Vaccination, an Overview, Part 5: Two Approaches to Vaccination

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.

 

Vaccination, an Overview, Part 4 Building Immunity

As discussed in Part 1, vaccines are designed to stimulate the immune system. In fact, their effectiveness really comes from triggering the body’s own natural processes of adaptive immunity. The underlying assumption of vaccination is that the immune system is inherently not likely to be strong enough to handle a disease when it encounters it in nature, which is why we need vaccines to safely and artificially engineer the encounter with disease. This assumption, which has its origin in the aforementioned germ theory of disease, is perhaps an understandable one. In the late 19th century, scientists had observed epidemic after epidemic of infectious disease resulting in millions of casualties. It was reasonable in them to consider that the pathogens they had discovered were indiscriminately deadly. However, one scientist of the era, a French biologist named Antoine Bechamp, had a different proposition for why people were succumbing to infectious disease at great rates: he pinned it on their weak health.

Bechamp, a contemporary of and influence upon Pasteur, would have agreed with Pasteur’s arguments that methods of sanitization (such as hand-washing and pasteurization) would prevent the spread of disease by eliminating pathogens from the local environment. However, Bechamp’s theory was that most people who suffered from infectious disease did so because their own bodies were, in a sense, “unsanitized,” but on a cellular level. According to Bechamp, when we are in a diminished state of health, our cells and tissues form a breeding ground for microorganisms (or microzymas as he called them) that are largely already present in our bodies, but which do not take on a harmful form or reach harmful levels without the supportive environment provided by an sick individual.  Bechamp’s theory formed a contrast to an interpretation of the germ theory that identified external pathogens as being the sole and direct cause of infectious disease, regardless of the prior health of the diseased person.

Meanwhile, Robert Koch, a contemporary of Bechamp and Pasteur, had formulated four postulates meant to establish a causal relationship between a unique pathogen and a unique disease. The postulates specified the following: (1) the pathogen should be in all organisms suffering from the disease, but not in healthy individuals; (2) it must be possible to isolate the pathogen and grow it in a pure culture; (3) it must cause the disease when introduced into a healthy organism; and (4) it must then be possible to re-isolate it from the inoculated organism and found identical to the original. Koch later had to change the first postulate after finding cases of healthy, asymptomatic organisms carrying the bacteria that cause cholera and typhoid fever, respectively. He also had to change the third postulate after finding that not all organisms exposed to a pathogen will display symptoms of infection.

Koch’s findings indicated that both Bechamp’s and Pasteur’s theories had some merit. Pasteur’s disease-centered approach, which relied on sterilization, pasteurization, quarantine, and sanitation, was focused on preventing the spread of disease by eliminating the pathogen from the external environment. Bechamp’s health-centered approached was based on making the individual stronger and healthier, and thereby better able to prevent pathogens from gaining a foothold within the environment of the human body. Although the specific mechanism of Bechamp’s theory – that of microzymas arising from our own tissues to form pathogens – has never been proven, scientists have since discovered that our health plays a tremendous role in the effective functioning of our immune systems, and consequently affects how easily we succumb to infections.

The human immune system is a conglomerate of many different body parts and processes. The skin, liver, kidneys, respiratory tract, intestinal flora and more all play a role in destroying pathogens by means of inflammation, white blood cells, and antibacterial or antiviral chemicals and enzymes.  Those pathogens are discharged via the cleansing and flushing action of tears, urine, mucus and diarrhea. The cells that form the adaptive part of the immune system are able to retain memories of specific pathogens and thereby easily neutralize those pathogens with antibodies upon future encounters.

All systems, mechanical or biological, cannot work properly unless supplied with the proper fuel or raw materials.  A car cannot run without fuel, nor an ecosystem without water, oxygen, and sun.  Our immune system is no different; in order to function, it must be providedwith needed nutrients. Vitamin D, the antioxidant vitamins A, C, and E, Vitamin B6, folic acid, and the minerals zinc, copper, iron selenium have all been found to be vital for promoting the health of the immune system, as have the beneficial bacteria contained in raw fermented foods. Other nutrients contained in whole foods that are as yet unstudied or even undiscovered may be similarly essential. Where infants are concerned, breast milk provides, in addition to needed nutrients, a variety of immunologic factors such as immunoglobulins (antibodies), the enzymes lysozyme and lactoferrin, and lymphocytes (white blood cells). These ingredients promote not only the health but also the growth and strengthening of the infant immune system and protects against the routine infections that are much more commonly seen today in babies that are fed formula, which does not contain immunological factors. Along with nutrition, people need a certain amount of rest and sleep, as well as moderate exercise and clean water, in order to maintain healthy immune function. Stress, extreme conditions, exhaustion and dehydration all weaken the immune system, and they also weaken a nursing mother’s ability to provide nourishing milk.

The scientists who were formulating the germ theory of disease in the late 19th century were living during the tail-end of the Industrial Revolution, a period of enormous social, political and technological change. Economies in Europe and America had shifted from an emphasis on rural agriculture to one on urban industry.  In England in 1750, only 15% of people were living in urban areas, but by 1860, that number had risen to 80%.  Within the cities, the lower classes (both children and adults) had started working long hours in factories for little pay, often doing heavy labor in extreme conditions. As a consequence they were frequently exhausted and, as a result of their poverty, malnourished.  The upper classes, on the other hand, deliberately chose to eat newly available refined foods that were low in nutrients and high in calories, and many women did not get enough exercise or sunlight. They too were weak and sickly and prone to death in childbirth. In sum, the majority of people living during this era were in poor health, with low functioning immune systems, and thereby had reduced resistance to disease.

At the same time, the cities to which so many had relocated lacked the proper waste disposal systems for handling such large populations. Consequently, pathogens were able to contaminate the air, water, food and the streets.  Technology had developed in such a way as to ease the transmission of infectious disease without yet possessing a means to  prevent it. Doctors themselves were some of the worst transmitters. Yet unaware of the need to wash their hands (in many cases outright rejecting the idea), they easily spread fatal pathogens to the many patients, particularly mothers in childbirth, whom they treated in busy urban hospitals.  It is no surprise that infectious diseases ran rampant and that infant mortality was around 40% on average, with the highest rates occurring in the cities.

With the formulation of the germ theory of disease, sanitary practices such as Pasteur and the physician Ignaz Semmelweiss proposed were grudgingly accepted by physicians, with positive results. However, the theory ultimately focused much more on the danger of microbes than the ability of the healthy human body to resist them. As a result, scientists and government officials complemented sanitary practices by arguing the need for vaccines, rather than following Bechamp’s lead in promoting a healthy diet and lifestyle that would simply strengthen the immune system.

Fortunately, due to the explosion of nutrient deficiency diseases during the same period of time, vitamins were gradually discovered and added back into the processed foods from which they had recently been removed. This resulted in better nutrition, which, together with advances in sanitation technology, greatly improved overall health and hygiene in Europe and America following the turn of the century, though the conditions for epidemics were still occasionally created by destabilizing events such as World War 1 and the Great Depression. Smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, typhoid fever and other infectious diseases all began to decrease, whether vaccines had been developed for them or not. Endemic diseases like measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox persisted, but were far less likely than before to cause complications or fatalities.

The only disease to cause epidemics in the developed world into the mid-20th century was polio. Polio, like many of the epidemic diseases of the time, had been around for thousands of years without ever being responsible for major epidemics prior to the late 19thcentury. Since 90% of polio infections cause no symptoms at all, deaths and paralysis from polio were rare. All that changed with the onset of the industrial revolution and the weakened health of the population; suddenly, polio could spread easily, and it met with little resistance in its victims. As sanitation began to improve, fewer people were exposed to the polio virus as young children, when they are least likely to suffer harm from it, and when they can acquire long-term immunity. But while the number of people exposed to polio was lessened, the number of those who died or suffered paralysis increased, since those who did not develop immunity as children encountered it as teenagers or adults, when the disease is more severe.

Additional factors in the severity of the polio epidemic were the rising fads of formula feeding and the tonsillectomy procedure. By 1950 over half of all babies were being fed infant formula (lacking polio antibodies, naturally), which was being promoted as better than breast milk by now-discredited scientific studies. It was around this time as well that performing tonsillectomies became a fad among surgeons and doctors, and in the 1930s and 1940s between 1.5 and 2 million tonsillectomies were being performed each year. The tonsils are glands that aid the immune system by blocking pathogens; when they were inflamed, it was a sign they were hard at work. These tissues formed the first line of defense against ingested or inhaled pathogens, such as polio.  Since polio was not as stymied by better sanitation as other diseases, it was able take advantage of the weakened immune systems of older children and adults. Still, polio, like most other infectious diseases, continued its downward trend of incidence prior to the introduction of its vaccine.

As the historical evidence indicates, vaccines simply speeded an already-occurring disappearance of infectious diseases in developed countries. Without advances in nutrition to ensure basic immune system function, and sanitation to prevent the spread of pathogens, infectious disease would probably have persisted despite vaccination.  Tuberculosis is a good example. During parts of the 19th century it was responsible for one quarter of all deaths in Europe. It no longer troubles the developed world, despite the fact that we never effectively vaccinated against it in America or Europe.  However, it still causes between 1.5 and 2 million deaths per year in impoverished countries whose citizens have poor health and sanitation, despite widespread vaccination in such countries.

In conclusion, while vaccines do possess varying degrees of effectiveness, and can help to reduce the incidence of disease, they are not our most important form of protection against disease.   As Bechamp theorized, the explosion of infectious disease in the 19thcentury was really due to a relatively brief, but steep, reduction in general health, which, when paired with unsanitary living conditions, made epidemics inevitable. Our strategy for acquiring better immunity to all diseases, or providing the conditions for such immunity to our children, should primarily be to maintain good nutrition and health through breastfeeding, consumption of natural whole foods, clean water, regular rest, regular exercise, and reduction of stress.

 

In next week’s article, entitled “Two Approaches to Vaccination,” I’ll discuss the underlying worldview behind the modern-day vaccine schedule and contrast it with a more holistic approach to public health.