The Great Vaccine Debate: Who’s waging war?

According to an article in the Detroit Free Press today, the chicken pox has been confirmed in children at three Birmingham schools, and as such, “unvaccinated students may not be allowed back in three schools until April 14” [1].

Is it appropriate to deny public education to students who have legally foregone vaccinations for the chicken pox?

What purpose does it serve to force unvaccinated children to stay home from school?

Is it to protect the unvaccinated children?

Is it to prevent the transmission of chicken pox? The premise behind herd immunity is that a vaccinated majority (of a population) is sufficient to interrupt the transmission path of the virus, thereby protecting those who aren’t vaccinated. Most kids are vaccinated. So what’s the worry?

Perhaps unvaccinated individuals are more likely to become affected by varicella after exposure than a vaccinated individual. (Though it’s important to consider that there’s a lot more to immunity than antibodies, such as a robust immune system.) But how are unvaccinated children perceived as a threat when:

  1. Vaccinated individuals are, well… vaccinated,
  2. Unvaccinated children don’t inherently possess the chicken pox, and
  3. A person (vaccinated or not) who is exposed to a virus might be able to transmit it even if they are unaffected by the virus (it’s called being an asymptomatic carrier) [4]?

From where did the affected students acquire chicken pox (varicella); what was the source? Was it the wild virus? Was it from a student who was recently vaccinated who might have shed the virus? Shedding means that a virus successfully reproduces and can subsequently be transmitted; it can happen with the chicken pox (after natural exposure or vaccination) [2].

Perhaps it makes more sense to force all children recently vaccinated for varicella (the chicken pox virus) to stay home, given that the package insert for the vaccine (manufactured by Merck) specifically states that “transmission of vaccine virus may occur rarely between healthy vaccinees who develop a varicella-like rash and healthy susceptible contacts” [3]. It goes on to suggest that it is advisable for vaccine recipients to avoid contact with immunocompromised individuals, pregnant women without a history of varicella and newborns for six weeks following the vaccine [3]. Of course even those who are not immunocompromised can acquire a virus that’s been shed.

The Free Press article states “But Oakland County health officials advised the school to step up the restrictions, requiring – rather than recommending – that parents keep children at home if they do not have immunity to chicken pox either through a vaccination or a prior infection” [1].

Is it too much to expect that the Oakland County Health Department demonstrate comprehensive knowledge of the diseases for which they play a role in attempting to manage? Is it too much to expect the health department, which is funded by the Oakland County tax payers, to participate in unbiased discourse rather than igniting unfounded fears and conflicts between citizens? If this type of blunder were made by an auto executive the media would have a field day and said executive would likely be fired.

A more serious question remains: Who is waging this war on children who haven’t been vaccinated (LEGALLY), and when is it going to stop?

I have a sneaking suspicion that if one follows the money trail, the answer will reveal itself.

  1. Erb, R., 3 Birmingham schools ban kids without chicken pox shots, Detroit Free Press, March 27, 2015.
  2. Galea, S. A., et al., The Safety Profile of Varicella Vaccine: A 10-Year Review, J Infect Dis. (2008) 197 (Supplement 2): S165-S169.
  3. Varivax (varicella) [package insert]. Whitehouse Station, NJ; Merck; 2013.
  4. Fisher, B. L.,The Emerging Risks of Live Virus and Virus Vectored Vaccines: Vaccine Strain Virus Infection, Shedding & Transmission, National Vaccine Information Center, 2014.

The Great Vaccine Debate: Opening thoughts

In the case of any debate, if we come to the table with the presumption that we can make another see things from our view, we lose. Sure, one can win over another who has nothing to stand on, but where is the merit in that? And what does it even mean to win? We cannot impart changes in the philosophical underpinnings of any given human being by force, nor is it for any one of us to decide upon values for another.

One of my favorite quotes from The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is: “Racing is about discipline and intelligence, not about who has the heavier foot.” I think any meaningful discourse requires discipline and intelligence. Inflammatory language and petty attempts to dispel the mess of subjectivity by employing black-and-white so-called logic is nothing more than a heavy foot.

(I believe in logic, but it has to be applied comprehensively. It’s easy to construct an argument from one specific viewpoint and impose constraints and then draw a logical conclusion. But the construct and viewpoints themselves might be flawed, incomplete, more complex than binary, etc. And it’s perfectly necessary and fine to made assumptions, but one should be willing to address the limitations when doing so.)

Discipline and intelligence seem to be missing from much of what I read in the media, particularly on the topic of vaccines. Instead, I observe knee-jerk reactions in the race to broadcast news first, and sensationalized jabs and prose to attract drama-addicted readers. Headlines of Top Ten lists and 500-1000 word write-ups are insufficient when it comes to a topic as complex as vaccines.

When it comes to the contention associated with vaccinating or not and everything in between in this country, the level of vitriol spouted from either side (where the two sides are pro-vax and anti-vax) is… polarizing and unconstructive to say the least.

So much is lost in the vortex of noise and bashing. I perceive important philosophical, ethical and functional topics precipitating out of the Great Vaccine Debate, but find it difficult to engage in meaningful discussion. I’m more likely to find walls or definitive stances. Constructive discourse is amiss.

The most recent example happened today when I saw our pediatrician for the removal of sutures from my two-year-old’s head. She asked if he was up to date on tetanus (for the record, my son fell inside of my house and hit his face on a wooden mail holder that was secured to the wall—not sure why tetanus is a concern), and I explained that he’s not. I asserted that I want my children to be vaccinated for tetanus, but it’s not available on its own. (Tetanus is delivered as a part of Dtap or Tdap, which are combination vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.) Of course I got the look, so I went on to explain that my other son reacted badly to Dtap, and hence I’m not comfortable administering that particular vaccine to my family. The pediatrician commented that it’s really important to have the pertussis vaccine since the outbreak a few years ago, and that while an adult might just get a bad cough, “babies can die.”

I’ll come back to Dtap, explanations and statistics another time, but for now let’s just focus on my son’s pediatrician’s response. Telling me that babies can die (when none of my children are babies anymore) is a rather loaded and silencing thing to say. Here’s how I interpreted it: end of discussion. Heavy foot applied.

Why? If it’s so imperative that these vaccines be administered, why can’t there be a discussion? Why can’t the pediatrician want to know my thoughts and concerns, and try to talk through them with me? I suppose a model of business where the doctor gets approximately six minutes with each patient isn’t particularly conducive to any meaningful discourse. Or maybe she doesn’t like that I’d like to use my brain when making decisions about what happens to my child. I have no way of actually knowing why she wouldn’t discuss it with me because, well, she didn’t and never explained why.

But back to vaccines. I don’t think the issue can be reduced to two sides. There are many shades of gray when it comes to the reasons one might question the merit of a particular vaccine or the safety of it. Grouping all vaccines together when discussing their relevance, safety, etc. is… problematic.

Instead of trying to defend my position (which, by the way, is perfectly dynamic) or diminish those of others, I’m going to simply share my questions and thoughts through a series of blog posts.

Why, if the science is so factual and black-and-white, is there anything to argue about at all when it comes to vaccines?

For one, there is a major philosophical conundrum at large. Two, the Internet and digital publishing era has enabled individuals to take more interest than ever in understanding what’s going on in the world, with themselves, their children, etc. This is both empowering and dangerous. Googling how to perform heart surgery and then cutting someone open isn’t advisable. But reading and studying scientific literature over the course of several years can lead a layman to a fair, high-level understanding of any topic. Frankly I see a parallel between being able to consume information and develop one’s own opinion rather than relying on the opinion of a physician or government official and literacy enabling individuals to read the Bible instead of relying on priests and pastors to read it to them. Three, maybe the science IS black-and-white, but the presentation and consumption of it is not. Four, the dissonance might have more to do with what the objectives are and how the questions are being asked rather than vaccinating or not or anything in between.

Typical acts of malice (blog transplant)

I call this a blog transplant because I posted it years ago on a former blog of mine; it’s from July 12, 2011. While the story itself is old news, the messages laced throughout are still relevant and applicable broadly.

I recently read a blog by Kai Nagata, former journalist for Quebec’s city bureau. (I saw a re-tweet by Pamela Slim). I found his blog, “Why I quit my job,” to be refreshing, and filled with admirable conviction, laced with (presumed, on my part) brutal honesty about an industry (mainstream television news outlets) that he once respected, and can no longer thrive in/with.

This morning I discovered a tweet by Sandra Thomas, promoting her blog retort (in the Vancouver Courier), “Why I didn’t quit my job.” I wasn’t surprised to find her blog filled with bland yet abrasive remarks regarding Kai’s blog. She essentially sees him as being egotistical and idealistic; claiming to have dismissed his article once she noted his age (24 years old), but read on, ultimately, with no justification for her change of heart. I think it’s odd that she wrote,

It was after I got to the part about him being 24 years old that I tuned out, but later forced myself to finish all nine pages I printed off prior to writing this column.”

Why would one point out that they read an article prior to writing a column about it. Should that not be implicit?

I have to counter, or at least bring to question, some of Sandra’s comments.

The first is her inclination to defend her role as a journalist, based on one journalist leaving his industry. Why does she have to make this about her? Why did she feel inclined to pronounce her defense? Is she simply piggy-backing on the viral nature of kai’s blog, to gain followers or notoriety?

Secondly, it’s prosaic for one to squash the motivation/conviction/actions of another with their jaded delusion about why they are important or valid in their activity. Simply put, Sandra and Kai are driven by different motives. Kai demonstrated integrity in conveying his sentiment about leaving an enviable (in his industry) position. It seems that the environment he experienced at his job was oppressing, and left him feeling conflicted morally/ethically (that is my interpretation of his blog). He’s young and hungry and seemingly wants to do something that he can feel is a real contribution to “good” or to “improving” something. Is it really so outrageous to think that someone might have the unadulterated conviction to simply act on one’s deeply-rooted feelings/beliefs? Why must sandra minimize that? From my perspective, it is people like Sandra who poison the minds of the motivated youth to accept the status quo: mediocrity (at best).

Regarding Kai’s comment about his performance during his role as chief at Quebec’s city bureau,

“But I would say, humbly, that I didn’t just meet expectations – I excelled. In everything I was asked to do, I performed consistently at a level above my experience,”

Sandra retorted,

“To that I say, good for you. And good on your parents for raising a son with such a healthy ego.”

I have to interpret her comment as being snide. What is egotistical about acknowledging one’s strength’s? Why is it such a problem, in our society, to NOT hate oneself, or to have confidence, or to own what one is good at?

She provided a “fewer than 3000” word retort of why she didn’t quit her job,

“On a personal level I’m not 24, I have bills, responsibilities and a love of this community I can only afford to live in because of my paycheque. Speaking of community, I feel an even deeper sense of responsibility to readers who call, email and take the time to write letters, asking for help in everything from an injustice they’ve suffered to raising awareness about health issues, to fundraising for non-profits to proposed developments. I didn’t quit my job because every day I’m inspired by my co-workers who do the same and who work hard to tell the stories that make up this city, despite the fact we all work for corporate media.

I also didn’t quit my job because as a journalist I have an obligation to find and tell the truth no matter how much pressure there is, no matter how much people would rather read about Will and Kate, no matter the nasty letters to the editor and no matter what frustrations we face in a small newsroom with few resources.

Finally, I didn’t quit my job because as a journalist I refuse to give up, pack up my truck and drive away into the sunset.”

Here is my brief assessment of her “reasons” for working (which, for the record, no one asked her to defend):

  1. I must presume that Sandra is older than 24 – how much older? I have no idea, nor do I care. It’s outright ignorance that compels one to dispel the beliefs/actions of another, simply based on their age (and in this case, presumably younger age).
  2. She reduces her employment as a means to an end (needing to pay bills), and then offers that she is committed to her community and is inspired by her colleagues. I do not think that survival, loyalty and camaraderie need to be mutually exclusive, but I think it fair to note which she broadcast first.
  3. She portrays the image that she is a person of integrity, in that she is committed to reporting the truth regardless of political pressures to do otherwise. I hope she means this, and I can respect her if she does.
  4. I can also appreciate, prima facie, her conviction to not give up – perhaps she feels as though she’s fighting the good fight – a diamond in the rough or something. She extends that comment to say that she won’t run off into the sunset, which again, minimizes Kai’s actions, as though leaving an industry equals taking a permanent vacation – as though being in that industry, fighting the currents of monetarily driven compromises and sell-outs is more heroic than standing for something. in fairness, since I don’t know anything about Sandra, I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt and offer that perhaps both Sandra and Kai are fighting the same fight, but have chosen different weapons/tactics. Or, my more thoughtful assertion, perhaps Sandra is simply comfortable in her post, can’t imagine taking a risk such as the one Kai did, and is chastising his actions out of cowardice and malice.

To Sandra, I offer this … perhaps the adversary you are willing to fight is one Kai has deemed inept and simply, not worth fighting. I leave you with a quote from Atlas Shrugged; page 52, narrator speaking of Dagny Taggart:

“The adversary she found herself forced to fight was not worth matching or beating; it was not a superior ability which she would have found honor in challenging; it was ineptitude – a gray spread of cotton that seemed soft and shapeless, that could offer no resistance to anything or anybody, yet managed to be a barrier in her way. She stood, disarmed, before the riddle of what made this possible. She could find no answer.”

And to “Dagny Taggart” – what makes this possible is people who believe that one has no choice. People who believe that accepting the status quo is expected or obligatory. It’s the people like Kai who offer to dissolve the thin spread of cotton, and all that sustains it.

Be the change

The power always has and still does lie with the people.

Inaction IS an action.

Voting isn’t our only power. Our power is in what we do, or don’t, every single day.

Every minute that we spend complaining is a minute we are not doing. Every moment we spend wondering why someone else doesn’t do X is a moment we’re not doing it either.

Do you perpetuate noise?

Noise and voting

Or do you inspire/lead change?

Doing and change

At least one philosophical difference between the two extremes is likely the manner in which one values oneself and others. Those who see themselves as less important than those in positions of authority might think their view or their ideas don’t matter. Surely the “others” are smarter than they; surely there’s a reason why their thoughts haven’t been put to action already by those with big titles.

The person who values oneself at least as equally as others knows that their very existence, all the things they do and don’t do, say or don’t, impacts the world around them, in ways small or big.

Which are you?