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Fear and Vaccination

on January 4, 2014

The question of whether or not to vaccinate our kids has popped up in front of me lately, and I find it pretty fascinating how many emotions are triggered by this debate.  Seems to me that the passion behind both sides of the argument is fueled in large part by fear.

On the DON’T vaccinate side, the fears are usually stated directly, with the primary fear being that ingredients in the vaccine will cause harm. 

On the DO vaccinate side, it’s the fear of getting sick. 

Of course, there are all kinds of other considerations that can be evaluated logically to come to a conclusion of DO or DON’T, but I’m looking at the FEAR FACTOR.

Which fear wins?

Well, if you trust the drug industry and your doctor’s recommendation that vaccines are safe, then you wouldn’t be afraid of any ill effects from a vaccine, and you would probably conclude:  DO.

However, if you have witnessed your child or a friend suffer from a reaction to a vaccine, well, you might think a little bit longer about it.  Because despite the manufacturer saying vaccines are safe, you probably logically know that they have a huge financial incentive to convince you that they are safe, and they just might not be telling you everything.  Huh.

Which is why the marketing campaigns for vaccines play on that other fear:  the fear of being sick. 

Look, we all want to be healthy, right?  The question is, what is the best, most effective way to be healthy?  To simplify, there are two primary strategies:  Avoidance of Sickness and A Strong Immune System.

The Avoidance method uses lots of different strategies to help people avoid germs and exposure to illness.  Such strategies as handwashing, covering your sneezes, staying away from others who are sick, etc. are all helpful in avoiding sickness.  Vaccines fall into this category, too, assuming they are effective in preventing disease.  There are probably very few people who do not agree that a certain level of avoidance is very important.

The other method of remaining healthy is to do what you can to build a Strong Immune System.  We all know that several people can be exposed to a germ, yet they don’t all get sick.  The explanation would be that a person’s immune system can “fight off” a germ and not allow it to produce sickness.  Those who focus on this strategy will eat a healthy diet, get plenty of sleep, reduce stress levels when possible, exercise, maybe take vitamins, and take care of their bodies in various ways.  Again, there are probably few people who would argue with these strategies.

Is getting sick automatically a “bad” thing?  Well….that depends.  Because your immune system gets stronger after it fights off a sickness.  So as long as the sickness doesn’t cause long term harm, you might consider getting sick a “good” thing if you are primarily trying to build a strong immune system. This is where the two strategies don’t necessarily align.

This is the thinking behind those who say every kid needs to eat a pound of dirt.  If you get too obsessed with avoidance, it can backfire.  Just Google “environment too clean immune system” and take a look.

In my case, I never really thought much about all this until my oldest was a toddler.  The Chickenpox vaccine was just coming out, and I had the discussion with my pediatrician about whether to vaccinate or not.  At that time, my doctor recommended AGAINST the vaccine for the following reasons:  Chickenpox is not a dangerous disease for a healthy kid, and if a child gets it, he is immune for life.  The vaccine was only effective for 17 years (if I remember correctly) so it would protect until a time when the kid would be an adult and getting Chickenpox would be more serious – so lifetime booster shots would be necessary.

Made sense to me.

But what became interesting is how this story changed over the next few annual exams.  Look, Chickenpox didn’t change at all.  But the recommendations from “the powers that be” became stronger and stronger.  I don’t blame my doctor for following guidelines and recommendations, what else was he supposed to do?  But nothing medical had changed.  In only a few years, the Chickenpox vaccine became mandatory.  And what fascinated me was the poster promoting the reasons for the vaccine, which basically said that it would prevent parents from missing work to care for their kids.  Well, I stayed home with my kids, so that didn’t affect me.  And that had nothing to do with health.

And anyone who decided to vaccinate was protected, so they shouldn’t care if I made a different decision, right?  (unless the vaccine wasn’t effective, hmmm…)

Now, I realize that certain at-risk populations would want to be immunized and I think it’s great that the vaccine was developed.  But mandatory?  That just didn’t feel right to me. 

Now, we have the flu vaccine.  From the ads and all the hype, you would think this was the next plague.  FEAR OF SICKNESS is rampant.  Again, for at-risk populations, it’s awesome to have a vaccine to protect the vulnerable.  But have you noticed, that at first the recommendation was for certain at-risk individuals only to get the shot, but now they make you feel guilty or stupid if your choice is DON’T?? 

The thing is, if you’re a person like me who is reasonably healthy and you get the flu, you are down for a few days and you are miserable.  But you are not going to die from the flu, like someone who has a suppressed immune system or other at-risk situation.  And, after you have that flu, your immune system is that much stronger, for life.   Not too many years ago there was a lot of fear about a strain of flu, and they thought the elderly would really suffer with it.  But it turned out that the strain was similar enough to a flu that had gone around many years earlier, and the immunity they retained from having been sick protected them in their later years. 

Meanwhile, the flu vaccines only provide protection for a year, and they only protect for certain strains – so if they guess wrong about the strain that goes around, you may not even be protected for the year you got the shot.

So for me, I pay attention to my health.  I take care of my body.  I wash my hands.  But I am not afraid of getting the flu.  So I will not get a flu shot.  I had the flu in December of 2012 and I was in bed for 4 days.  It was not that big of a deal. 

For me, the bottom line is this: 

Be aware of your own health.  Think through decisions that you make that affect your body.  Pay attention, and do a little reading.  Know what you are afraid of.  Make the decision that seems right for you and your family.

But please don’t belittle people who make a different decision than you. 

Whenever I see something being promoted using fear, it makes me step back and wonder why…..

Are vaccine recommendations primarily motivated by health or are they motivated by how many vaccines can be sold?

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