Shot in the Arm: Vaccination Debate

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It’s a question all parents face: to vaccinate or not vaccinate their children.  For many, the answer is a clear yes. But, more and more parents are saying no.

“People think if you choose not to vaccinate you are uneducated. I find it to be the opposite. They’re doubly educated because they know about the reasons why people vaccinate and why they don’t,” Brandi Nagel, a mom of two said.

Nagel vaccinated her daughter right after she was born, but when a relative didn’t vaccinate his children, she started looking into the other side. She estimates she spent more than 500 hours researching.

“I thought, ‘Is this really true? Is what I’m reading here true?’ I stopped the vaccination schedule for my daughter,” she said. When her son was born, she did not vaccinate him at all. She said neither child has had a vaccine-preventable disease.

“There are a lot of viruses and bacteria out there that have the potential if your child is infected to cause really severe disease and your child has virtually no immunity,” Dr. Deborah McMahan, the Allen County Health Commissioner, said.

Vaccinations are designed to help a person’s body develop immunity to diseases.

“It’s still your body developing the antibodies. Your body is just doing it against an activated or dead virus or bacteria so you don’t have to have all the potential adverse effects of the real disease,” McMahan said.

The idea of preventing a disease first developed with smallpox in the 1700’s. But, vaccines as they are today didn’t come into play until the early 1900’s. Now there are vaccinations for Diptheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, also known as whooping cough (which is combined into the DTaP), Polio, Measles, Mumps, Rubella (which is combined into the MMR), Haemophilus influenza type b, Hepatitis B, Hepatitis A, Pneumococcal, Rotavirus and Varicella (chickenpox).

These two links will give an in-depth history of vaccines:
Vaccine Education Center
Vaccine History Timeline

“There’s a whole committee, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which is 15 professionals from various backgrounds. They review all the data regarding measles and all the data on the vaccine. Based on the prevalence and complications and risks of the disease and the benefits of the vaccine and risks of the vaccine, they will come up with recommendations published through the CDC and that’s what we follow as health care providers,” Dr. McMahan said.

The current schedule is a total of 43 doses of 13 vaccines, not including the yearly flu shot, by age six. Click here to see the vaccine schedule.

“But, to say this is the one way that you cannot get [a disease] it I don’t think that’s being truthful to people,” Nagel said.

One of the arguments people who choose not to vaccinate point to is that the deadly diseases were already decreasing before vaccines were common.

“The diseases went down mostly because nutrition was better, sanitation was better all these things were better and they decline on their own because that’s the nature of how these work,” Nagel said. “The touting that [vaccines] eliminated the disease is not correct.”

Dr. McMahan said while the improvements in sanitation and nutrition did improve life, it’s the vaccines that made the difference in eradicating some diseases.

“All you have to do is look in other countries where they don’t have these vaccines to see how many children are disabled and die from these preventable diseases,” she said.

Vaccine adversaries also argue proper nutrition, hygiene and exercise will build immunity naturally.

“Most of the time disease comes from toxicity or deficiency. Either there’s too much in you that your body can’t get rid of or you’re malnourished. If you balance those out then chance of getting something else is very low or it’s mild,” Nagel said.

Some vaccinations have shown to wear off into adulthood and people would need to get a booster to maintain immunity. Nagel added that a healthy body can fight off the actual disease. 

“Then you’re immune for the rest of your life and for the most part no one has a problem with it. Those who do have a problem are usually already immune compromised,” she said.

Dr. McMahan said the body is limited in what it can do, even if it’s healthy.

“I think if you go to the hospital right now and go to the ICU and see all the young, healthy people on ventilators from the flu that might make you reconsider that theory,” she said. 

It’s a risk many are willing to take because they say vaccines are just as dangerous, if not more so, than the actual disease. 

“Do you know what’s in them? Formaldehyde, thimerosal, aluminum. Nowhere is there a biological process that uses aluminum and it’s being shot into the blood stream,” Nagel said.

“Millions of doses of vaccines are administered to children in this country each year. Ensuring that those vaccines are potent, sterile, and safe requires the addition of minute amounts of chemical additives,” the CDC’s webpage on vaccine ingredients, said.

Perhaps the most passionate argument is about the reactions some people have to a vaccine.

“Thousands of people are saying my child is not the same days, weeks after this and you’re telling me it’s a coincidence. That’s got to change,” Nagel said. 

Vaccines, like all medications, come with risks of bad reactions. Doctors and parents can report incidents to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System. It’s estimated around 90 percent of the population will get at least one vaccination. The VAERS website said more than 10 million vaccines are given to babies younger than a year old every year. In 2013, there were 27,317 adverse reaction cases submitted to VAERS.

The VAERS site notes that the reports aren’t necessarily all directly caused by the vaccine. It also said “underreporting” is one of the main limitations of its system because someone has to submit a report and they aren’t collected automatically.

“So many injuries go unreported. You go onto the website and you say, ‘Oh injuries are really low.’ Well that’s because doctors either talked them out of it, told them it was a coincidence or they’re too afraid and don’t know what to do,” Nagel said.

McMahan said she would hope all medical professionals would report a bad reaction.

“Now, a local reaction, I’m not sure you’d report that. You’d expect that. That’s even in your consent form. You’re getting a needle poked in your arm. You’ll have a little irritation there. I would assume people are doing the right thing and hopefully they are. You can always call [the health department’s clinic] and we’ll report it for you. If you think you’ve had an adverse event and your doctor won’t do it, we’ll do it for you,” McMahan said. “To me there’s no reason not to. The scientific experts are going to go through all the reports and determine what they are seeing that’s standing out.”

In 2011, the Institute of Medicine did further study of adverse events associated with eight vaccines. It did conclude that out of 158 adverse event cases examined, 14 were linked to the vaccine. Four favored a direct connection. The reactions included severe allergic reaction, seizures, sudden fainting, joint pain and shoulder inflammation. The study said in five cases, the vaccine was definitely not linked to autism or asthma episodes. But the in the vast majority, 135 cases, there was not enough evidence to accept or reject a causal relationship. The committee’s conclusion was “few health problems are caused by or clearly associated with vaccines.” 

See more on the study here.

However, anti-vaccination groups said the study validates their concerns by linking some side effects to vaccines and concluding that most aren’t clear either way.

Health officials say wide-spread vaccinations build herd immunity. That’s the idea that the more people immune to a disease, the less likely it is for someone who isn’t immune to get it. There are also fewer people to spread the disease. 

Many argue it’s a flawed theory.

“If 90 percent of the population is vaccinated and the unvaccinated got it anyway, then the herd immunity didn’t work because the ten percent that weren’t vaccinated weren’t covered,” Nagel said.

“Just because we don’t see the diseases doesn’t mean we’ve made the viruses and bacteria go away,” McMahan said. “The problem is if we don’t have a sufficient number of people vaccinated from a population perspective we start seeing outbreaks. We start seeing more cases because you have more and more people not vaccinated and vulnerable. If you don’t get vaccines you’re assuming you aren’t going to leave the country and no one else will. They will bring it back.”

That’s what happened last week in California. Health officials say an unvaccinated student contracted the measles while studying in Asia and then rode the public transportation system in San Francisco. The concern is babies too young for the vaccine and other people who aren’t immune will contract it too.

Also last week, in Indiana a Rose-Hulman student was diagnosed with the mumps. Possibly six more are infected, which prompted warnings at that school and Indiana State University.

A child does not have to be vaccinated to get into school. Parents can fill out a nonmedical exemption form, which has become more common in California. The school districts in Allen County said fewer than two percent of their students turn in exemption forms.

In 2010, fewer children getting vaccinations was widely blamed for a whooping cough outbreak in California. But, a study published last September concluded a lack of vaccinations was just one of several possible causes. The other include the cyclical nature of the disease, improved diagnosis and waning immunity in adults.

The CDC shows a slight decline in vaccinations nationwide in the last four years.

“It’s very hard to get accurate numbers on what percentage of people are getting vaccinated. We have a reporting system, but not every physician uses it,” McMahan said. “Vaccines are considered one of the greatest accomplishments of 20th Century public health. Vaccines are the most studied medicine we give people. There’s nothing more cost effective that we’re going to do in medicine than a vaccine and it’s a shame that it’s become popular to question that.”

Nagel said she doesn’t have a problem with the idea of vaccines and building immunity by injecting weak or dead cells.

“Let’s find a way to get this into the body that doesn’t involve all these things that are highly toxic. One of the most frustrating things is the government and companies just keep saying there’s nothing wrong,” she said. “I get the sense that more people are asking better questions. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. There’s been enough that has popped up, that if anything, made people more curious.”

While there have been some spikes in cases in the last few years, vaccine-preventable diseases are still pretty rare in the United States. But, health officials say it’s hard to predict exactly what impact this new culture of anti-vaccinations will bring.

McMahan predicts the opposition to vaccinations would change if people saw how horrible the vaccine-preventable diseases can be.

“When people see what it’s like to have a deaf child from having measles or having a child who has mental retardation from Haemophilus meningitis then they’ll get back to being ‘Oh my gosh, give me the vaccine.’ For some people they have to see tragedy and then the pendulum will swing the other way,” McMahan said. 

Additional Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

National Vaccine Information Center
Vaccination Information Network

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