe-newswire-public-health-officials-know-recently-vaccinated-individuals-spread-disease.html
    in a mainstream media outlet talks about the fact that experts know that
    recently vaccinated individuals can spread disease. And yet, parents who choose
    to delay or forego certain vaccines for their children are routinely vilified
    and blamed for disease outbreaks. I believe that this is one very compelling
    reason why so many parents are confused about these issues. Whom do we believe?
  2.       When vaccines are tested for safety, they are
    tested in isolation; that is, one at a time. But more often than not, they are
    administered to children in tandem with other vaccines. Why are there vaccines
    on the US schedule that are given in the same day but not tested together to
    assess their effects? Much like baking soda and vinegar are inert alone but
    explosive in combination, it is scientifically possible that when two different
    vaccines are put together, they will act differently in the body of a child
    than they did when tested alone. We can say that we think they are probably
    safe together, but without rigorous testing, it is irresponsible to give them
    to children with developing immune systems without being much more certain.
  3.       Also, when vaccines are tested for safety, they
    are not tested against truly inert placebos such as saline solution. Often they
    are tested against another cocktail of preservatives and adjuvants that are
    only lacking the vaccine itself. We are not just concerned about the vaccine
    components, we need to know what effect substances like aluminum adjuvants and
    MSG and pig gelatin have on the human body when they are injected. We also need
    to know what effects they have when they are injected in large amounts, as in
    the case of multiple vaccines given on one day. I wouldn’t eat a “safe” dinner
    off of a toxic plate, and I don’t want to inject my children with a “safe”
    attenuated virus that is held within a toxic set of preservatives. We deserve
    to know that
    each and every component
    of the vaccines we are being given is safe.
  4.       All three of the doctors spoke of the Institute
    of Medicine as an independent body that reviews all of the safety and efficacy
    studies on vaccines (among other things). I am curious to know whether the IOM
    crafts and undertakes their own studies or simply reviews the studies done by
    other organizations that may have a vested interest in the outcome. The design
    of a scientific study is as much responsible for the data set that emerges from
    it as anything else, and if truly independent studies are not being designed,
    we cannot hope to get accurate information.
  5.       Dr. Murthy encouraged parents to talk to their
    healthcare providers if they have questions about whether or not their children
    should have a particular vaccine. I agree entirely, but I have to say that we
    don’t live in a perfect world where all families have healthcare providers that
    have the time to have detailed conversations during a well-baby check, have the
    intimate knowledge of what a vaccine package insert says, or even get their
    vaccines in a doctor’s office.
     
    Families can go into Walmart and get vaccines for flu, chickenpox, HPV,
    pneumococcal pneumonia, hepatitis, meningitis and MMR, in addition to others. I
    am concerned that many of those folks do that because it’s cheaper and easier
    than making a doctor appointment, and I wonder how robust the patient education
    is or whether there are opportunities to ask complex questions, or if most
    parents even know what or how to ask. His answer is predicated on the
    assumption that most parents have a trusting relationship with their child’s
    doctor and I fear that that is inaccurate. I think it is also possible to
    discount the intimidation factor most people have when faced by a person in a
    white coat.
     
  6.            Dr. Cohn and Dr. Murthy both talked about the
    requirements for providers and vaccine manufacturers to report adverse events
    to the VAERS. Further, Dr. Cohn explained that patients and families can also
    report to this body any adverse effects they experience due to a vaccine. This
    prompted many questions. First, how many parents are told that this is an
    option and offered information on how to go about reporting to VAERS? Second,
    is there an estimate of how many parents don’t report side effects because they
    either can’t tell whether they are related or because it will cause them to
    have to make another doctor appointment for their child, which is both costly
    and time-consuming? Third, in the case of a family who receives their
    vaccinations from a place like Walmart, how likely are they to report any
    issues and to whom? If they don’t know about VAERS and they weren’t going to a
    doctor for their shots in the first place, they aren’t likely to seek one out
    to report negative side effects unless they are severe. Lastly, Dr. Cohn said
    that the CDC, and the Department of Health and Human Services follows up on
    every report made to VAERS and I am curious to know what the threshold is for
    deciding that action is required in the form of further study. How many of the
    same or similar reports have to be made in order for them to determine that
    this is an issue and how much time elapses between the reporting of an adverse
    event and the review?
      Finally, I am curious about something Dr. Murthy
    said in regard to autism and MMR. He said that, “because autism symptoms show
    up around the same time that kids are getting the MMR, there are some people
    who think the two are related, but they are not. This is why we need to really
    look at the populations, we need large numbers to do rigorous independent
    study. We need to look at broad data sets to see and what the data says is that
    there is no connection.” I am interested in whether there has ever been a study
    done on the relative health of vaccinated children versus unvaccinated
    children. We know that there are entire pockets of unvaccinated children in the
    United States and it would seem relatively simple to compare them to children
    who have been vaccinated on schedule. This seems like a straightforward study
    that would provide some interesting information about a range of potential
    issues that we haven’t considered might be correlated with vaccines.

Thank you for indulging our questions. I find it fascinating
that the amount of media attention given to this most recent measles outbreak
has spurred legislation in several states and, yet, 65% of the people you
polled on Tuesday indicated they are not concerned about the outbreak. That
said, I think this offers us a great opportunity to engage in some intelligent
exchanges about measles and the MMR. I appreciate your effort to get answers
for your supporters.  If you decide
not to forward this on to Dr. Murthy, please let me know and I will try to find
another way to have the concerns addressed. 
Sincerely,

Kari O’Driscoll
FhaC protein of Bordatella pertussis

In December, Eve had whooping cough.  We didn’t realize it at the time, but when I finally took her to the doctor three weeks later to see why her cough hadn’t resolved, we figured it out. Of course, by then, she was 90% recovered with just the lingering chest-rattling hack as evidence. Me? I was instantly chastened and laughed to the Physician’s Assistant, “HA! Sign me up for Mother of the Year!”  She was quick to let me know that I shouldn’t worry – there wasn’t much they could have done for her anyway. And, hey, now she likely has natural immunity, so it’s all good, right?

The thing is, it didn’t really occur to me that whooping cough was a possibility, mostly because Eve was vaccinated on schedule.  I had peripherally heard about whooping cough outbreaks – mainly in high schools around the area – but they never really penetrated my consciousness enough to worry about it.  (That said, I will relay the memory of one time a few years ago when a local private high school was closed because of a widespread outbreak of whooping cough and my Facebook feed suddenly reflected a whole lot of vitriol directed at “those people who don’t vaccinate their kids” despite any sort of hard evidence that it was an unvaccinated student who was the cause of the outbreak. That was a little shocking to see, but since I didn’t have a dog in that fight, I left it alone.)

So how the heck did my kid (and all the other high school kids in the area) get whooping cough, especially those who have been vaccinated against it?

There seem to be no simple answers.  At least not any based in medicine.  I was told (on Facebook) by a friend that my daughter likely “got exposure from another who had not been vaccinated,” but I don’t see how that’s the most likely explanation.

Certainly, it seems that the whooping cough vaccine that kids are getting is not as effective as it was meant to be. Most kids get their final booster around age 11 or 12, and the outbreaks are happening to high-school aged kids – the vast majority of whom have an unpleasant week or two and then are absolutely fine.  The CDC speculates that it is possible that the kids who have been vaccinated against whooping cough can harbor the bacteria in their system and when the vaccine efficacy wanes, as it is wont to do, it rears its ugly head and voila, kids get sick.  Of course, they also speculate that it is possible that there are some unvaccinated kids out there who get it and pass it along.  And they also speculate that the bacterium itself has mutated just enough to render the vaccine itself useless.

Like I said, no simple answers.  Folks who like to believe that there is an anti-vaccine conspiracy often say that if everyone were vaccinated, there would be no virus/bacteria left to mutate and that is why everyone ought to just go get their kids every shot offered.  Except that many of these shots are NOT SAFE for babies of a certain age, so there is no way to ensure that the virus/bacteria is gone forever.  And there are some folks whose medical status is too fragile for them to get the vaccine, which means they have to weigh the odds of potentially dying from getting the shots against the potential that they might one day come in contact with the virus/bacteria in question.  Again, no such thing as 100% vaccination and, thus, eradication.

In the days before vaccines, people did get sick and die from diseases like whooping cough, although generally that was because their health was not great for other reasons – malnutrition, immune disorders, age.  More often than not, people got viral or bacterial infections and recovered from them and built natural immunity. Nursing mothers could pass this natural immunity on to their children in many cases, and there was very little need for a vaccine, much less a boost of immunity later in life.

All this is to say that I don’t think we can continue to place an inordinate amount of faith in the vaccination system. Yes, smallpox was eradicated by a vaccine. We all know the story. But one success story does not mean that this solution fits everything. And it also doesn’t mean we ought to stop asking questions about vaccine efficacy for other, different, less deadly diseases (READ: HPV). And it certainly doesn’t mean that we ought to feel free to vilify and radicalize people who are rightly concerned about their own children’s individual health.

Eve most certainly caught whooping cough from someone at school.  Whether or not they were vaccinated against it means nothing to me. That kid came to school infectious, whether they knew it or not, coughed on Eve, or at the very least in her close vicinity, and the rest is history. Should I go on the school website and rail against the parents who send their kids to school with a fever or a nasty cough because it resulted in my kid getting really sick? I don’t think so. Generally, the only people who end up needing hospitalization for whooping cough are babies, the elderly, and those whose health is already compromised, so there was almost no chance she would suffer long-lasting effects from her illness.  Going to school where there are other people – heck, going out in public, touching a door handle, using an ATM machine, breathing on an airplane – is putting you at risk for catching all sorts of things from other people who are either knowingly or unknowingly sick.  We cannot ever hope to eradicate all possibility of getting sick from other people unless we choose to live in a bubble and that is a pretty sad, pretty fear-based existence.  I’m not pissed off at the person who shared their whooping cough with Eve. I consider it part of the price of ‘doing business’ as they say. I’m only a little bit sad that Lola didn’t manage to catch it at the same time, if only so I know they’re both immune.  Shhh, don’t tell her I said that.

My (online) world is shrinking. I am doing my best to be open-minded and deliberate about it because I don’t want to turn into some old curmudgeon who only listens to and reads things that reflect my point of view.  That said, I’m tired. I’m sick of seeing things on my Facebook feed that are designed to create controversy in order to drive ‘clicks.’ If I never see one more link to an article about “anti-vaxxers” or “mommy wars” about breastfeeding vs. bottle feeding, I might live a little longer. All of these blog posts and articles that would have us believe that important, complicated issues are black and white and we need to PICK A SIDE, ALREADY make me tired.

I occasionally forget what is good for me and enter into the fray, generally to point out that there are few issues that are truly black and white and degenerating into (or starting out with) name-calling doesn’t move the conversation along at all. And then I get called a “libtard” and my motives and intelligence get called into question and I get a stomach ache and have to take the dog for a long walk to remind myself not to do that again.

Lately, my recourse has been to take note of those organizations who repeatedly highlight contentious issues and pretend that they are doing so to “create conversation” and ‘unlike’ them on Facebook.  I simply am not willing to support groups who are only interested in causing mayhem in the pursuit of clicks and, thus, advertising dollars, even if I agree with much of the rest of their content.  (ThinkProgress, I’m talking about you.) While this is nothing new in the world of social media, it either seems as though it has kicked into high gear of late, or I have finally hit my tipping point.  I am so much more interested in thoughtful, respectful, educated exchanges with people who are genuinely willing to listen to others and perhaps take a mental walk in someone else’s shoes. Call it compassion. Call it open-mindedness. Call it what you want, but I’m building some boundaries around my world to keep out the folks who are more driven by being Right than they are by being Human.

Americans love a dichotomy. Black and white, right and wrong, good and evil. Reducing any situation to its most basic elements is a specialty of ours, forcing a decision about which “side” you’re on using carefully crafted sound-bites, facts and figures and charts chosen strategically to illustrate the stark differences between those two sides. Make a choice. Are you in or out?

When I was in high school and first discovered dichotomous keys, I couldn’t have been happier. Of course, growing up with sports-loving boys and men in my house, I already knew about playoff brackets – those visual aids used to whittle the pool of teams down to just two, eliminating half of them every time until you got to the final championship game. I found them stark and calming, clear and concise.  But I was interested in life sciences in school, so learning that I could key out any plant or animal using a very similar method gave me chills. (Yeah, I know – total geekdom.)

I went around gleefully separating plants in my neighborhood by simple or compound leaves, evergreen or deciduous, flowering or non-flowering. Occasionally I came across a question I couldn’t discern the answer to, either because I didn’t quite understand the distinction or because the plant’s characteristics lay in somewhat of a grey area.  In such cases, I tended to blame my own ignorance, assuming that there was a definite category in which everything belonged that simply eluded me. I forgot one simple thing: humans created the dichotomous key to make our own lives easier and more understandable. The key was not a Real Thing to which the laws of nature adhered. It was a false construction that was somewhat helpful but not absolute. No matter how hard I tried to force a particular organism to fit into my perfect notion of what it was, there would likely still be outliers and things I couldn’t account for.

I have found it helpful to remember that fact in my daily life.  Here are just a few of the false dichotomies I have encountered in my Facebook feed in the last 48 hours:

  • Is Richard Sherman (cornerback for the Superbowl-bound Seattle Seahawks) a cocky a**hole or not, as evidenced by his comments immediately following the end of last Sunday’s football game?
  • Does refusing to vaccinate your child put everyone else on the planet at risk for contracting sometimes fatal diseases such as measles and mumps?
  • Is breastfeeding better than formula feeding?
  • Is marijuana more harmful than alcohol?
  • Are employees unions ruining our economy?
Some of these questions come from friends, others from pages promoting specific products or ideas or blogs, but they are all the same in that they begin with a statement and end with a question. Most often the question is formulated to stimulate conversation (ie. “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?”). The problem, in my estimation, is that instead of encouraging a wide range of discussion, they generally set up the notion that there are only two possible answers.  That you ought to choose a side and defend it. In my experience, this prevents an actual exchange of ideas from occurring. Individuals spend their energy attempting to convince others that their position is the correct one, generally by attacking the folks who think otherwise. In the end, very little new insights are gained and nobody really leaves feeling good.
At this point, you may be thinking, Duh, so what? Herein lies the rub. If we convince ourselves that there are only two sides to every important story (the mass media is either perpetuating misogyny or it isn’t), and everyone who cares falls into one of those two camps, we are robbing ourselves of the chance to make any forward progress.  There may, from time to time, be a convert or two that heads to the other side after an important life experience or an impassioned conversation, but for the most part, we are inclined to say our piece and throw up our hands. Hate the way your state’s governor is running things? Oh well, just wait until the next election and cast your ballot and hope things go your way. 
In cases like Richard Sherman’s, choosing one side over the other may not matter much to anyone but him, but if we think about how important advances have been made in our lives, it isn’t because a majority chose one side over the other. It is because someone, or a group of people, chose to think outside that false dichotomy, brainstorm new ways of doing things and seeing the world, and listen to individuals who may have seemed crazy at first. Prior to the invention of the birth control pill, it was widely assumed that if you had sex, you were running the risk of getting pregnant. Sex = risk, no sex = no pregnancy. But at some point, at least one person thought,  Wait, abstinence doesn’t HAVE to be the only way to keep from getting pregnant. What if…?

What if, indeed. What if, instead of vilifying the makers of vaccines or those who choose not to have their children vaccinated, we toss that discussion out altogether? What if we recognize the intent (humanitarian, not capitalistic) of ensuring that our children don’t die of diseases like rubella and talk about whether there are safer methods than the vaccines we are currently using?  
I often talk about how my goal is to change the conversation about certain polarizing issues, but I’m coming to realize that all of this back and forth most of us are doing in Facebook and online, taking polls, commenting on incendiary essays and blogs, adding our two cents, is not conversation at all. It is empty posturing.  And while it is likely harmless much of the time (I don’t really mind if you think Robin Thicke isn’t a misogynist pig – it won’t convince me to buy his music or let my kids listen to it in my car), it sets up a pattern that is helping us to forget what actual discourse is. So maybe, instead of changing the conversation, I’m hoping to catalyze a conversation. A respectful, honest discussion of some incredibly complicated issues about which we all tend to have knee-jerk reactions and try to boil things down to two sides – ours and the other guys.

When I took the girls for their annual back-to-school physicals in August, it was to a new doctor. The pediatrician they grew up with had a few strikes against him including the fact that he is male and my girls are getting to an age where that feels weird.  He is also a professor at the local medical school which means his hours are limited in the clinic.  I did a little research, as much as is possible online, to find a new doctor who might be more open to my parenting methods (ie. not mocking me for keeping my kids gluten free despite the fact that neither of them has Celiac disease, not prescribing antibiotics for every single thing, not pressing me on the chickenpox or HPV vaccines).

The girls both really liked this new doctor, but at the end of Lola’s visit, she still pulled out the state’s printout of their current vaccinations and pointed out that they are both missing the chickenpox and HPV vaccines.  I told her I wasn’t comfortable giving either of them those vaccines and she implored me to rethink it, telling me that she feels like they are both perfectly safe.  I didn’t have the balls or the time to ask where she formed that opinion.

I have since read more and more about the HPV vaccine (namely, Gardasil) that scares the crap out of me.  In the interest of paraphrasing for those of you who don’t wish to read the clinical studies or spend nearly an hour watching the YouTube video below, let me share what I’ve learned thus far.  And, in the interest of full disclosure, I am NOT a physician or a clinical researcher, but I did graduate college with a major in biology and a minor in chemistry and spent eight years as a medical/surgical assistant in various settings.  I feel pretty confident in my ability to dissect a medical study.  Here goes:

  • The HPV vaccine was created based on the premise that the human papilloma virus is responsible for some cervical cancers.  It is also touted as an effective way to prevent infection by HPV in the first place. However, fully 70% of HPV infections resolve themselves without ANY treatment in the first year. That number climbs to 90% after two years. As a good friend of mine says, there is nothing stronger than a human’s own immune system.  So, of the 10% of HPV infections that persist after two years, less than half of them are present in cancer of the cervix.

  • There are 104 different strains of HPV. Some studies say that four of them are correlated with cervical cancer, others say three. The Gardasil vaccine is designed to guard against two of those strains.  It seems unlikely that the rate of prevention of cervical cancer is high enough in those two instances to warrant vaccinating everyone over the age of 9.

  • Pap smears are responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancer diagnoses in the world and cervical cancer is one of the least fatal cancers around, considering it’s ease of treatment. In addition, HPV is not considered to be the sole cause of cervical cancer and it is unknown whether it works in concert with other factors.

  • The current death rate in the United States from cervical cancer is between 1.5 and 4 per 100,000. A physician who works for Merck (the company that created Gardasil) admitted that the rate of reported side effects from the vaccine is higher than the rate of cervical cancer. Please keep in mind that for a side effect to be considered “adverse” it has to result in significant illness or disability or death, generally after an ER visit. So those kinds of effects are MORE LIKELY to occur than the CANCER ITSELF.
  •  As if that isn’t enough, here’s another shocker: rates of adverse vaccine effects are based on a ratio of the number of reported adverse effects to the number of vaccines distributed from the manufacturer. Wait for it…that means that they are completely disregarding the number of vaccinations that are actually given. There are vast numbers of vaccines that are thrown out every day in this country thanks to expiration dates or power failures or damaged packaging. That means that the ratio of REPORTED adverse effects is actually much higher than reported by the drug companies because they are not counting those vaccines that are discarded. Even higher than that, because according to the American Journal of Public Health (and some common sense thinking), the vast majority of adverse effects are never even reported.

And speaking of ‘adverse effects,’ the YouTube video embedded here *(for some reason, the link doesn’t show up in the post, despite showing up in my HTML version, so here is the URL in case you’re interested) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CoWUSuGCo-I  details the lack of interest by Merck or regulating bodies in the effects Gardasil may be having on fertility rates in girls. There have been many reported incidences of girls receiving this vaccine and going into menopause. Yes, you read that correctly, their ovaries stop working.  And because this vaccine is being pushed to girls as young as 9 in the US, we don’t even have information on their menstrual periods because most of them haven’t started yet, and they may never reach menarche because of this vaccine.

I could go on, but I suspect your eyes are glazing over right about now.  There are two reports here and here that cite scientific studies and explain a great deal of what I find frightening about Gardasil. One caveat: I do not necessarily agree with all of the rhetoric accompanying the facts in these two sources.  One is adamantly ‘pro-life’ and goes at it from the viewpoint of the sanctity of life and abstinence teachings and the other one is very adamantly anti-vaccine. That said, both back up their arguments with solid, scientific fact and easily reproducible information.  If you have an extra 48 minutes and feel the need to investigate for yourself, I recommend the video as the doctor who presents it did a great deal of research and is very careful to show her process throughout. I have no reason to believe that she is anything but concerned about the safety of this vaccine. I know I am.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about toxins.  Mostly, it seems that the topic finds its way to me rather than me seeking it out, and that could be a result of the heightened awareness in the US of just how many chemicals we come in contact with every day.  Whatever the reason, I’m doing my best to examine the issues as rationally as I can without freaking out.  The difficulty for me comes when I bump up against cultural or societal standards that don’t jive with what I’m learning – especially in a social setting – and I’m not sure how to proceed.

A few months ago I decided to toss all of my antiperspirant/deodorants and go looking for more ‘natural’ products.  I had been reading about more and more studies investigating links between aluminum and parabens (both present in the majority of antiperspirant/deodorants) and breast cancer. While there is no ‘definitive’ evidence yet, the fact that more than half of all tumors found in breast tissue contain either parabens or aluminum or both was enough to make me hedge my bets and find something else.  I did this quietly (although I also replaced both of my daughters’ old products with more natural ones and explained to them that I felt like it was better to use more natural products than man-made chemicals) and haven’t tried to convince any friends or family to do the same.  I don’t want to be obnoxious or presumptuous.

For years now I have bought mostly organically grown foods and avoided milk that is produced by cows who are treated with growth hormones. I spend the extra money for grass-fed beef and free-range, organic eggs and shop as locally as possible.  Again, this is a lifestyle change I have made personally and I don’t go out evangelizing or pushing these choices on anyone else for the most part.  One notable exception to that is that I will occasionally share my views with like-minded friends on Facebook, either by ‘liking’ something they link to or mention or supporting a particular company.

I do feel as though it is challenging to find evidence that is concrete one way or the other in many instances. It often seems as though choosing sides is the American way and once you’ve decided which team you’re rooting for, you have to believe every single thing they say. More often than not, I try to err on the side of not messing with Mother Nature and eschewing products that contain things I’m unsure about.

Ultimately, I don’t support companies like Montsanto because I think genetically modifying food products is a recipe for disaster. We may think we’ve tested these ideas, but we can’t know what will happen generations down the line. I agree that finding ways to keep the global population healthy is important, but in my experience, shortcuts almost always lead to disaster down the line.  Manipulating the balance of the ecosystem by giving some plants and animals a leg up over others could (and often has) come back to bite us in the butt.

But I don’t like to get in to conversations about these kinds of things.  Especially with people who disagree with me.  Not because I am unsure about the evidence I have for my ideas, but because I am unsure that there is any way to know definitively until it’s all over and done.

I will not get my girls vaccinated for chickenpox or HPV. Won’t. They also don’t get an annual flu shot.  Neither do I. At the risk of sounding like a paranoid consipiracy-theorist, I don’t trust the medical model that tells me to put chemicals I know are toxic (yes, they do still use thimerosal – aka Mercury – as a preservative in vaccines) in to my body or the developing bodies of my kids.  I wish I could say that I am 100% certain that vaccines are responsible for many developmental delays and disorders such as autism. I can’t. But I think the science that points in that direction makes sense – and I do have a degree in biology with a minor in chemistry, so I have some credibility there.  And I do think that the vaccine manufacturers and the AMA as a whole have a vested, non-impartial interest in continuing vaccine practices.  And I’d rather not look back 25 years from now and regret that I didn’t listen to my gut.

Do I want to cite studies and get in to a war of words with someone who is convinced I’m wrong?
Nope.
Will I continue to make decisions I think are best for myself and my family?
Yep.
Will I come to the defense of others who want to do the same?
Absolutely.

So what about developing countries? What about organizations that are doing their best, in an altogether altruistic fashion, to prevent disease in third world countries? How do I support their mission if I don’t believe in the way they go about it?  I would love to say I fully embrace the Gates Foundation. But they are firmly connected with Montsanto and dedicated to vaccinating practices.  I love the notion of mosquito nets and tried-and-true contraception/family planning methods.  I can’t get behind planting GMO corn and soybeans in a vulnerable country and giving possibly-toxic vaccines to a vulnerable population.  Therein lies the rub.

I do take advantage of many of the conveniences of modern life, many of which I know are not good for the planet (my car, plastic garbage bags, cat litter) or myself (Advil, maxi pads, ice cream). I am not naive enough to believe that I don’t benefit greatly from some of the things chemists have concocted over the years.  But I am doing my best to avoid doing more damage than I ought to, both to myself and the planet at large.

So, as much as possible, I will keep my mouth shut and go about living my life the way I think is best. You may wrinkle your nose as I walk past you on a hot, sunny day because my armpits aren’t fresh-pear scented, and you may get pissed off that my kid shows up to your school without the full complement of shots, but if you disagree, please just acknowledge my right to make my own choices and do your best to avoid vilifying me for it.