The Truth About Vaccines.

Deep breath, and here we go!

It started in early April when I was having a conversation with my husband, Jordan, and his parents about vaccines. Our son is about 18 months, and Jordan’s sister has a 6-month-old. We were discussing the measles outbreaks all over the country, and kept asking ourselves, “Why wouldn’t people just get vaccinated?

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Before we go on, I want to say two things plainly and up front.

The first is that I am not a doctor or medical professional of any kind. I am an English and Religious Studies major from a small, liberal arts college in Alabama. The information reflected in this post is a result of my own reading, conversations, and research as a lay person, seeking information and answers to be better informed in my conversations around this issue.

The second is that I am pro-vaccination. I was before diving into this topic for my blog, and my research has only caused me to double down on that stance. My child has received all the vaccines available to him at this age, and I do not agree with or support the choice not to vaccinate unless specifically advised not to do so by a pediatrician because of life-threatening risk factors.

When I originally began kicking the idea for this post around, it was over a month ago. I thought I’d spend two weeks on it, but one conversation has led to another, which has led to e-mails back and forth with award-winning epidemiologists, moms who’ve chosen not to vaccinate, and vaccine experts. I have read and listened to so much - so many hours of work writing, reading, and learning - but what I’ve been exposed to is ultimately a tiny drop in the bucket of the loads of information out there to consume.

To be totally candid, one of the reasons I’ve spent so long working on this post because I’ve been trying to strike exactly the right, reverent chord of stating my opinions and the opinions of medical professionals, while still respecting the women who were kind enough to help me understand the reasons they chose not to vaccinate their children. The doctors I interviewed implored me not to be overly sympathetic to the anti-vaccination movement; the women I spoke to who didn’t vaccinate urged me to make sure I was doing my own research. It has been overwhelming, and so the best I can do here is relay the facts, as plainly as possible, and with the context I feel is important in understanding them.

What this month+ of reading, research, podcasts, and trading e-mails with new friends and with doctors has reinforced to me is that this is a very complicated issue.

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In an effort to actually get a conclusive answer to my “Why not just get vaccinated?” question, I posed it to my Instagram followers. Because of some partnerships I’ve done, I have a few hundred followers I don’t know personally, and I knew I’d have a broad spectrum of young moms with differing opinions. I asked them to Direct Message me if they had chosen not to vaccinate their children. I expected one or two replies and wound up with a little over a dozen.

Two women in particular offered themselves as guides through the mindsets of parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids. I took them up on their offers, and wound up with loads of information they provided to me in the way of explaining their rationale. There were tables, articles, and counterarguments to popular scientific theories. They poured so much effort and compassion into helping me get a clear window into their minds.

As I delved into the resources they sent, it became clear that lots of it was hyper-specific and in-depth. I decided I needed someone who knew more about this than I did to help walk me through the various anti-vaccination arguments.

Through some friends, I was able to hook up with two epidemiologists, one of whom is an MD/PhD and the other of whom is a PhD. I won't mention them by name here to avoid any unwanted attention, but both women teach at major universities and have published very well-known papers, made discoveries, and are considered top-tier experts in their fields. For the sake of this post, we'll call them Dr. Brown and Dr. Jones. I synthesized the basic arguments from my new friends and sent them to Dr. Brown (MD/PhD) first, then Dr. Jones (PhD) a few weeks later. They were both kind enough to reply with articles, data points, and research of their own.

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When I polled Instagram that day, I’ll admit: I did so with a very particular preconception in mind. The only people I’d ever met or heard about in the “anti-vaxx” community seemed to be willfully ignoring important data. I didn’t have much sympathy or empathy for them because I felt they were putting people at large (and now my child specifically) at risk.

Since polling my Instagram followers a few weeks ago, I have learned so much. As is usually the case when I have a strong (if uninformed) opinion about a group of people, getting to know parents of unvaccinated kids personally has softened my heart enormously.

The truth is that these parents love their children. They are nurturing, kind people, two of whom went to great lengths to type out pages and pages of their rationale for not vaccinating. Putting a human face on something that was simply an “issue” before has helped me so much in beginning to understand how people arrive at the conclusion not to vaccinate. It’s easy to call a point of view ignorant when you don’t actually know anyone in that camp; I am very appreciative of the moms who took time out to respond to me. These women are college-educated - certainly not ignorant, as is a popular refrain from the pro-vaccination camp - and have made this choice with that they feel is the best possible information that they can find. It’s very important to me that this post offers a kinder view of people with this opinion. I don’t think they’re right, but in all the cases I’ve encountered, they’re also trying their dead-level best to protect their kids. Like every issue, just because I disagree with someone doesn’t mean I have to demonize them.

And we don’t agree. In fact, we almost categorically disagree. But I have relished the opportunities they each provided: a chance to have respectful, intelligent conversation across lines of difference, especially with fellow women.

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Having said all that, let’s dive into the data. I hope you’re ready to nerd out.

What are some of the major objections to having one’s child vaccinated?

  1. Mistrust of government.

  2. Mistrust of the medical community.

  3. Mistrust of Big Pharma.

  4. Fear of vaccine injury or overwhelming a child’s immune system.

  5. Fear of autism caused by vaccines.

  6. Lack of clarity about ingredients, AKA the “heavy metals” argument.

  7. Ethical issues over “aborted fetal cells” being included in vaccine content.

  8. Believing that natural is best, and that the body can fight off illnesses on its own.

  9. Belief in information dispensed by groups like Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children's Health Defense.

  10. Concerns about vaccine shedding, herd immunity, and lack of adult vaccination.

What does the medical community say?

Mistrust of the government. It’s hard to argue against a feeling, but Dr. Peter Hotez (MD, PhD, and vaccine expert) made a great point in a podcast where I heard him interviewed: “You don’t have to trust the current administration or any of its policies to believe that vaccines are effective and important. Plenty of people who don’t work for the government promote the benefits of vaccines.” The doctors I spoke to for this post are not affiliated with the government. Although it’s possible that they’ve taken advantage of government grant programs I’m not aware of, they both work for private organizations. (Dr. Hotez also works for a private organization: Baylor College of Medicine.)

Mistrust of the medical community. Any parent of a new baby has grappled with the thousands of decisions, both large and small, that come as a part of caring for a newborn. If the first time you hear about vaccines and their benefits is in the first appointment with your 2-week-old when your #1, hyper-vigilant concern is keeping them from harm, the idea of injecting them with live viruses could seem daunting and frightening. I don’t share this concern, but I can empathize deeply. There often simply isn’t enough time in those first appointments to have the types of long, careful conversations needed to satiate the minds of fearful new parents.

Mistrust of Big Pharma. Another great quote here from Dr. Hotez: “One of the things that anti-vaxxers say to pro-vaccination advocates is that they’re being ‘propped up’ by Big Pharma.” For this reason, I specifically chose to listen to or speak with doctors or epidemiologists who have no association to the pharmaceutical industry to my knowledge. Like the government point above, these people aren’t being compensated by the pharmaceutical industry for advocating for vaccines. HOWEVER - it is 100% understandable that people would be suspicious of Big Pharma in the midst of the opioid crisis happening in this country. To those people, I’d say: It’s possible to condemn the over-peddling of painkillers while still acknowledging the benefits of vaccines.

Vaccine injury/adverse reactions. The term “vaccine injury” refers to extreme shoulder injury, encephalitis, and other serious consequences as defined by the National Vaccine Compensation Act. Soreness at the injection site and even a fever for up to 24 hours are perfectly normal as a vaccine stimulates your immune system.

Vaccine injury is extremely rare. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), here are the numbers:

  • Between 2006 and 2017, 3.4 billion doses of vaccines were given in the United States.

  • Out of those 3.4 billion doses, 4,328 people brought cases of vaccine injury before the court and received compensation.

  • The HRSA is careful to say, though, that around 70% of those cases were not, in fact, paid out because the court concluded that vaccine injury had taken place. Rather, because the court and the client reached a settlement. (You’ll often hear the number of $4 billion being referenced as the amount of money that has been paid out by the vaccine court; this context is helpful in understanding that that number does not represent anything about the validity of the cases or verdicts.)

  • That means out of 3.4 billion doses, 1,299 led to vaccine courts compensating families.

Another important point to consider: it’s impossible to say how many of those cases were caused by an unidentified and underlying immune deficiency. Roughly, the odds are 1 in 1 million that you will experience vaccine injury. For context, the chances of being struck by lightning are 1 in 700,000. So - yes. There is a risk in getting vaccinated. But it’s very, very small. For further interesting reading, the New York Times just published a piece on this topic.

Overwhelming a child’s immune system. This was a really interesting and important set of facts that I came to understand. Babies are exposed to hundreds of antigens from the second they’re born, which means they’re perfectly capable of handling the immune response triggered by vaccine antigens. However, a child’s immune system is NOT strong enough to withstand an infectious disease, which is why they’re vaccinated so early for things like measles. For a deeper understanding of how scientists have combined vaccines to make them more effective and even safer, this article is a great read.

Fear of autism caused by vaccines. The idea that the MMR vaccine (or any other vaccine) causes autism has been definitively and roundly debunked. Andrew Wakefield, the former MD who alleged that there was a link between vaccines and autism, has been stripped of his medical license and the study he published has been discredited for a number of reasons (both scientific and ethical). Interestingly, Andrew Wakefield is also the person who directed and starred in the popular anti-vaxx documentary, Vaxxed. (The not-so-subtle subtext I’m trying to get across here is that Vaxxed was created by a man who’s had his medical license revoked, so the material in it is questionable.)

Lack of clarity about ingredients; concerns about “heavy metals” or aluminum. The most helpful piece I found here is this great article that breaks down exactly what’s in a vaccine and how vaccines are made. I won’t even try to paraphrase it here - she says it best.

For parents concerned about thimerosal, From Dr. Jones: “Some vaccines did contain thimerosal, a mercury salt, but that's like saying that table salt = chlorine gas. Basic chemistry demonstrates that compounds have different properties than the elements from which they come. And thimerosal was removed from childhood vaccines almost a generation ago. It is present in some multi-dose flu vaccines but one can ask for those to be thimerosal-free, and it has never been demonstrated to have caused any harm. Aluminum is not a heavy metal, and again, is in the form of salts and not metallic aluminum in vaccines.”

From Dr. Brown: “Aluminum is not a heavy metal. Aluminum is used in vaccines as an adjuvant – meaning a substance that is added to vaccines that stimulates a stronger immune response.  There is no aluminum in any live vaccines, including MMR. Aluminum is naturally present in the environment. There is normally a very small amount of aluminum in (the) human body.  The amount used in vaccines is so small that it does not make an impact on the total.”

From Dr. Hotez, when asked, “What’s in a vaccine?”: “Liquid, like saline or saltwater plus antigens.”

Ethical issues about aborted fetal cells being used:

From Dr. Brown: “No, there are no fetal cells in the vaccines. Viruses require human cells to grow in the lab, and some grow better in fetal cells. Also, fetal cells divide well, which means that they can be preserved long term to grow the vaccine virus – because every batch you make you need to make it the same way.  The original fetal cells which were used in vaccine development came from elective pregnancy terminations. These cells have resulted in medical products that have saved the lives of millions of people.”

From Dr. Jones: “Many viruses can only be grown in human cells, so fetal cells are the best way to grow these. The cells are removed during processing--think of it like the dirt in which we grow carrots or potatoes. Even religious bodies have demonstrated that they are fine with these types of cells, though of course would prefer an alternative (that does not currently exist).”

In response to information cited by RFK Jr. and Children’s Health Defense, particularly the data about “wild measles” being preferable to the MMR vaccine:

From Dr. Jones: “There is just no evidence to support what he claims. We know wild measles is associated with deaths in around 1-2 per 1000, encephalitis, pneumonia, and years of immune amnesia, not to mention the chance of SSPE which is universally fatal and horrific. Yes, there was a clinical trial that showed measles eliminated cancer in *one patient*--but they gave her a megadose of a *genetically-modified measles vaccine*, not the wild virus. There also is one epidemiological study that suggested fevers from measles is protective against later cancers but it's pretty poorly done and doesn't have other support (it has not been repeated or supported by other investigators).”

Vaccine shedding and questions about herd immunity.

The concept of vaccine shedding simply means that for a few days after a person receives a vaccine, they threaten to expose immunocompromised people around them to the diseases for which they were vaccinated. In the end, this concept is one that doesn’t hold water. This article was recommended to me by Dr. Jones and does a great job of addressing that concern, even including a tweet from Johns Hopkins stating specifically that it’s okay for recently vaccinated children to visit immunocompromised patients in their hospital.

Herd immunity is a simple enough concept: vaccinated people (or people who have naturally encountered and survived a germ or disease) protect immunocompromised people from contracting a particular disease. It’s important for exactly that reason - there are lots of people who are vulnerable. (think: children who are too young, chronically ill people, and people who can’t be vaccinated for a specific medical reason) and rely on the rest of us to vaccinate ourselves in order to protest them.

For herd immunity to be effective, a certain percentage of the population has to be vaccinated against or immune to a disease (and it’s different for every disease - measles, for example, requires 92-95% of the population to be immune to keep from spreading. An important note here is that an outbreak can still occur, but it can’t spread if effective herd immunity is in play.) Obviously, in many cases in the U.S., there’s low herd immunity because so many unvaccinated people have contracted measles. Here’s a great piece on Mental Floss that does a deep-dive into the hard math behind how herd immunity works, how diseases spread and at what rate, and why diseases seem to “favor” children.

The TLDR version of this is: vaccine shedding does not pose a threat to the immunocompromised; herd immunity effectively prevents immunocompromised people from contracting contagious and potentially fatal diseases.

My personal takeaways:

  • The anti-vaccination lobby is extremely powerful, and has done a truly remarkable job of making it a challenge to find clear, scientific data about vaccines online. I am now quite clear on why so many people have deeply held opinions that they feel are based in science, but are actually based on misinformation.

    1. The anti-vaccination lobby is also a bit of a mystery. I still have big questions: who’s backing it? Where is all the money coming from? What’s the ultimate goal?

  • There are some things that are black and white - easy to understand and digest. For example: vaccines do not cause autism. Full stop.

  • There are other pieces of the puzzle that take a lot of digging to understand. For example: the truth behind vaccine injury and whether the number $4 billion in payouts is accurate. It’s frustrating to me that this information is so misrepresented and has confused or misled so many people. It shouldn’t take hours of reading to figure out the truth.

  • I understand that time is always pressed at the doctor’s office, but I would love it if it was possible for vaccine education to begin as early as prenatal visits. The pressure parents feel at the pediatrician to just say, “Okay - whatever you think is best!” is heavy, especially for first-time parents. Having the space to talk through and ask any questions you might have is essential to eliminating misinformation and fear around vaccinations, and I think that’s a huge area for growth in our system. (A caveat here that I love our pediatrician, who always gives us time to ask questions. Shout out to Dr. Templeton!)

  • I understand why people are suspicious of Big Pharma. No need to elaborate. It just makes sense to me.

  • It is not only unkind, but unhelpful to assume that people who choose not to vaccinate are ignorant about risks, research, or data. At least in the conversations I’ve had, these parents are dutiful, involved, and extremely caring. If you’re curious or concerned, opening up a conversation can be helpful and informative for everyone.

Okay, folks. That’s it. I ask for your grace and understanding in reading and processing all this, welcome your questions, and am grateful for your time. Hopefully you’re leaving this post with a few more tools in your belt so that you can engage one another in conversation about this stuff. It’s been a fascinating journey for me.

Over and out.

Queer Eye and the NFL

Whether you agree with the style of protest or not, this is a great opportunity for us to engage with and learn more about an issue that is obviously affecting a community to the point that the rich and famous among that demographic are willing to trade their money and power, and likely give up on a dream they’ve had since childhood, simply to shed light on this issue. 

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5 Things: Ways To Avoid Current Events Burnout

This has been an exhausting week in terms of keeping up with the world. Lots has happened. Lots has been really sad, disappointing, upsetting, and tough. I've felt a lot of anxiety around trying to inform myself about current events without allowing myself to become anxious or overwhelmed, which is not an easy combination. Here are some things that have helped me. 

 

1. Stay off/limiting social media. 

As much as it kills me to say, I have a Facebook problem. Many (most) of my friends have moved past this stage, but Facebook is still the website that I go to when I don't have anything else to do. Because of that, I find myself mindlessly scrolling through status after status - people's complaints, the products people are selling, photos of engagements and babies being born, etc. It's not all bad! But it is a LOT of input for one brain, especially when most of it is white noise. Reading about how the person who sat behind me in Algebra feels about the transgender ban in the military is not, in my opinion, a helpful way to process how I feel about it.

Twitter is another danger zone. This week, I found myself all spun up about John McCain's decision to vote "Yes" on the proposed healthcare legislation, only to find later that what he voted "Yes" to was to open the floor to debate the plan - not the plan itself (in fact, he voted "No" on the plan last night, so, ya know.). I am still unsupportive of this choice, but a series of fifteen angry tweets by my peers led me to believe that something more catastrophic had happened than had actually happened. This happens to me A LOT - allowing the opinions of others to work me up into a froth. Had I done my own research, I would've figured out what was really going on and saved myself the embarrassment of tweeting something dumb. 

2. Seek out credible news sources, and, even then, limit what you choose to read. 

If you've been following this blog for any length of time, you've probably heard me rave about theSkimm, which is a daily e-mail consolidating all the important sound bytes and news items of the day into a digestible, easy-to-read, ten-minute experience. 

But theSkimm is far from the only platform offering services like this: The New York Times has launched its own capsule daily news, as has NPR. Whatever news source you enjoy, it's likely that they'll start offering something similar. 

The reason this has been so effective for me is because I can't mentally and emotionally process a constant, day-long stream of opinions and updates about the world. Doing so makes me unproductive, depressed, and often keeps me from holding valuable perspective about what's going on vs. how big a deal it's being made into. Processing my information at once, every day, in the mornings, has made me able to retain more information and feel more confident, informed, and stable. I've stopped watching cable news completely and GOSH does that make a difference. 

3. Talk about it. 

Something about talking through tough issues with my peers or parents is helpful to me. I think being able to just verbally dump all my concerns on the people I love and then have them help me sort through it makes me feel like the walls aren't collapsing in on me. It's probably because I'm a verbal/written processor. I know that shocks you! 

Allowing other people into your head means you aren't alone in there. Holy hell, my head is a scary place sometimes. I bet yours is, too. Don't get trapped in there by yourself. Talk to your people. If your people are good ones, they'll help you make sense of it all. Things aren't as scary with a community around you. It's tribe mentality, and boy, does it work. 

4. Call your legislators. 

Oh, the instant joy that comes with hanging up after calling a legislator and leaving a voicemail for his or her aids to listen to later. Not impolite ones. Just normal, "Hey, this is how I feel, can ya let my boy/girl know?" sort of things. 

Y'all, people are passionate, but I'll tell you what does almost nothing: e-mails to your legislators. Facebook posts. Twitter rants. I'm not knocking these outlets on their own - often, you can get a lot of relief from either reading one or penning one of your own - but those things by themselves produce nothing but a momentary laugh, nod, or grimace from readers. It is so rare for a piece of writing to galvanize anyone to action without follow up of some sort. 

Calling your legislators and letting them know how you feel isn't just a way to blow off steam - it's actually part of our duty as citizens of this country. It digs way down to the bones of what makes America America. No march, no rant, no article, no 140 characters can do anything by itself. Keep calling, keep calling, keep calling. 

5. Remember that the 24-hour news cycle requires news. 

It wasn't so long ago that there were four channels and a hard stop to broadcasting every night that concluded with the national anthem. Since then, the monster of the 24-hour news cycle has been created. And it is HUNGRY. 

The mere fact of this neverending parade of news means that there has to be content to fill it, whether that content is meaningful or not. That might mean bringing so-and-so's ex-boyfriend's dog sitter on to offer her analysis of a situation, of bastardizing a truly tragic news story (like Charlie Gard), or reporting on content that no one is sure about yet for the sake of having something to put on TV. News media, it seems, cares less and less about credible sources and more and more about ratings. 

Fake News isn't just a thing that happens by clicking suspicious links your aunt posts on Facebook. I'd like to submit that Fake News can also mean stories about real events, but that those stories are inflamed and beaten to death to a degree that they mislead the public. It's just not responsible, and it's a product of the current need for news to be ALL THE TIME. 

 

So. Take a breath and step away from the computer if ya need to (I do). It's our job as consumers to CHOOSE what we listen to. I am terrible about having something "on" just for the sake of having noise in the background - I'm not even listening to it. Turn on some instrumental music. Sit in silence. If that's too much, flip on a white noise machine. But do SOMETHING to allow yourself a decompression every day, away from the noise of the world. Re-set. Otherwise, your brain might just become its own never ending newsfeed of anxiety-producing material that you just can't seem to get on top of. 

 

The Real Spirit of America

Growing up in the Decatur, Alabama, "patriotism" meant a bunch of loud, drunk folks at the annual Spirit of America Festival in jean cutoffs scream-singing "Proud to be an American" and crushing beers, hollering about how America was the best place, how everybody else was wrong and ignorant and backwards. 

Not the loveliest. 

No one in my family was military, and I never really felt the sense of American-ness that everyone else seemed to get. To me as a child, we were often a nation of arrogant, ungrateful, over-indulgent, culture-less hillbillies in one of the newest, yet most powerful, nations in the world. 

When I moved to York, Alabama (population 1,800), I inherited a classroom without any supplies. No chalkboard. No markers. No paper. Barely any textbooks. Mouse droppings on the floor and God-knows-what on the windows. I ended up eventually receiving a projector through the kindness of the people I knew. Before we received it, though, my personal laptop was all I had, and kids crowded around the computer as I lectured from an 8 x 14 screen on a kitchen stool in the front of my room. 

The reason I mention the projector is because I'll never forget the day it arrived. It was September 11, 2011, and I'd put together a tribute of videos, both informational and gut-wrenching, about the day to show to my students. This was a history course, after all, and they needed to know. What I wasn't anticipating is that my middle schoolers had very little idea what September 11th signified. The closest answer I heard was, "Wasn't that when somebody bombed a building?"

And so my job that day became different. Instead of reminding them in a mini-lesson about a day that none of us should allow ourselves to forget, I actually watched my students, all of whom were 2 and 3 in 2001, witness this event for the first time. 

I was in my own seventh grade history class when the planes hit the Towers. And, ten years later, I was teaching it to 95 seventh and eighth graders. I watched it happen on their faces. In their tears. I watched heads turn away and eyes shut, unable to take in what they were seeing. And then I listened to them ask what they could do to help. Students who, in many cases, weren't guaranteed a bed or a meal that night, were asking how they could help.

So they wrote letters to the family of a man whose last words they'd heard in one of our videos that day - a guy named Kevin Cosgrove who died in the South Tower. I remember sitting at my desk at the end of that day, sunlight streaming through the windows, desks empty, the quiet of a child-less classroom sweeping over me, overtaken by the depth of these precious words on paper written by my students - words of comfort, of thanks, of healing - to Kevin's wife and children. People they didn't know. 

It was then that I understood what the true spirit of America is. I felt like the Grinch. It broke my heart wide open. Turns out, it's not the "God Bless America and No One Else" philosophy that I mistook it for - people wore that and claimed it as patriotism, but that's not what it really means. Whatever turmoil, economic, political, or otherwise; whatever unrest, whatever trial, I am a deep believer in the triumph of the human spirit. And that's what patriotism is all about: a belief in the power of uniting and validating all the human spirits in this country.

Now, watching fireworks on the Fourth always makes me cry. I get it now. I am humbled to tears by the weight of the sacrifice it took to start this scrappy country; of the people who work hard every day to protect us; of the hearts of those who still don't feel protected. I love the chest-filling pride that comes with believing in us.  I believe in us because of my kids. I believe there is a potential for greatness in America that's realized every day when a person does someone else a kindness. I believe in the power of a country that asks "What if?" I also believe in the power of saying that what we're doing isn't good enough. And I think that today, more so than most days, is one to think about where we are as individuals in the fabric of a country with so much potential. How we can say, "No," to the policies and ideas that are hurtful to our brothers and sisters. How we can throw our arms around the things that frighten us about each other. How we as a country are more than one man, or one set of legislators - the fabric, the messy, often not-so-pretty guts of the United States - that's us. It's on us. It's in us. For better or for worse. For liberty and justice.

And, maybe most importantly, for all.