Complete Wellness

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Childhood Vaccines

Several years ago I went to a conference sponsored by Harvard University on alternative and complementary medicine. It was a serious and broad approach to health care including experts in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Homeopathy and Herbal Medicine. When a pediatric expert was asked about vaccines for children, her response was “I have two words about vaccines; GET THEM!”

There is a plethora of scary literature out there warning parents against vaccinating children. I’ve read some of it. It is so hard for me to read objectively. I’ve seen the crippling effects of Polio. I’ve watched kids suffer through Measles with fevers of 105F. I’ve treated the unforgiving cough of Pertussis, where patients can’t even breath. We are forgetting the horrors, yes, HORRORS, of these diseases. When I have read these articles, they are often rife with erroneous information. One recent piece that was forwarded to me on Facebook sited a 10% death rate among vaccinated children, and only 5% among unvaccinated kids. What? One out of ten children dying? Even the 5% statistic is way off. Can you imagine? I was livid. I am not a fan of fear, and this is the worst kind. Maybe some of the information is not quite so blatantly wrong, but there is no real objective science behind the scare tactics.

My firm belief is that Western Medicine, although not great at many things; allergies, chronic pain, mental health and nutrition, to name a few, has done some things very well. Immunizing against deadly diseases is one of them. Vaccination as preventative care is a huge benefit to global health, not just here in the US. It is so amazing to me that we have the ability to give our bodies a warning about a specific threat, so our immune systems can create a specific weapon against that threat. I just love preventing disease. Children have particularly strong immune systems. They have to. They are constantly on the floor, eating dirt and anything else they find to put in their mouths. They get cuts and scrapes all the time. Their immune systems are much more vigorous than grown ups. That makes childhood a perfect time to tap into that and use its strength to create lifelong protection.

I also appreciate a responsive system that is willing to learn and adapt and change in response to new information. Manufacturers of vaccines responded to a grass roots outcry to take mercury out of the mix. There has never been a case of mercury poisoning documented as being caused by vaccines. Still, vaccine manufacturers took the mercury out of the serum. Because it was a potential risk? To make it more palatable to worried parents? Because of pressure from the medical community to reduce even a theoretical risk? I can only guess, but I know it got done. The trace amount of mercury that was in vaccines is less than what we find in many fish we eat. Our bodies have a terrific capacity to filter and detoxify. We do it all day long every day. Not vaccinating because of fear of mercury poisoning is irresponsible and ungrounded.

The accusations of vaccines causing autism have long been debunked. I’m not even going to discuss that issue except to say that our changing definition of autism has caused the number of cases to increase hugely while the rate of MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine has stayed the same. Correlating them just doesn’t even make sense.

Tetanus kills people. Even treated, the mortality rate is huge. And it’s not just from nails in cow manure. Clostridium tetani is a ubiquitous bacterium, found all over everywhere. There are fewer than 20 cases annually in this country, but most of those people didn’t even report any injury. It happens every year; a minor or unnoticeable little cut….. Polio was such a scourge in the 1940s, but we have forgotten the iron lungs and twisted bodies. Whooping cough or pertussis is devastating, especially to babies, who can cough so hard that is bursts blood vessels in the brain. The pneumococcal vaccine prevents one kind of pneumonia, but it’s the really fast moving kind. It’s the kind that Jim Hensen, the Muppet inventor got. It’s the kind where you wake up in the morning with a cold and go to bed dead by night. The meningococcal vaccine, likewise, prevents just one cause of meningitis, a particularly fast and deadly form of meningitis. Measles can cause fevers as high as 105F, painful inflammation of the brain, and rarely, death.

I wasn’t a big fan of the Chicken Pox vaccine when it first came out. I had heard the argument that kids should be vaccinated because it prevented millions of lost work hours when parents had to stay home with sick children. That argument sat so wrong with me. However, a child came in to see me with a brand new case of chicken pox, meaning he was highly contagious for the past several days. Viruses are often most catchy the days right before the symptoms show up. This kid had just flown back from Disney World, on a plane full of young families, probably other children not yet inoculated, and probably a pregnant woman or two. Young families are often growing families. Although 80% of adults who think they never had chicken pox are immune, there are adults who are still susceptible to the disease. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. Pregnancy is a necessarily immune-suppressed state; necessary so that the little foreign body growing in there doesn’t get rejected. Pregnant women have a serious risk of the chicken pox, or Varicella infection, going into pneumonia and there is a real risk of dying. That is no joke. I f that kind of tragedy can be averted, I’m all for it.

This is also another example of the medical community responding to evolving information. We were seeing that kids were still getting chicken pox, albeit usually mild cases, even after they’d been vaccinated. (That was also another reason I wasn’t immediately behind that particular shot.) When it became clear to public health officials that this was statistically significant, the recommendation changed to a series of two shots. We’ll see how that works out.

Polio vaccines had to change as well. We used to give an oral dose of live Poliovirus to create an immune response. It worked just fine, but that left children shedding Poliovirus in the stool for days after each dose. For the years, the only cases of Polio in this country were traceable to exposure to a child who had received the Polio vaccine orally and infected someone through diaper changing;’/./[-=. That was, of course, unacceptable. Now we only use the injected killed virus, so there is no risk of causing Polio.

Parents who chose not to immunize their children have every right to do that. I have to respect that decision, but will always ask why and offer any information I can to convince parents that immunization to prevent disease is a responsible and rational thing to do.

I held off on vaccinating my own kids against Hepatitis B until they were going to daycare. I knew I had been vaccinated against it and I figured there risks were pretty low in my home. When they were going out into the big world, they got their shots. But when the Gardisil vaccine came out to prevent HPV infections, I had my boys, then teenagers, vaccinated even before it was approved for use in boys. I do understand feeling like you want a choice in the vaccine schedule, but immunizing against preventable disease is the only rational decision a parent can make.

I advise parents of unvaccinated children to keep them out of school when they are sick. I ask them to remind the office that they are not immunized when they are bringing the kids in for sick visits so that we can see them at a less crowded time and expose as few other people as possible. Kids who are not being vaccinated should definitely still be seen at regularly scheduled check ups. They need their growth and development monitored at the same intervals as a child getting shots. Find a doctor who will respect your decision, accept that they will try to talk you into getting immunized, and get what you and your child need.




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