The lack of knowledge regarding the primary cause of the epidemics of disease in the previous centuries – that is, malnutrition and exhaustion leading to weak health – can be attributed to the medical establishment’s general emphasis on the symptoms, rather than the causes, of illness. This emphasis is not a feature solely of modern medicine or even of mainstream medicine. Throughout history, both mainstream doctors and alternative health practitioners have sought to provide us with “quick fixes” and convenient solutions to the symptoms of problems initially caused by poor diet and lifestyle, rather than recommending a diet and lifestyle that would help prevent such problems in the first place.
The first flaw in this approach is that the medical interventions intended to eliminate our symptoms invariably have significant side effects of their own, which then require further interventions with additional side effects. A second flaw is that in situations where such interventions are not available, if we have not been taught how to take care of our health, we are entirely at the mercy of disease.
We can think of suffering a severe reaction to an infectious disease as a “symptom” of being in poor health in the first place. However, the medical establishment, by minimizing the role played by a healthy immune system, implies that we are all equally defenseless against pathogens. The consequences of this approach are the ever-increasing vaccine schedule and also our society’s “germophobia.” In fairness, in recent decades, acknowledgement of the importance of diet and lifestyle on healthy immune function, and of the abilities of the immune system itself, has increased. But when flu season strikes, the message we hear is primarily to get vaccinated and to minimize the spreading of germs. Just as is frequently the case with diet, we try to eliminate what’s bad but we don’t try to replace it with what’s good.
In taking the vaccinate-and-sanitize approach to fighting disease, rather than an approach that promotes health, we may simply have shifted the battleground. Part 3 already discussed the real and potential debilitating side effects of the vaccines we administer to our children and ourselves. As for sanitization, while it can eliminate potentially harmful germs from the environment, it often does so by means of toxic chemicals. And lack of exposure to germs is likely to result in oversensitive immune systems that will react negatively to pollen and commonly eaten foods.
In accordance with the second flaw of the symptom-focused approach, children are left vulnerable in instances where vaccines do not succeed in providing immunity, where they are unavailable, or where they have not been invented. And when unhealthy children enter germ-laden environments, as is inevitable given that they spend more time in the doctor’s office or hospital, they are at serious risk. Consider that in the United States an estimated 80,000 individuals per year die from infections received while in hospitals, most frequently due to catheters, which is not unsurprising given that hospital workers only wash their hands about 70% of the time. While our general environment, and our hospitals as well, are far more hygienic now than they were 150 years ago, and we are generally better nourished as well, we still have a long way to go.
As a short-term strategy, vaccinate-and-sanitize saves lives. But like most approaches that only seek to address the symptoms, not the causes of our health problems, it inevitably results in new, mysterious health problems. At best, focusing on vaccines largely maintains the status quo. The Bill & Melinda Gates foundation is an excellent example. The world’s largest private foundation, it possesses an endowment of $33 billion, and devotes a significant portion of its resources to improving global health. Vaccination and medication programs in third-world countries are the primary beneficiaries of these resources. However, after decades of giving, vaccine-preventable and other diseases still persist in these countries, and the individuals receiving vaccines and medications often lack basic needs such as nutrition, clean water, and transportation. If they can even access the medications, they may not have enough food to digest them. The wealth of the foundation is ultimately directed to the already wealthy pharmaceutical countries, while the residents of third world countries remain malnourished and impoverished.
In the long run, symptom-focused strategies tend to benefit more those who promote them than those who are subject to them.
A better way to handle the threat of infectious disease would be to create the conditions for healthy, strong immune systems in children. As discussed in Part 4, these conditions include eating a diet based on whole foods (and breast milk in the case of infants); drinking clean water as the primary beverage; getting enough rest and enough exercise; and reducing stress. Like a muscle, the immune system must also be exercised in order to be strong. Natural “vaccination,” or technically, immunization, can occur when we are exposed from a young age to a wide variety of microbes in raw and fermented foods, in breast milk, even in dirt. It is a process not too different from that by which Benjamin Jesty’s dairy workers were naturally protected from smallpox. In fact, a healthy child’s natural exposure to more mild infectious diseases, such as chickenpox, may be beneficial for healthy immune development. A well-nourished child with a well-exercised immune system is strongly equipped to handle the pathogens he or she is likely to encounter, and is likely to be one of the vast majority of children who do not suffer severe reactions to more serious diseases such as measles, or even polio or diphtheria. A child who, in contrast, is raised on a diet of largely processed food, with little exposure to beneficial bacteria, has a sedentary lifestyle, and suffers from frequent colds and ear infections which are treated with antibiotics instead of fought by the immune system, is more likely to have a severe reaction to a strong pathogen and, in the absence of a change in diet and lifestyle, would probably benefit from the protection of most vaccines, despite their potential side effects.
Unfortunately, the well-nourished child is far more rarely seen in our society than his or her conventionally-nourished counterpart. The medical establishment has, for the most part, chosen neither to study nor promote practices that make us more healthy and consequently less dependent upon vaccines, medications, supplements, sanitizers, and surgery. Most doctors acknowledge that whole foods are better than processed foods, breast milk superior to infant formula, and some exercise better than none. Some may even recommend playing in the dirt over sitting inside all day. But junk foods continue to infiltrate our schools just as recess programs disappear from them. Infant formula is pushed on women whose babies are not growing at rates arbitrarily determined to be acceptable. Many people consider it inconvenient to try and be healthy or to allow the immune system to fight disease, which is the primary reason why a chickenpox vaccine, for example, was invented. As long as our attitude towards health is symptom-focused, and values short-term convenience over long-term wellness, our health will remain vulnerable and our need for medical interventions will grow.
In the late 19th century, during the worst epidemics of disease, the author and social theorist Leo Tolstoy wrote, in an essay entitled Modern Science: “The defenders of present-day science seem to think that the curing of one child from diphtheria, among those Russian children of whom 50% (and even 80% in the Foundling Hospitals) die as a regular thing apart from diphtheria must convince anyone of the beneficence of science in general…our life is so arranged that from bad food, excessive and harmful work, bad dwellings and clothes, or from want, not children only, but a majority of people, die before they have lived half the years that should be theirs…And, in proof of the fruitfulness of science, we are told that it cures one in a thousand of the sick, who are sick only because science has neglected its proper business.” According to Tolstoy, though science was an incredibly valuable tool, when misdirected it did not benefit humanity. To be beneficial to us, medical science must be guided by wisdom and foresight, rather than shortsightedness, and should possess a healthy respect for and inquisitiveness into the capacities of the healthy human body.
The ultimate question of whether and how to vaccinate your child is a difficult one, and the answer is not the same for everyone. There is no utterly risk-free approach to take; even the healthiest person can still succumb to a powerful pathogen, as can the most thoroughly vaccinated person. Your decision must involve an awareness of your child’s likely susceptibility to each disease against which we vaccinate, and a calculation of the benefits of the vaccine against the risks of its possible side effects. Regardless of your decision, however, the best thing you can do for your children is to make the necessary changes in your diet and lifestyle for the promotion of health. For further reading on the risks and benefits of vaccines as well as strategies for strengthening the immune system, I suggest you consult one or more of the books listed below.
Vaccinations: A Thoughtful Parent’s Guide by Aviva Jill Romm (2001). Discusses vaccines from a historical perspective and contains natural and herbal remedies for common childhood diseases as well as recommendations for building immunity naturally. Romm is a certified professional midwife, a practicing herbalist, and a physician.
What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Children’s Vaccinations by Stephanie Cave, M.D. (2001). Explores the possible relationships between vaccines and autoimmune diseases/developmental disorders, and contains an overview of vaccines and the legal issues related to them, as well as an alternative vaccine schedule.
The Vaccine Book by Robert Sears, M.D. (2007). Contains a detailed guide to the current vaccine schedule, including a discussion of the severity and rarity of each disease and the ingredients and side effects of each vaccine. Also contains an alternative vaccine schedule.
The Vaccine Guide by Randall Neustaedter, O.M.D. (1996, 2002). Provides an extensive and technical overview of research on the safety of vaccines and the results of that research.
How to Raise a Healthy Child in Spite of Your Doctor by Robert Mendelsohn, M.D. (1984). Covers the most common childhood ailments and the appropriate treatments for them. Also contains a section on diseases commonly vaccinated against, their severity, and the effectiveness of the vaccines.