Before we get started, this is going to be a LONG post, and I mean really long. I don’t want to leave any stone unturned on this topic and I want to be as thorough (and sourced) as possible.
We – feminists, women, men, mothers and fathers, people – need to put a lid on the anti-vaccine craze. “Wait, why is this a feminist issue?” We’ll get there. In under five thousand words, hopefully.
My goal in this entry is not to mock or fear-monger. There are legitimate points brought up by the anti-vaccine side, which I will gladly include and address as they come up. My point in all of this is to educate and persuade. If my thoroughness comes off as condescending, please understand that is not my intention. I don’t think anti-vaccine people are stupid – I think that raising kids is scary and every parent wants to do what’s best for their kids and is terrified of doing wrong and it makes things complicated. I’m writing this with a “from the ground up” approach and assuming that someone, not everyone, but someone reading this has no academic background in biology.
If I miss anything, if there’s a rebuttal that needs to be addressed, comment and I’ll edit it in. I am more than happy to address any questions or comments on this topic, because it’s something I feel very passionately about.
What is a vaccine? The functioning base of a vaccine can be a number of things, I’ll break them down one-by-one, explain how they work in layman’s terms, and give some examples:
Live attenuated vaccine – this type of vaccine has a live form of the virus in it, but it is weakened or somehow made inert so that the patient’s immune system can “learn” the virus without getting ill. Measles, mumps, rubella, and the chickenpox vaccine all contain attenuated agents. Very rarely a bacterial vaccine can also be live attenuated type, such as cholera, but this is uncommon and not a type of vaccine most people will get. Can a live virus vaccine become dangerous again? The virus is bred down to be weak inside of humans. Viruses can exchange DNA, but you would need to have the “wild type” in your system already (or a compatible virus – this is VERY rare and should not be considered an elimination-worthy fault of this type of vaccine).
Inactivated vaccines – like attenuated, these vaccines contain whole virus or bacteria, but it is killed (by heat, drying, radiation, or chemicals [we’ll get to chemicals later]). Since it is dead, there is no chance it can revert back to being dangerous. Inactive vaccines don’t provoke as strong of an immune response, so a “booster” later in life may be necessary. Some examples of an inactive vaccine include the polio vaccine, most flu shots, and pertussis/whooping cough. It’s important if you’re having children later in life, or if you work with children, the elderly, or the immunocompromised to get these types of shots as directed by your healthcare provider or employer.
Toxoid vaccines – some bacteria are not harmful because of the bacteria itself, but because of toxins secreted by the bacteria during it’s lifespan or at death. You cannot build a “natural” immunity to most of these types of bacteria, because a bacteria is not going to produce a weak toxin on it’s own and often the toxin is fatal in it’s “active” form. The most well-known toxoid vaccine is the tetanus shot, which is given every ten years. Toxoid vaccines are made with formalin, which is a solution of formaldehyde and water (we’ll get to formaldehyde later), which damages the protein of the toxin enough to make it harmless enough for the body to learn how to fight it off. Like inactivated vaccines, boosters are very important in this class.
Conjugate vaccines – this class of vaccine is particularly important for infants and young children, who’s immune system can’t yet identify and break down bacterial walls with special polysaccharide (a type of carbohydrate) coatings. The coatings can mask the proteins sticking out from a bacteria or virus, which can make it difficult for a young immune system to identify and fight off. The way this vaccine works is by developing the elements from the polysaccharides as well as a toxin or protein the body can identify. This way the body learns how to respond to the coating using the secondary element as a trigger for the response. The Hepatitis-B vaccine is an example of a conjugate vaccine, it contains protein marker elements, polysaccharide elements, and inert toxins that the body can identify and respond to better than the polysaccharides on its own.
Recombinant Vector vaccines – this is one of two “new” classes of vaccines, made possible by developments in genetic research and understanding. A recombinant vaccine functions by inserting the genes for one infectious agent’s protein or toxin markers into another attenuated virus or bacteria that the body can fight off. This way the body learns how to deal with the potentially very harmful disease by way of a weaker, non harmful agent. The HPV vaccine is a recombinant vector vaccine. Why can’t you just make an attenuated vaccine then? Some infectious agents are simply too virulent or risky to do this with – like HIV. While we don’t currently have an HIV vaccine, a recombinant vector approach may hold the key to developing one that is safe and effective.
DNA vaccine – this type of vaccine is experimental and a bit tricky to explain, so I’ll let the NIH do it for me: “Researchers have found that when the genes for a microbe’s antigens are introduced into the body, some cells will take up that DNA. The DNA then instructs those cells to make the antigen molecules. The cells secrete the antigens and display them on their surfaces. In other words, the body’s own cells become vaccine-making factories, creating the antigens necessary to stimulate the immune system.” What, generally, this means is that your own body uses the virus or bacteria’s DNA to make the protein all by itself. There are currently no DNA vaccines approved for human use, though a bird flu vaccine using DNA vaccine research is being studied and developed.
Okay, what about all of those chemicals in vaccines? Aren’t those harmful? Are some of the chemicals in vaccines potentially harmful? Yes. Are they harmful as they are in vaccines? No. The thing a lot of people don’t understand about organic chemistry (and, in this entry, organic does not mean the same thing as it does at the grocery store, but scientifically, which is having to do with carbon-based biochemistry) is that dosing is everything. Literally anything is harmful in the wrong dose (even good ol’ water) and most things are harmless at the right dose (even one of the deadliest naturally occurring toxins, botulinum can be safely administered, though I personally wouldn’t recommend it). Biomass is very important in chemistry – the amount of formaldehyde, for example, that is lethal for a bacteria is totally and wholly inconsequential to humans, even tiny ones. You will consume more formaldehyde in fruits and vegetables than you will ever get in a vaccine – it’s abundant in nature and it’s okay for us to consume because it’s the “dose” that matters – low levels of formaldehyde are processed into other chemicals in the body and passed in the urine. Constant, high-level exposure to formaldehyde is dangerous and carcinogenic (cancer causing). The amount of formaldehyde in vaccines is not.
The “hot chemical” in vaccines is Thimerosal. Some have speculated that the inclusion of thimerosal in vaccines has led to an increase in autism. It’s important to note that this chemical was phased out of most vaccines and reduced to a very, very low levels in the ones it remained a part of in 1997, so even if it were related to autism (it’s not), it would not be possible for this link to be made to children born after that time. The removal was purely precautionary – thimerosal is ethylmercury, not methlymercury or elemental mercury. When people hear “mercury,” most don’t realize there’s multiple types at all, much less that they have totally different effects on the body. Elemental mercury is what you would find in a thermometer and is really only dangerous if inhaled (it’s where we get the term “mad as a hatter“) – the body does a poor job absorbing it and if eaten/swallowed would pass through the body. DO NOT DO THIS, IT IS STILL A HEAVY METAL AND POTENTIALLY TOXIC. Methlymercury is the “dangerous mercury” that can be found in high predator fish (through a process called biomagnification, in which a large fish eats 100 medium fish, which ate 100 small fish, which ate 100 tiny fish that ate 100 filter feeders with a small amount of methlymercury in it’s system – this is why pollution control is important). Methylmercury is absorbed into the bloodstream and is harmful to humans, even in small doses because it accumulates and takes a very long time to break down. Thimerosal/ethylmercury is broken down by the body quickly and excreted – it is not harmful and does not put people are risk for accumulation of mercury in their system.
Somewhere along the line a lot of people got caught up in this idea that natural = good, artificial = bad, even if the artificial is merely a laboratory mass-created chemically identical version of what’s found in nature. It’s not reasonable and it’s not a scientifically sound approach to life. Prior to mass-production of antibiotics the number one killer in war wasn’t bullets and broadswords, it was bacteria. Convention medicine occasionally has a misstep but, on the whole, it has vastly improved the quality of life for living things (not just humans). Yes, new drugs should be tested thoroughly. Yes, sometimes nature holds the cure (let’s not forget that penicillin producing fungus is naturally occurring and opiate based pain relief has been around for centuries), but sometimes artificial does too. It’s one thing to ask questions, it another thing to entirely discount something because “you don’t understand the words on the label.” Chemistry and chemicals are not the enemy, they are not bad for you any more or any less than nature. Nature didn’t eradicate smallpox, vaccines did. Nature isn’t going to halt HIV, science is. Chemical synthesis is vital, it is absolutely critical to improving life on earth. Period.
My general point is, yes, there are chemicals in vaccines that sound scary and can do scary things…but not at the concentrations in vaccines (even in all regular childhood vaccines put together at once). Which brings me to the next question…
Isn’t the infant and early childhood vaccine schedule a little extreme? With that many vaccines so close, how can you determine which one caused a reaction if a child has a reaction? This is a point on the anti-vaccine side that does have some merit though I must emphasize that vaccination before socialization is the key because with many diseases group exposure is the real danger. I hesitate to link to any popular “alternative schedules,” because most of their proponents spread misinformation about vaccines overall. Suffice to say, if you want to spread out your child’s vaccine schedule, talk to their doctor about doing them 1-2 at a time and prioritizing according to local disease trends and potential illness complications. This is where it’s important to understand how vaccines move through a population, a study called epidemiology.
In epidemiology, you’ll see the term “r-nought” (R sub 0, R0, or R0). What this identifies is for every one person infected, how many other people they can be expected to infect. This is determined by a lot of factors: how the infectious agent reproduces, how it is spread, and how long the host is spreading the illness before symptoms show and incubation period, et cetera. Measles, for example, has an R0 of 11-18 – that’s very high. While measles is not typically fatal, 1 in 1,000 children with measles will have encephalitis and 1-2 out of 1,000 will die. Some math:
On infected child will infect (lowball) 12 children.
12 infected children will infect 144 children
144 infected children will infect 1728 children
So within 3 cycles you’ve hit your statistical number for fatalities and encephalitis. That’s a pretty rapid progression for a disease.
Let’s do another one: Pertussis. R0 of about 15. In infants and children 1-2 in 100 cases involve convulsions, 1 in 100 death, 2/3 apnea (which if not monitored closely can result in death), 1 in 300 encephalopathy. If you include adult infection these numbers drop.
So, 1 infected child infects 15 peers.
15 infected children infect 225. Two cycles to statistical mortality.
There are a lot of factors that go in to surviving a serious childhood illness, not just simple math. Nutrition, overall health, and speed in seeking medical attention all factor in to survival, so it’s perfectly possible a large pertussis outbreak can have no fatalities in an affluent area. However, participation in society comes with responsibility. There are children who legitimately cannot have a specific vaccine, or any vaccines due to medical issues (allergies, childhood cancer, and immune disease, for example). For these children, “herd immunity” (an often misunderstood term) is vital – if a disease cannot move within a population because everyone in it is capable of fighting if off before they become infectious, the odds of someone who is a “good host” coming into contact with the disease drops drastically. Herd immunity doesn’t negate the existence of a disease within a population, only the effectiveness by which it can spread. Vaccines don’t magically make it so you don’t come in contact with an infectious agent – when you are infected, you body responds without you ever knowing you were infected, and you don’t pass the disease along. You ruin the R0. The point of the vaccine is twofold: to prevent possible severe complications from illness and to disrupt the natural movement of a disease through a population. You don’t just get vaccines for yourself, you get them because humans are social animals and the microbe world relies on that fact to propagate.
But most of these diseases are rarely fatal anyway. I feel I’m violating my child’s bodily autonomy by forcing vaccines into it to accommodate “regulations.” Natural immunity will be better for him/her anyway. I cannot emphasize enough – the immunity you get from vaccines is natural immunity. Your body is responding, your body is producing the necessary antibodies, your body is learning the disease. It’s like learning to ride a bike with training wheels or a tricycle first versus just jumping onto a two-wheeler from the get go. Yes, you’ll probably learn to ride a bike still, but it will likely be at the very least painful if not outright hazardous. Vaccines are training wheels for your body learning how to ride a disease, so when you come into contact with the disease you’re already a pro, you know what you’re doing, and the training wheels can come off.
As far as bodily autonomy, I feel it’s impossible to address this without comparison and weighing options. Functionally all medicine given by a parent and doctor without consent of the child is a violation of their autonomy if you’re using “forced vaccines” as a standard – I didn’t want to take antibiotics any of the many, many times I got pneumonia as a child, but my parents forced me to so I didn’t drown in my own lung goo, arguably a good call on their part. Children don’t want to do anything that’s painful and the concept of “pain now” versus “pain later,” they will pretty much always pick later because cause and consequence is a rationalization that takes a while to develop. “You can get this shot now, and it will definitely hurt for a little bit, or you can maybe *insert common symptom list here* later,” most kids are going to pick whatever later is because later is not a concrete concept especially with “maybe” or “possibly” attached to it. Compulsory vaccination is no different from compulsory vision tests for a driver’s license, or compulsory HIV screening for blood donation, or any other number of things wherein you trade something to participate in society – you are certainly able to opt-out, but it will reasonably restrict you from certain social activities, because failure to comply can result in consequences not just for you, but for someone else who had no way of knowing you were not in compliance and no way of protecting themselves. You don’t have a right to put other people at risk, your right to put yourself at risk ends when it possibly risks someone else. You don’t have the right to be negligent.
Further, I would make the argument that what amounts to intentional exposure to potentially serious illness is a greater violation of a child’s bodily autonomy than an injection. Take something really benign for example, like chicken pox. Fatality, ataxia, even pneumonia are very rare. But scarring (a superficial blemish, but still permanent, and it’s not like we don’t live in a society that focuses on physical beauty) is quite common. Amy Parker’s piece about growing up unvaccinated raises a good point about this – you can make it through unvaccinated alive and no worse for wear as far as complications and still look back on the illness experience miserably. This is a situation where saying, “you can’t tell me what to put in my child’s body!” as a rallying cry out of principle is seriously counter-intuitive to reasonable medical decisions. Most people would agree that parents who withhold life-saving treatment from their children for religious reasons are morally reprehensible – and the government has decided even in the face of religious liberty that when it comes to minors, medical care is compulsory. Withholding misery-saving preventative healthcare should not be viewed as a brave or medically sound decision. It’s not a decision between “exposing my child to something harmless” and “not,” it’s a decision of “how will I expose my children to something potentially harmful: in a controlled situation or not.” Your child *will* be exposed to most, if not all vaccinatable childhood illnesses in their lifetime. Your choice is whether or not their system is already equipped to handle it, they’re going to be exposed to it either way.
Also, the possible complications of not vaccinating our daughters is even more severe. A great deal of childhood illnesses are generally recoverable…when you have them as children. Rubella and Chicken pox can all cause pregnancy complications and do very serious damage to a developing fetus – and many vaccines cannot be given during pregnancy (though the pertussis booster and some forms of the flu vaccine can be and should be). Additionally, a mother cannot pass temporary immunity to her baby for something she is not immune to.
Big Pharma can’t be trusted! Vaccines are a profit scam! Will you deny that some children die from vaccines? Look, vaccine reaction is a absolutely a real thing, the body can adapt to or reject anything at any time if it’s in the right genetic cards. You can reject your own organs, type I juvenile diabetes is a result of the body’s immune system attacking the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin (versus adult-onset type II resulting in the body’s cells no longer accepting insulin properly). No matter what you introduce to the body – vaccines, medicine, essential oil, juice – someone is allergic to it, someone can’t process it, it will kill somebody. Ginger is a great natural remedy for an upset stomach. I’m (potentially lethally) allergic to ginger, so I don’t take it for an upset stomach. Infants and children (and adults) should be monitored following vaccination and if anything seems awry, medical attention should be sought. It’s not reasonable to avoid something because of the possibility of a reaction (unless you have a family history of adverse effects) because you’d have to avoid everything. The CDC monitors vaccine reaction closely, and it’s important to note with childhood vaccines the frequency of severe reactions is so infrequent it’s medically impossible to prove the vaccine was at-fault in most cases. Just as a quick comparison, the statistical odds of death or serious side effect from DTaP is less than 1 in 1,000,000 (.0001%). The statistical odds of death from just pertussis is .2% – not high, but much, much higher than the vaccine. MMR is also less than 1 in 1,000,000 (.0001%). Combined in the US the mortality rate for these diseases is about 2 per 1000, also .2% (with poor nutrition this figure jumps to about 25%)
It’s worth recognizing that “Big pharma” is starting to realize serious profit from vaccines…because of the growth of the voluntary vaccine market. Childhood vaccinations are a pretty null line for pharmaceutical companies, you can’t turn profit on something that’s been around for a long time because it goes to generic production. Flu vaccines, however, will always be new market/brand name because it’s a different vaccine every year. So yes, pharmaceutical companies are making bank on vaccines, but only because of flu vaccines. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get them – the important takeaway from flu history is that the biggest, most lethal epidemics have killed the young and healthy more than the weak because of immune over response. That’s right. Your healthy young body does such a good job at building immunities when it sees a totally new, strong flu, it boots into beast mode trying to kill it, fails, but in the process manages to start taking out your own cells. This doesn’t happen in vaccines because the flu doesn’t “fight back” so you don’t get the hyper-response from your immune system. And before anyone says it – flu vaccines do NOT go onto the market untested. For one, the majority of flu vaccines are made by the same method (which isn’t new by any stretch) and for two, they are tested, extensively, and when they fail their producer is out millions. It happens. No company is getting a pass on having to test their vaccines.
A pharmaceutical company is a business, not a charity, they operate to make money. It’s unreasonable for anyone to expect there to not be a profit margin associated with their products – the up-front costs alone for developing flu vaccines are into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Profit allows pharmaceutical companies to dump literal billions of dollars into research and development of new drugs (phase III trials alone account for about 40% of most pharmaceutical companies’ R&D operating budget) and often end up with complete failure/FDA rejection (only 5 out of about every 5000 make the cut). The flu vaccine having a mark-up doesn’t make it less effective, or less of a good idea especially for at-risk individuals and people who work around other people (aka everyone). Everyone selling something is in business to make a profit, the super nice local farmer you get peaches from every summer at the Wednesday farmer’s market is selling those peaches with a markup to make growing the peaches and driving the peaches to the market a worthwhile endeavor. The farmer’s family isn’t living off of peaches and wearing peach-fiber clothing and checking email on an iPeach, they make profit from their products and buy things. That doesn’t make the peach less delicious and it doesn’t make the farmer dishonest…so why is it bad for a pharmaceutical company to make a profit?
Doctors don’t know how vaccines work, how can they explain them to patients? This is a radical statement made by some anti-vaccine advocates based on anecdotal observation, not objectively fact-based. Do all doctors everywhere know exactly how each and every vaccine works and exact numbers behind every possible reaction off the top of their head? No, that’s ridiculous to even expect. What doctors can do is give you general expected side-effects (soreness) and common reaction signs to watch out for (difficulty breathing). What doctors can do is go over the vaccine brochure/insert (which you have every right to ask for, some doctors won’t offer it out the gate because most people don’t want it, but all are required to have it on-site) with you and explain things you don’t understand. You absolutely have the right to know what a vaccine is and to have it explained to you, and if your doctor is flippant or resistant about providing that information, by all means “fire” them and get a new doctor or anonymously report them to their superiors or state licensing board for investigation if you feel it’s warranted. Most doctors and nurses are in medicine because they care about their patients. Most scientists working in pharmaceuticals want to help humanity. A doctor isn’t blowing off this information because they don’t know or care, it’s that most patients and parents coming through the door that don’t know and don’t care. If you do care, they are obligated legally and ethically to explain it to you in a way you understand (because those inserts are not typically written in laymen language).
…so what the hell does any of this have to do with Feminism?
Look at these pictures:
The voices in the anti-vaccine crowd, overwhelmingly, are women. The above seems to have a male speaking, but most of the participants are women. The most famous face of the movement (who I’ve avoided mentioning because she’s not taken particularly seriously at this point) is Jenny McCarthy (who ironically now promotes unregulated eCigs). The anti-vaccine movement relies on women, and these women communicate with and trust and relate to the other women in their group. It’s a place where women have power.
If pro-vaccine, pro-science advocates want to turn the tide on public misinformation, the face needs to not be pharmaceutical companies, or faceless blasts with stock images from the CDC and NIH, we need real, relatable women explaining why these vaccines are safe and necessary, we need scientist moms out there explaining why they vaccinated their children, we need female doctors who got the Gardasil vaccine showing that it was safe, we need, as women, to get out there and be vocal about this because when it comes to something as dear and important as raising our children, facts and numbers aren’t going to break the ice on their own. We need facts and numbers and compassion, we need relatability, we need leaders. We need crunchy moms who understand that vaccines aren’t unnatural immunity, we need parent groups to explain vaccines and illness clearly and without fear because you don’t need fear to illustrate vaccines as good and illness as bad.
Women listen to woman and men, but women relate to women. Vaccines need feminism, and feminism needs to get on board with advocating for vaccines.