by Joseph Cooney, MD
I’ve had many conversations with parents regarding their concerns over the decision of whether or not to vaccinate their children. They are actually quite torn about it. On one hand, the medical world makes the argument that you are either crazy or selfish not to vaccinate. Vaccines help us avoid acute illness and, in doing so, lower death rates. It’s a no brainer, right? Not necessarily, because on the other hand, these parents hear about the association with declining acute illness in childhood and the growing chronic illness, allergy, and immune dysfunction in children and adults. They simply want what’s best for their child and they’re not sure what to do. How can we resolve this? Now with mandatory vaccination being advanced in some places, the issue is begging for review and reflection.
But aren’t vaccines accepted by scientific consensus?
The fact that vaccine policy is generally accepted as safe and effective today does not protect it from being subjected to a shift in the field that will change the scientific consensus. Nor does that fact protect it from being subjected to scrutiny or debate. The medical world often makes the mistake of not recognizing which conclusions are firm or not. Many a young doctor in training hears the tale of the sage physician who warned the upstart doctors that “half of what we know now is wrong, we just don't know which half.”
Experience plays this shifting field out in modern medicine. A major example in my career is the reversal of the decades-long recommendation for women to take replacement hormones at menopause. We thought we could improve on nature with our science. Now replacement synthetic hormones are discouraged because the natural state of menopause was found to be protective against breast cancer and heart disease. The list of therapeutic interventions that were once accepted but are now defunct is long enough to give one serious pause. For crying out loud, it took science decades to reach consensus that tobacco was bad for your health. Furthermore, bottle feeding with formula was once thought of as 'scientific' and modern and superior to breast feeding. 80% of women stopped breastfeeding during that time in the last century. The modern day reversal of this trend is a signature event for the movement of rediscovery of nature's deeply complex and wholly inclusive quality. Nature knows best.
Many herald vaccines as the number one public health achievement of the 20th century and attribute the longevity shift over the century to them and antibiotics. However, the great advances in life expectancy are far more attributable to public health interventions like sanitation, labor laws, providing clean water, and hygienic measures than to medical advances, vaccines, or any internal intervention. One report estimates that medicine can claim only 3% of the improvement in longevity. Moreover, it should be remembered that modern medical intervention comes with risk. A landmark study from the Institute of Medicine in 1999 estimates death from errors in hospitals as high as 98,000 lives per year. In fact, other researchers identify the healthcare system as the third leading cause of death per year when additionally considering deaths from prescription drugs and unnecessary surgery. Because the healthcare system is a for-profit system, we are invited to gloss over the facts. Intervening in the public health by taking on environmental projects to make society more habitable is warranted and welcome. However, when entering the sacred sphere of the body, it is most prudent to proceed humbly, conservatively, and with many questions.
“Things are not always what they seem; the first appearance deceives many.” –Phaedrus (Roman poet)
Rudolf Steiner held the premise that several of the typical childhood illnesses are essential for the development of the growing child. If we avoid all of the typical childhood illnesses, our organism is unchallenged and doesn’t gain whatever it would from facing and overcoming the illness. This notion challenges the core of the mainstream argument but a lot of people can connect with it intuitively, and it’s supported by scientific data.
We can observe that, as the acute inflammations of childhood are avoided, chronic immune disorders take their place. The 2007 asthma guidelines from the US Department of Health and Human Services show that certain infections in childhood reduce the incidence of asthma: measles and hepatitis A amongst them. When these are avoided with a vaccine, the asthma prevention is lost. Almost everyone gets exposed to hepatitis A in developing countries. The usual immunity rate is 90%. Most interesting, children under 6 usually have no symptoms at all with an infection of hepatitis A. Complications are rare in hepatitis A at all ages. Survival rate is greater than 99.9%. Asthma, on the other hand, is increasing in incidence, carries with it substantial morbidity, is a major financial burden to the healthcare system, and has links to autism.
Another compelling instance is revealed in several studies showing that women with a history of an actual case of mumps in childhood are less likely to get ovarian cancer. This has been shown again and again in observational studies dating back to the 1960s. Women who had mumps as a child are consistently underrepresented in the ovarian cancer registries. It was first stumbled upon in epidemiological studies of ovarian cancer incidence. Manipulating the immune system to avoid a mumps case with a vaccine does not give the same protection from ovarian cancer. A recent study [Cramer et al. 2010] established why the actual disease (and not the vaccination) is protective against cancer. The inflammation associated with mumps trains the immune system in such a way that a particular residue remains behind that counteracts a tendency towards ovarian cancer. There are almost 15,000 deaths per year from ovarian cancer in the United States. Mumps is not a life-threatening illness. Even if only the most modest estimates of protection are true, thousands of lives are affected by the decision to vaccinate.
If that doesn’t give you pause, I don’t know what will. It’s impossible for our brain to comprehend the complexity of the whole human organism. Something that makes sense when studying parts of the whole in a reductionist fashion will change completely when the organism is studied through with a more integrated technique, as seen with systems biology models. Furthermore, something that makes sense when studied in a specific timeframe might change completely when the timeframe is broadened.
The reason I emphatically support parents' right to choose which vaccines to give their child and to decide at what pace to give them is because I believe, as our knowledge of health and illness continues to expand, we will see things differently and the scientific consensus will shift. The great physician and sage Moses Maimonides in his “Prayer for Physicians,” asks for contentment
in everything except the great science of my profession. Never allow the thought to arise in me that I have attained to sufficient knowledge, but vouchsafe to me the strength, the leisure, and the ambition ever to extend my knowledge. For art is great, but the mind of man is ever expanding.
Vaccinations enable us to avoid diseases; I don’t deny that. However, there is a cost to avoiding certain illnesses. Emerging models of health recognize that disease can have health benefits. Health is not simply a state free from disease. Health is a resonance, a state of balance between polarities of expansion and contraction. Illness can serve to help us reestablish our healthy center point. It can be a vehicle to deeper harmony. This is not self-evident, but it is a well-known holistic concept in anthroposophic medicine. I’d say it’s not too much to call it a revolutionary concept. When mankind is confronted by a challenge, by pain or by an illness, transformative powers can result. A philosopher once advised, “when the winds of adversity blow strong, redirect their force into the service of your highest intention.” Adversity is our greatest stimulus for growth; and growth is the point. Our culture at times needs a reminder of the merit of struggle.
When we avoid acute childhood infection with vaccines, we fall prey to an illusion that we enjoy better health because of it. Parents of young children are more productive citizens in the short term and there are less complications of infection, but with significant cost. The fundamental element of good scientific thinking is asking the right questions. Only then will we be able to let the full picture reveal itself. This is needed in the field of vaccines. In what ways do other illnesses have a positive effect on the balance of health? Why is it that in the last twenty five years, as we've tripled the number of shots given to our children, the rates of chronic illness have expanded exponentially? Why is it that amongst developed countries those who vaccinate the most in the first year of life have the highest infant mortality rate (US: number 1), and those who vaccinate the least in the first year have the lowest infant mortality rate [Miller and Goldman, 2011]? Why is it that the anthroposophic lifestyle (respect for the natural way) reduces the incidence of allergies [Lancet. 1999 Alm, etal]? Why do surveys repeatedly show vaccinated children with more childhood illness? Why is it that the more we inform parents, the less likely they are to vaccinate?
Through the haze of profiteering, regulations, and technology that clouds the world of modern medicine, it is easy to lose sight of the sacred nature of the human body. We are born whole and with the circumstances best suited for our development. We are children of a vast cosmic system that reaches infinitely beyond anything our everyday consciousness can grasp. We have innate powers of regeneration and self-healing. We need no petrochemical to be complete.
Imagine a scenario where the majority of the medical team’s effort is to guide and support the body through these illnesses into a realization of their benefits rather than creating ways to avoid them. Intensive medical intervention would then be relegated back to the realm of the complication of illness. With this strategy, we could greatly improve on pre-vaccine survival rates and avoid the complex complications of obstructive intervention in most cases.
It’s no surprise that the most common statement concluding medical studies, journal editorials, and medical school lectures is the assessment that “more study is needed.” We hear it all the time. Most scientists understand that our body of knowledge expands, and as it does our understanding shifts. For the present with what we already know, the right approach is the cautious approach. The debate needs to be allowed to happen, and freedom of choice is essential.
Dr. Joseph Cooney graduated from Georgetown University Medical School in 2000. He specializes in family medicine and has a clinic in New England where he has taken up in earnest the quest to explore the root of illness and the quest to bring true healing to our culture.
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