Vaccination: all natural but without the illness

Normally, a population’s health improves slowly: an extension in survival times here, a better drug for reducing blood pressure there, and a gradual increase in life expectancy over the long term. Real advances in public health, tectonic turning points that re-write history, are rare. Arguably, in the last 225 years, six such developments have occurred, changing not just the rules, but the entire game, while the lives saved for subsequent generations can never be fully estimated or even imagined. Population-wide immunization programs, including vaccination, was one of these.

I’ve just watched with increasing disgust yet another anti-vaccination diatribe in which not a single argument was correct or based even loosely on what is actually known or supported by more than a century of medical history. “Don’t allow ‘them’ to immunize your children”, runs the refrain. “Natural food and vitamin D will keep everyone safe…”

Enough of this garbage.

I used to think that because of the inherent ignorance, no-one would find these arguments credible or even tolerable, but I was wrong.  Anti-vaccinationists have always spread their unfounded and misguided advice on street corners, through pamphlets, tabloid magazines, or to gullible audiences of late-night ‘infomercials’.  The internet must have presented opportunities to escalate this mischief beyond their wildest dreams.

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Public health agencies are reluctant to turn up the volume this loudly in public, their somewhat subdued messages becoming lost in the competing noise. And the physician’s brief advice to the patient while scribbling a prescription, is soon swamped by subsequent exposure to relentless denialist bandwaggoning.

‘Natural immunization’ is a fundamental mechanism for preserving the health of the individual and society. We encounter a bacteria or virus, develop the disease, and after recovery, we find we have acquired some immunity to that agent. But the catch is that you need to suffer and survive the illness to get the benefit. Clearly, we need to acquire the same immunity but without experiencing the disease.

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Since the beginning of recorded history, great epidemics and plagues have caused enormous mortality among helpless populations. One of these was smallpox or variola, a highly infectious viral disease that is estimated to have killed 300 million people between 1900 and 1977. Given its infectiousness and its relatively high case fatality rate of 20 to 60 per cent, smallpox is considered to have been the most dangerous infectious disease ever. Some protection had been achieved by artificially infecting people with material from recovered cases (variolation), but a percentage of people still died from the disease. Edward Jenner began widespread inoculation using a related, but relatively harmless virus (cowpox or vaccinia). Its detractors loudly proclaimed that the practice was unnatural and would result in people developing cow-like characteristics, but the new vaccination was so obviously successful that it was adopted globally, resulting in the world being declared free from smallpox in 1980.

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While not yet eliminated, several other diseases such as measles, mumps, and whooping cough have had incidence and mortality reduced enormously wherever immunization has been introduced. Similarly for diphtheria and poliomyelitis, two particularly dangerous conditions, now relatively rare. Indeed, any modern appearance of polio and its accompanying paralysis in children is usually linked to a family or community who refused vaccine because of beliefs that vaccines spread disease or that they’re ‘unnatural’. These are the same arguments we hear each year to explain why seasonal influenza vaccine is refused by some individuals. A flu virus that has been sliced and diced cannot give you the flu, but enough bits of the virus remain to allow the immune system to recognize, and produce antibodies to protect you for your next encounter with the real thing.

No medical intervention is  absolutely risk free, and vaccination includes a very small risk of complications, but the risk of illness and/or death from the disease is always far greater.

And if anyone is still left clinging to the wreckage of the discredited ”autism link”, the full story is in the public domain. I pity the parents of children who acquired, suffered, and died from vaccine preventable diseases as a result of the influence of this shameful and corrupt episode. Yes, anti-vaccination campaigns are dangerous to our health.

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