It’s Time To Rethink Our View on Vaccination

Friday Nov 21 | BY |
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Vaccination 2

We need a wiser approach to vaccines,
and parents need a better understanding of the benefits and risks.

In the late 1950s, Polio—a contagious, viral disease—was feared where I grew up in New England. In it’s most severe form, it caused crippling paralysis, and sometimes killed.

In 1955, Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was introduced. Demand was high. I remember standing in line in the school gymnasium to get vaccinated. Cases plummeted from about 6,000 per year in 1958 to almost nothing. The last naturally occurring case of polio in the U.S. happened in 1979.

Improved public health measures cleaned up the breeding sources of poliovirus, including what we kids called “polio pits,” or summer swimming holes that were thought to breed poliovirus. Though the U.S. and Europe wiped out polio infections, however, polio is not gone. It remains a serious problem in poor undeveloped countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia.

The start of the 1960s was characterized by an exuberant optimism about the conquest of infectious disease. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed the Vaccination Assistance Act into law. Vaccination campaigns ramped up across America.

Fueled by white, suburban, middle-class anxieties, high-profile vaccination campaigns shifted from specific disease targets like small pox, diphtheria, and polio, to the eradication of common childhood illnesses like measles and mumps. Immunization proponents urged Americans to see measles not as a common part of childhood, but as a fate worse than polio or diphtheria. Modern medicine was seen as invincible and vaccination was central to the war on infectious disease.

Vaccines work by stimulating the immune system to develop specific protection against a particular disease. Vaccines contain a fragment or a weakened version of the pathogen that teaches the immune system to recognize a germ, without itself causing the disease. The process involves an under-the-skin injection of a substance that mimics the pathogen, priming the immune system to attack the real thing upon exposure.

Why Do We Vaccinate?

Vaccination is a way to inoculate people against the tragedy of untreatable diseases. Most untreatable diseases are viruses. Once infected, there is no cure. For common viruses, like chickenpox, it’s a temporary illness. Once infected, the immune system remembers what to do the next time you’re exposed. Surviving viral infection provides lifelong immunity against the same virus. Vaccines are designed to mimic natural infection by stimulating immunity against future infection.

Vaccines are made in several different ways. Some contain live viruses that have been weakened or altered so as not to cause illness (hopefully), or they use inactivated viruses. For bacterial infection, vaccines contain inactivated toxins, because the toxins produced by the bacteria and not the bacteria themselves, cause illness. Others have small subunits or conjugates of the pathogen.

Vaccine Type

The grandchildren of the first vaccinated generation, who were terrified of untreatable diseases, are now afraid that the constellation of chronic illnesses, including anxiety, autism, allergies, asthma, eczema, and chronic fatigue syndrome, are somehow connected to vaccines. Some are opting out of vaccination for their children because of the association of these conditions with adverse effects of vaccination.

Up to 70 percent of parents in Santa Monica, CA schools have filed “personal belief exemptions.” This personal philosophy opt-out is found to this degree only in the most progressive of states like California. But, the no-vaccination philosophy is not founded on science or an understanding of public health. It’s closer to the same breed of fear that resulted in mass vaccinations in the 50s and 60s. It’s time for science and parents to rethink vaccination policy.

It’s understandable that we want to protect our children. The reasonable fear that our kids will get sick and die, or be paralyzed for life, is certainly reasonable. It’s also understandable that parents fear their children might get allergies or become autistic because of vaccines.

And, it’s right to demand high standards of our doctors and vaccine manufacturers. It’s the responsibility of doctors, public health experts, researchers, and the pharmaceutical giants that make vaccines to assure not only immediate safety, but long-term security as well.

Big Money, Questionable Medicine

The government considers childhood immunizations so vital to public health that the Affordable Care Act mandates their coverage at no out-of-pocket cost. In most states, vaccination is required for kids to attend school. But medical decisions are no longer solely based on what’s good for public health. When big money is involved, standards get warped.

Once a loss leader for vaccine manufacturers, because they are often more expensive to produce than conventional drugs, vaccines are now very profitable. In 1982, it cost $100 to fully vaccinate one child to age 18. Now it costs over $2,000. What was once done for the safety of the nation is now done for big profits.

Doctors get caught in the middle. For many pediatricians, not giving vaccinations is unthinkable. Some even refuse to accept patients whose parents are anti-vaccination. In addition, many doctors reserve giving vaccines for only longstanding patients because they lose money on shots.

Vaccines work and save lives. But, they can also have real, though rare, side effects. Adverse reactions occur mostly in those with already weak immune systems. The very young and the elderly are most at risk.

Most side effects from vaccination are mild, and can include temporary soreness, swelling, or redness at the injection site. Some vaccines are associated with fever, rash, and achiness, which is the immune system’s way of responding to the vaccine. Serious side effects are rare, and may include seizure or life-threatening allergic reaction. Most fatal reactions occur in infants less than 12 months old.

Severe immunization reactions occurred in the early era of vaccinations. In 1948, 606 children died from diphtheria immunization in Kyoto, Japan. Scientists were specifically looking for Guillain-Barré syndrome, a paralytic disorder that is often treatable, but can cause long-term disability or death. A 1976 swine-flu vaccine distributed in the United States was associated with between five and nine cases per one million vaccine recipients.

Good Medicine, Wise Parents

There is no cure for Yellow Fever, Ebola, Dengue, Polio, and other serious viral infections. Improved public health helps reduce contagion. Cleaning up standing water deprives mosquitoes of places to breed, which reduces the spread of Yellow Fever and Polio. But, it doesn’t eradicate the virus.

A combination of vaccination and effective public health measures has proven effective for the management—and in some cases, eradication—of infectious viral disease.

What vaccines stave off is the unseen. Many of the diseases vaccines prevent are now rare in the U.S., like smallpox and polio, their frightening effects forgotten. So only the risks of vaccines, low as they may be, loom in the public imagination.

Technological advances have made modern vaccines purer and safer than their historical counterparts. Most developed countries, for example, have switched to the inactivated polio vaccine and stopped using whole-cell pertussis (whooping cough) vaccines. In the past, live vaccines caused high rates of arm swelling at the injection site, as well as febrile convulsions and periods of limpness or unresponsiveness. Such adverse events are now rare.

If you’re never exposed, you won’t get sick. But, no exposure ever can result in extreme immune system reactions when you are exposed. Vaccination helps modulate immunity so you neither have aggressive infection or immune overreaction.

From my clinical view, the question should be not whether to get vaccinated, but which ones are necessary, how many vaccines a child’s immune system can cope with, and at what age is best. We also need better-designed vaccines and newer technology. The flu vaccine, for example, is still made using individual chicken eggs. Finally, we need to know what’s in each vaccine—a child allergic to eggs, for example, may react to a flu shot.

What’s In 2014/2015 Flu Vaccines?

  • Flu Viruses: this season’s vaccine contains 4 different flu viruses
  • Egg Protein: flu vaccines are still grown in chicken eggs
  • Formaldehyde: interferes with viral proteins so they don’t cause infection
  • Octylphenol Ethoxylate: a detergent to separate out fat from viral proteins
  • Gelatin: helps maintain stability during storage and shipping
  • Thimerosal: acts as a preservative by keeping bacteria out of vaccine vials

What parents worry about is the long-term consequences of vaccines. Do vaccines, or the ingredients they contain, disrupt natural immunity? Do they cause allergic reactions? Are they necessary and if so, which ones are best?

We need a wiser approach to vaccines, and parents need a better understanding of the benefits and risks. How many know, for instance, that there are about a dozen different types of flu vaccine available from at least five manufacturers?

Remember, carrot and wheat grass juice, gluten-free diets, and yoga are good for wellness, but they don’t prevent infection from aggressive pathogens. Only complete avoidance of infection prevents contagion. But, if you or your children are exposed, vaccination is the best way that we have so far to reduce the effects of infection.

Dr. J. E. Williams


Dr. Williams is a pioneer in integrative and functional medicine, the author of six books, and a practicing clinician with over 100,000 patient visits. His areas of interest include longevity and viral immunity. Formerly from San Diego, he now resides in Sarasota, Florida and practices at the Florida Integrative Medical Center. He teaches at NOVA Southeastern University and Emperor’s College of Oriental Medicine.

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  1. June Hanson says:

    You did not mention, flu shots, this time of year, that are being advertised. Everyone is running out, getting them, even in drug stores. Medicare pays every year, so big pharma companies are guaranteed huge income. Elderly, who are very susceptible to colds and flu, should get them. I, depend on you, dear doctor, to keep my immune system strong, by natural methods. You’ve done a great job and it works. Using common sense, staying away from those who are coughing, sneezing and sick.

    My children never had the flu, nor were they ever vaccinated, except on entering school. Now, there are so many kinds of viruses, agree, it is necessary for children to be vaccinated. Those who have asthma, elderly with COPD, need pneumonia shots. Everyone, should read your book “Beating the Flu”.
    For intensive reading, recommend your book, “Viral Immunity”, Keep informed. No, wheatgrass, yoga, might not prevent these illnesses. Eating vital nutrients, lots of fruits and veggies. eliminating junk food, exercise, breathing fresh air, gives the body stamina to fight off many diseases or lessen duration.

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