For more than 60 years most Western countries have had mass vaccinations for adults and children. In Australia, the rates of childhood vaccination in the community are generally greater than 90 per cent.1 So what have been the effects on the community at large? What should our response be? Are vaccines safe? Are those who don’t choose to vaccinate endangering their children? We all want to do the right thing by our kids, so should we vaccinate or not? As a parent myself, it’s a question I take very seriously, as you do too I’m sure.
Are vaccines effective?
In 2011, there were roughly 158,000 people who died of measles, the vast majority were unvaccinated children.
The overwhelming weight of evidence is that vaccinations are highly effective in preventing infectious diseases. The evidence is so clear that it beggars belief that any reasonable person would seriously raise this as a question. In fact, it would be fair to say that vaccinations are one of the most efficacious population health interventions ever developed, perhaps only second to access to clean water.2 There are numerous epidemiological studies showing the clear and unambiguous benefit in reduction and prevention of infectious disease when vaccines are administered both to an individual and to communities en masse. There’s also mounting evidence that vaccination is beneficial in preventing some cancers. For a summary of these studies as well as an overview of the history of vaccination, and much more information, see “Vaccines” by Plotkin et al.3
Do vaccines cause harm?
This question deserves serious attention. There are many contentions against vaccination. We don’t have space and time to address each one of them, but I would refer you to the documents “Myths and realities of vaccination”4 and “The science of immunisation”5 if you wish a more detailed examination of the science and facts. Minor reactions such as low grade fever, irritability, an injection site lump, localised pain and rash are common to many childhood vaccinations. In very rare cases, severe, life-threatening reactions have occurred. While every single negative reaction is important, it must be weighed against the enormous number of people whose lives have been saved by vaccinations. On balance, the enormous benefit far outweighs the very small chance of significant harm. I’ll address a couple of the more frequently asked questions about vaccine harm.
Do vaccines weaken the immune system?
No. Vaccines actually strengthen the immune system and certainly do not weaken it, because they induce an adaptive immune response the body remembers so that if exposed to that disease in the future, it can quickly eradicate it before it takes hold.
Do vaccines cause autism?
No. In 1998, a British surgeon and researcher, Dr Andrew Wakefield, along with a team of researchers, published an article in medical journal The Lancet proposing a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and gastrointestinal disorders and autism in children. Later his evidence was shown to be methodologically flawed and the paper was immediately retracted. No further research has been able to demonstrate this supposed link despite many reviews of the evidence in different countries4.
Is vaccination “unnatural”, therefore bad?
This question misses the point: not all natural products are good for us, and not all manufactured products are bad. After all, there’s nothing more natural than opium, marijuana, cyanide and tobacco, which have been responsible for great harm! On the other hand, you’ll never find a soy cow to give you soy milk, and everything from seatbelts, toothbrushes and toothpaste, to life-saving surgical operations, directly interfere with the natural course of things—and just as well.
But in the case of vaccination, the story is actually a little complex because some vaccinations are made from naturally occurring material, and some are synthetically derived. The process by which they work—stimulating the body’s immune system—is a natural process. If you choose to believe they are “unnatural” should you refuse them? Only if you refuse all the other “unnatural” things that prevent premature death, like airbags in cars, modern sanitation, the refrigeration of food, anaesthesia and so forth.
Does getting the disease itself induce better immunity than the vaccination?
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said: “that which does not kill us, makes us stronger”. The problem in the area of infectious diseases is that many of us would be killed were we not vaccinated. How do we know that for sure? Because that’s precisely what happened before vaccinations. And Nietzsche was not correct, at least when it comes to medicine, because many people who survive infectious diseases do so at enormous physical cost for the rest of their lives. So, if you think death is something to trifle with and permanent disability isn’t all that bad, then vaccinations may not be for you. Assuming you are a rational person who is serious about honouring your body as the temple of God, then vaccinations make sense.
Is vaccination only an issue about me?
No. When vaccination rates in a community fall below a certain level, infectious disease outbreaks return. This happens because if there are enough non-immune adults/children in the community, infectious disease can be spread more easily, thus so-called “herd immunity” is lost. And it has happened on numerous occasions. In 2011, there were roughly 158,000 people who died of measles, the vast majority were unvaccinated children under the age of five living in developing countries.6 But believe it or not, measles is beginning to break out again in Western nations because the number of unvaccinated children has reached a critical mass. The result is predictably devastating.
Take, for example, the case of a 12-year-old French girl who died in Geneva University Hospital as a result of complications from measles. She was unvaccinated7. To have beautiful children, made in the image of God, being permanently disabled or dying, not because of a lack of access to life-saving healthcare, but because of a deliberate refusal to accept it, is a tragedy with profound moral ramifications. A strong moral argument can be mounted for vaccination en masse to induce “herd immunity” from infectious disease. I believe this is in keeping with the Golden Rule that Jesus proclaimed of doing unto others as you would have them do to you8.
Do vaccines contain dangerous poisons like mercury?
No. A compound called thiomersal is a mercury-based preservative that is used in only a few vaccines. Mercury is found naturally in the environment and in very low levels is perfectly safe. The levels of thiomersal used in vaccines are well below recommended mercury levels for humans. However, since 2000, as a precaution, thiomersal has been removed from all childhood vaccinations4. There’s no evidence that modern vaccines contain harmful chemicals that have been linked to disease or disability.
Did Ellen White support vaccination?
Not only did Ellen White not oppose vaccination, she was vaccinated herself and actively supported others getting vaccinated. This occurred when she was in a community where there was a smallpox outbreak—Mrs White was vaccinated and she encouraged others to be as well.9
While we should be sensitive to every person’s autonomy to make decisions about their own health and the health of their children, vaccination has been clearly shown to be one of the most efficacious health interventions and I believe a merciful God has directed the minds of physicians and scientists over the years to develop vaccination as a way to prevent human suffering. It’s my hope that by providing some facts and debunking some of the myths, those who may have been wavering about the pros and cons of vaccination may clearly see the health benefits and choose to vaccinate themselves and their families to prevent needless disease. I would encourage anyone with genuine concerns to read through the articles referenced below, and discuss them with your family. Talk to your family doctor for more information. Better to bury inaccurate ideas, than a precious child.
1. Medicare Australia Statistics. Access via: http://www.medicareaustralia.gov.au/provider/patients/acir/statistics.jsp
2. FE Andrea et al, Vaccination greatly reduces disease, disability, death and inequity worldwide Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2008; 86:140–146. Access via: http://www.who.int/bulletin/volumes/86/2/07-040089.pdf
3. Stanley A. Plotkin, Walter A. Orenstein, Paul A. Offit. Ed. Vaccines 6th Edition. Elsevier. 2012.
4. Access via: http://www.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/content/1FC63A2886238E6CCA2575BD001C80DC/$File/myths-4th-edition.pdf
6. Access via http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs286/en/
7. Eurosurveillance, Volume 14, Issue 6, 12 February 2009: Access via http://www.eurosurveillance.org/viewarticle.aspx?articleid=19118
8. Matthew 7:12
9. Selected Messages Book 2, 303.3-6.
Dr Andrew Pennington is a GP obstetrician living in Kilmore, Victoria. He is passionate about preventive health and wellness. He and his wife, Danielle, have a two-year-old son, Callum, and are expecting their second child in June.