21 October 2007


Immunity and treatment, and coffins for children

It will soon be flu vaccine season again. Most parents in Canada have their kids vaccinated not only against flu, but also against a variety of other diseases. That's what governments and school boards and medical bodies recommend, and I agree with them—my wife and I have our kids immunized. As someone with diabetes and now cancer, I also get a flu shot every year, and have received vaccines against viral pneumonia and other pathogens.

I've written before about that, and about how links between MMR vaccines and autism don't seem supported by the evidence. There are other worries, but I think the common panel of immunizations has more benefits than risks. Measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and other diseases are nasty. Some of them often crippled and killed people.

Dr. Tara Smith has a good blog post on vaccines and other treatments not only for historically prevalent viral diseases, but also newer ones like AIDS. "People simply don't remember the havoc vaccine-preventable diseases used to wreak," she writes, "[which is] an attitude that leads to apathy. [T]he best public health is invisible—preventing disease rather than responding to outbreaks, so it's difficult for the average individual to realize how important it is until it's broken."

She's talking about AIDS (even though it has no vaccine yet), which here in the West has gone from death sentence to controllable condition in only a quarter century. In much of the rest of the world, it is still an unimaginable scourge, even while child mortality from other causes declines. First here in the industrialized world, and how slowly elsewhere, hygiene, better diets, and modern medicine have ameliorated conditions that routinely killed children and adults for almost the entire multi-million year history of our species.

One of the biggest changes in the past century is that parents can now reasonably expect to see all their children reach adulthood. Let me repeat: that wasn't true before. Routine childhood deaths were something Florence Nightingale, Charles Dickens, King Kamehameha, Isaac Newton, Queen Elizabeth I, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Acamapichtli of the Aztecs, William the Conqueror, Cleopatra, Julus Caesar, the Buddha, the Kings of Nubia, and Lucy the australopithecus shared with one another—and we do not. Here's an example.

In the early days of photography, people had to hold still for minutes at a time for portraits, like mannequins. (No wonder there were so few smiles. Or maybe that was the dental care.) Anyway, young children, as today, didn't tend to sit still, so those kids who did appear in family photos were frequently dead ones. It was the only way to get photos of them. And there was no shortage. They died, for the most part, from bacterial diseases treated today with antibiotics, viral infections now prevented by vaccines, and infections now controlled by better hygiene, nutrition, and general health.

Yes, we may be subjecting our kids to environmental toxins and other mysterious things that cause rising rates of asthma and allergies, and other conditions that are either more common to our more artificial world, or that were previously masked by all the sickness and death we now avoid. Yes, infant cold medicines probably don't work. But let's not forget that children simply are not sickened, maimed, and killed at anything remotely resembling the rates they used to be, in ways our parents and grandparents still remember.

And yes, there are newer vaccines like Gardasil for which the preventative benefits are still being established (heavy advertising by manufacturer Merck does promote caution in my mind). Less drastically, while chickenpox is rarely fatal, being immunized against it can also prevent the appearance of the much nastier condition shingles later in life. It is the same virus, re-emerging from decades of dormancy in the body.

Perhaps we need to improve the way and timing with which we administer treatments to our kids and ourselves, to get more benefit and reduce what risks they are. My wife and I are still going to get our shots this year (unless my oncologist recommends against it for me), and so are my daughters. Be smart and cautious with the treatments you give your own family.

But don't avoid modern medical preventions and treatments altogether. We cannot write off the biggest gift that science has given us over the last hundred years: making it an ever-shrinking, niche industry to build coffins for children.

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Yes, children stopped dying in industrial countries. I don't think they die more in France than in Canada (that is, some do, but it is very rare, and therefore awfull - mostly from sudden death as infants and accidents after that).

But it is always weird to see that we have totally different vaccines.

For instance, here, nobody I heard of ever vaccinated children against flu. It is for elderly people - they talk about extending it to people over 50 now, but few people do it. Maybe the people who work in hospitals do.

And every single child I now got chickenpox, including mine. I only recently discovered that there actually was a vaccine against that. It sounded kind of funny to me.

But we all get a vaccine against tuberculosis, and it is compulsory (you cannot go to nursery school or school without it), and seamingly nobody gets it in Northern America. When I asked why to my pediatrician, she answered : "I think it is because the vaccine patent is French".

And between the birth of Olivier (now 16) and Sibylle (now 11), in the syringe, they switched from "3 in 1" to "5 in 1". Which does seem quite a lot. So we decided that 3 seemed enough. Maybe the newborns now get 6 or 7 different vaccines in the same syringe...

Now, we keep checking on vaccines, and having the children shot every five years. Still, we do hope that this will not lead to them forgetting to carry on as careless young adults and then gettting the measles in their thirties... which is much much worse thant in childhood !
thanks for your post. i couldn't agree more. though i myself have a healthy skepticism where marketing and medicine meet, i believe vaccines are an important thing and am going to get - as a (now!) 41 year old woman - the HPV vaccine next month. though i would do quite a bit of (non-wikipedia) research prior to having a child of mine (i only have one furry child, and i've already taken care of the procreation issues for her) - because the vaccine itself is NEW - i WOULD want to investigate that for any young woman in my life.

i got my flu shot last week. :(

I used to believe in the flu shot, despite its debatable effectiveness. Then, the day after having the shot administered to our then toddler daughters, we learned that the vaccine contains mercury as a preservative. Andrea and I decided that the ounce of prevention wasn't were the introduction of a heavy metal to a little body, particularly since it accumulates and cannot be removed.
I don't know how I did this one...

I meant to say that the "ounce of prevention wasn't *WORTH* the introduction of a heavy metal to a little body".
Having breathed 'free mercury vapour' almost daily for the past 43 years I would ask Mark and others not to worry too much about the mercury in vaccines.It is present in all tuna fish and tinned mushrooms in larger quantities .I do agree about its cumulative effect but so far so good for all my peers in the dental profession...not a mad hatter amongst us.
In Canada, the flu shot is apparently the only common vaccine that still contains thimerosal (the mercury compound). It looks like that will soon be replaced too, so in a few years there will probably be a mercury-free flu vaccine that you're comfortable with.
I do find it strangely ironic that through modern medicine we have managed to extend our lives to decades more than we could expect were we still living "in the wild". Yet now we surround and fill our bodies with deadly substances, like mercury, at unprecedented levels, and we have to deal with the repercussions of that - much of which we don't even know yet. What will we think of GMOs in 50 years?

It's like we've traded that history of early deaths (but healthy, non-toxic food) for lifetimes of chronic conditions (but longer lives). I prefer what we've got, but sometimes I think about how much better food must have tasted in the old days... but who knows if I would have lived long enough to enjoy it.