Back when I was studying German in college, I spent a summer working as a waitress in southern Germany. Hooked up via a college work exchange program, I worked in a government-run resort in the Black Forest for families whose children had recently overcome cancer. The children regularly visited with in-house medical staff who helped them with swimming exercises and other forms of physical rehabilitation. For a nominal fee, German families could stay at the resort for a month, enjoying family activities like horseback riding, hiking, and puppet shows.
The theory behind these kinds of resorts is that a family should be able to relax and recuperate together after experiencing the kind of tremendous stress brought about by having a child stricken with life-threatening illnesses like cancer. Because this is how the Europeans roll. By working at one of these facilities, I had a firsthand opportunity to witness the benefits of socialized medicine, which is, of course, vastly different from the alarmist visions of third-rate care in primitive facilities that keep Americans from wholeheartedly jumping on the universal healthcare bandwagon. On the contrary, I witnessed many loving families, grateful for the opportunity to spend time with their sweet, recuperating children in a storybook environment. Many of the children were still bald from chemotherapy treatments, but were happily playing with other bald children who were simply happy to be alive. I will never forget being surrounded one afternoon by a group of bald little girls, aged maybe from three to seven years, who were picking flowers and stuffing them into my hair and dress while singing the German alphabet and other childhood songs.
One day, while working in the kitchen, I started experiencing sudden stomach pain in waves. It could have been anything, but after an hour or so in which the pain hadn’t subsided, the manager sent me downstairs to be examined by a German doctor, who saw me immediately, for no cost, and prescribed a couple of medications, also at no cost (because that’s how the Europeans roll). One was a type of anti-spasmodic, to be taken for a few days, and the other was a chamomile tincture. The doctor explained that I was to mix forty drops of the tincture in a glass of water and drink it every couple of hours until the bottle was gone.
Whatever was in the prescription, it was probably effective, since the stomach pains stopped after a day. But what I found truly remarkable about the episode was the fact that I had been simultaneously prescribed a pharmaceutical medicine as well as an herbal medicine. This would never happen in the U.S. Here, we are ideologically split into two distinct camps: one that believes pharmaceutical medicines are effective whereas all herbal remedies are unregulated snake oil potions consumed by uneducated hippies, and the other, which endorses all-natural alternative medicines for every malady while suspecting all pharmaceutical products of being slow poisons peddled by Big Companies for whom profit is the only incentive.
There is probably some truth on both sides. On the one hand, many natural remedies are effective without causing as many side effects as harsher prescriptions, but are unlikely to be properly explored by our pharmaceutical and medical system because there isn’t enough profit potential to justify the costs of research and regulation. On the other hand, decades of research by top scientists have led to the development of fantastically powerful drugs that have saved millions and millions of lives. We have largely eradicated many diseases that used to decimate our populations, whether or not that has led to huge profits for pharmaceutical companies, and ignoring the past century of medical advancement is reckless, at best.
When it comes to our health, I think it makes sense to make rational choices, taking only calculated risks, based on the best information and tools we have available. For example, after I gave birth to my daughter, our pediatrician advised me not to take her into public for several months so she would not be exposed to germs. However, I believe in the Hygiene Hypothesis, which is the theory that not exposing ourselves to the typical germs in our environment has lead to weakened immune systems, a higher incidence of allergies and immune-system diseases (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070905174501.htm). Research has shown that kids who grow up with family pets, for instance, have fewer allergies and are less likely to suffer from asthma because the animals track in small amounts of dirt and pollen from the environment, exposing the children to these germs and allowing the kids’ immune systems to develop resistance to them. (Check out this nifty slide show from WebMD for more on this topic: http://pets.webmd.com/ss/slideshow-pets-improve-your-health)
In fact, we’ve become so clean, we are having to reintroduce germs into our diets for normal digestive functioning. We use the term “probiotics” for the critters in our kefir and yogurt because it has a much friendlier ring than “germs,” but it’s ultimately the same thing. So, ignoring the advice about isolating my baby and demanding everyone slather themselves in hand sanitizer before holding her. I took my daughter into public immediately, let her play in the grass, let her cuddle with the family cats, and otherwise did not become obsessive about “normal” germs. I figured that since she was breastfed, she should have a healthier immune system to begin with, and… knock on wood… she did not get sick *once* during her entire first year, and has suffered only one minor cold for a couple of days at 17 months.
Every parent needs to make these kinds of decisions themselves, of course, but I personally tend to support more relaxed, less sanitized methods of parenting. I breastfed, insisted on skin-on-skin contact after birth, made my own baby food (which often included cinnamon, which alarmed many other parents but was absolutely fine), and brought my baby into contact with friendly pets and other people immediately. These are the kinds of germs that humans have been in contact with for hundreds of thousands of years, and I believe we evolved to not only handle them, but also benefit from exposure to them.
However, when you move beyond normal, everyday germs into the major diseases, you fall into a class of truly dangerous maladies that are beyond what our immune systems evolved to handle. These killers, such as polio, typhoid, and tetanus, used to absolutely decimate human populations. A couple hundred years ago, you could expect HALF of your children to die before growing up. In fact, a lot of people have the misguided impression that in medieval times, most people died before forty, as though that was our natural lifespan. But that actually represents the mathematical average after accounting for all the babies that died before the age of five, and the epidemics that wiped out huge swaths of the population–such as the Bubonic plague, which killed every third person in Europe, back in the day.
We have been fortunate enough to move beyond what used to be the normal reality of so many babies dying prematurely and childhood epidemics crippling generations, but our grandparents were not. They lived in terror, for example, of their children dying of or being paralyzed forever by polio, for which there was no cure. Many photos from the 30′s and 40′s show the heartbreaking reality of once-happy children encased in giant iron lungs, because they could no longer breathe on their own. The nightmare finally came to an end after the development and distribution of the polio vaccine in the 1950′s. By 1961, only 161 cases were recorded in the United States, and the disease was entirely eradicated in the US by 1997. Now, it only exists in a few developing countries where polio vaccination isn’t widely available. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polio_vaccine)
We have made such incredible progress in demolishing these diseases that it is easy to feel a psychological distance from their true horrors. Smallpox, for example, killed 500 million people in the 20th century alone. That is staggering…. it is more than eighty times the number of people killed in concentration camps, more than eight times the number of people who died in World War II, and more than 168 times the number of people who died on 9/11. Or, put another way, it is five times the number of active Twitter users in 2012. And we are only accounting for smallpox here, which used to kill 80% of the infants who contracted it.
Bearing those kinds of horrible death counts in mind, we also need to consider that we have not magically transformed into Disease-Resistant Superbeings in the 21st century. Far from it… we are the same animals we have always been, only now we are fortunate enough to have access to the incredible medical and scientific breakthroughs made in the past hundred years or so. If we start to strip these vaccinations away, we will experience the nightmarish resurgence of the same agonizing diseases.
This is why, though I support many methods of natural parenting, I am compelled to speak out against the anti-vaccination movement. I realize this is an emotional issue for many people, and that taking a strong stance will ruffle a lot of feathers, but I am happy to make some people angry if it means that someone, somewhere, will think twice about not vaccinating their child and some day NOT have to lower the coffin of their beloved child who suffered horribly then died of a completely preventable disease.
People who don’t want to vaccinate their children have good intentions. They love their children very, very much and have heard a great number of tragic anecdotes about babies who had problems after being vaccinated. They are terrified after hearing about the supposed links between autism and vaccinations, and want to keep their children safe. Some have experienced the heartbreaking loss of their child and need to understand why such a horrible thing happened, looking for answers wherever they can find them. I feel tremendous sympathy for these parents and know they are trying to make the best choices in a frightening situation.
But refusing vaccinations is not the answer. Autism rates are on the rise, but we do not know why, and the possibility of vaccinations causing autism has been thoroughly investigated and found to be untrue. Jenny McCarthy, for instance, is one well-known celebrity who became an outspoken anti-vaccination activist after her child was diagnosed with autism, She has influenced many people. Now, I like Jenny McCarthy. Her books on pregnancy made a very fun read and a welcome change from the tsk-tsk sternness of such classics as What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and other such Puritanical manifestos. But people should bear in mind that she is an entertainer, a mother who is sad that her child is suffering, and not a medical expert with any sort of education or experience that would make her a reasonable authority on such issues.
It’s true that your baby might become feverish and feel crappy after receiving a round of immunizations. This is normal and expected, just like our arm tends to get stiff and sore after a tetanus shot. It is also true that an infant will occasionally have a severe reaction to a vaccine, but this is very, very rare and the risks of a bad reaction are much, much lower than the risks posed by the many infectious diseases that used to kill so many babies in our country, and that still do in developing countries without universal access to vaccinations.
So please, gentle readers, do your research thoroughly before choosing to refuse vaccinations and leaving your child at risk for the many horrendous diseases that can kill them. Do not only listen to anti-vaccination advocates or read websites that claim there is a giant medical conspiracy to infect our children with autism. Equip yourselves with a true arsenal of information before making a huge decision like this.
Here are a few sites I urge you to read, in order to balance your view against the anti-vaccination movement:
Choosing to use a gentle natural remedy instead of a pharmaceutical drug is a great choice when our bodies are equipped to handle the problem. Chamomile tea instead of Ambien is wonderful. Yoga and meditation instead of Valium is a good trade. A healthy diet is always better than relying on Lipitor, if it does the trick. But when it comes to life-threatening diseases that can cripple or kill even healthy babies, vaccinations are the safe choice.
Be happy, and stay safe.