Death and The Anti-Vaxxer
This is one blog post I’ve held off writing because it angers me beyond bearing, and scares me to death.
15 years ago, Andrew Wakefield, then a doctor, presented a paper to the famous medical journal The Lancet. In it he claimed there was a link between autism and vaccinations, that the one caused the other. Years of controversy later, after collecting $674,000 from lawyers looking to make lawsuits, and, worst of all, frightening parents into not giving their children vaccinations, Wakefield was exposed as a fraud. He was stripped of his doctor’s licence, and struck off the list of medical practitioners in the UK. The Lancet for its part, publicly apologized, and announced, that after a thorough investigation, Wakefield had concocted the whole thing out of thin air. Yet we are still living with the consequences of Wakefield’s lies. People have died because of them, and are dying still.
My fear is that I will become one of them. If I do, it won’t be my fault.
You see, I belong in that percentage of people who rely on what’s known as herd immunity to keep them safe. My immune system is impaired to the point where I’m very vulnerable to infectious diseases. First from Crohn’s Disease and arthritis. Second, by the fact that I take Humira to control and counteract both the CD and arthritis. Humira is what’s known as a TNF inhibitor. en.wikipedia.org By binding to tumour necrosis factors in the body, it reduces and restrains inflammation responses. Since both CD and arthritis are caused by inflammation, it does a very good job of keeping both in check. Problem is, TNF is a natural part of the immune system, and by knocking down the TNF response, Humira is knocking down part of the immune system. This makes me vulnerable to infections of all sorts. Before I could start taking Humira, I had to be tested for tuberculosis, to make sure I wasn’t unknowingly carrying it. Taking Humira is so risky that the FDA issued a black box warning that has to be carried on the product labeling. This is to alert doctors of the extra need to carefully monitor patients taking Humira. Risky or not, to me it is utterly worth it. After years of struggling to keep my CD under control, Humira has brought me sweet relief. Plus, I don’t have to take another medication to control my arthritis; Humira takes care of both. Bonus! Nonetheless, I cannot ignore how vulnerable Humira makes me. I can’t take certain vaccines, such as the MMR. Nor can I take the zoster vaccine that prevents shingles, despite the fact I had chicken pox when I was a child. These are live attenuated vaccines, which makes them too dangerous for someone with a damaged immune system to take. In other words, someone like me.
Which is why I could cheerfully strangle Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Why I wish so-called anti-vaxxers could be wiped off the face of the earth. These people could quite possibly be responsible for my death, and neither know nor care. That’s not even hyperbole. It’s the absolute truth.
By now, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you must have heard of the measles outbreak currently going on in the United States. Sparked by an unvaccinated visitor to Disney World, the disease has spread to several states, and even to Mexico. Gods help me if it spreads to Canada. Which it might, because Canadians go to Disney World too. Because, remember, I can’t take the MMR vaccine. I must rely on herd immunity to protect me. Thanks due to Wakefield, and idiots like McCarthy and Jim Carrey, attacking the safety of vaccines, herd immunity in the United States has fallen well below the rates required for safety. People can claim it’s the result of undocumented immigrants all they want. That’s a lie. The drop in herd immunity is a result of white, middle class supposedly educated parents deciding that the MMR vaccine is just too dangerous to be given to their child. Writing that sentence made me want to puke.
Look, I have zero fucks to give about your special snowflake(s). If you want to leave them open to being killed or maimed by one of the most contagious diseases known, that’s your business. And theirs when they grow old enough to tell you how stupid you’re being. But your idiocy is putting my life at risk, and I take grave exception to that. Being dead or permanently disfigured is not something I want to be involved in. I’m already disabled as it is. I don’t need any extra burdens to bear. You get where I’m coming from?
I’m not alone in feeling that way. Not even close. A father is petitioning his son’s school to ban all unvaccinated children. Why? His son is recovering from leukemia, his immune system is shot, and he can’t be vaccinated for at least 6 months. His unvaccinated schoolmates pose a lethal risk to him. He’s not the first parent to face this fear, which I can only imagine must be overwhelming at times. For instance, here’s an open letter from a lady whose son has cancer. She has some things to say to the parents of those who have “chosen” not to vaccinate their sweet, precious child; you’re putting the life of her child at risk.
Mere words alone cannot express how pissed off I got reading that letter. I think what gets me the most is the sheer selfish stupidity of these people, who breezily brush off objections, claiming it’s “their” choice to make. Uh, no. This choice you’re making affects whole communities. Currently, this choice is affecting several American states and the country of Mexico. That’s a whole shit load of people in case you can’t count. Worst of all, one of the states it has spread to is Arizona. Where this little thing called the Super Bowl is scheduled to take place. A lot of health officials and doctors are praying the enormous crowds descending on Arizona this weekend won’t be the catalyst for an even bigger outbreak. This is me praying it doesn’t make it to Canada. Spending time in the hospital is not a thing I look forward to. I’ve already done enough of that, thanks ever so.
I’m insanely lucky. I know that for a fact. I’m insanely lucky to have been born in a developed country that has a health care system that actually functions. Otherwise, I’d be dead. I certainly wouldn’t be on Humira. Humira costs almost $2000 a box, for 2 pen injectors. On disability, I could never even come close to affording it. So it astonishes me that there are people not only turning down the opportunity to get vaccinated, they are leading whole campaigns to convince other people to do the same. How do you quantify such insanity? Mind boggling doesn’t even come close!
For the longest time, it was thought that measles had been eliminated from the US. Along with pertussis, also known as Whooping Cough. Now measles is back with a vengeance, and California, that bastion of all things liberal, has had outbreaks of whooping cough in which babies, too young to be vaccinated, died. Let it be said, that this not just a US problem. The UK also thought it had gotten rid of measles for good. Until people bought into the anti vaccine hysteria, herd immunity dropped to record lows, and they had a major outbreak. At one point, people were lining up to get themselves and their children vaccinated, meanwhile cursing themselves for not having done it when they should have. Like, when the kids started school. There too, people died. Now measles is listed as endemic in the UK. What a triumph of folly.
Here’s the thing. Diseases travel. It’s how they survive. Patient Zero who started the Disney outbreak, may have come from Holland, where there are large pockets of people who don’t get vaccinated for religious reasons. In Pakistan, they’re trying to eliminate polio, that dreadful disease that used to haunt the lives of so many until Dr. Jonas Salk discovered a vaccine against it. Too bad that Pakistan also has a severe case of the Taliban, who have made it their business to kill the health units going around in “their” territory, trying to vaccinate people against polio. Almost I hope some unvaccinated fool goes to Pakistan and contracts polio and brings it back to the US. If that’s sounds too ugly, too bad. That’s what it might take for people to wake the fuck up to just how dangerous skipping their vaccinations is. Because diseases travel; it’s what they do. As do people.
I am wildly lucky that I don’t have a job that requires me to travel. Especially to the United States. If I did, I’d have to do some serious soul searching. Refuse to go and put my job at risk. Go on the trip and put my life at risk. There is no way, no how someone should be forced to make a choice like that. Not in this day and age. But I’m willing to bet money that some people are being forced to confront just such a choice. I don’t envy them.
Oh, just so you know, this is what measles looks like.
It’s gross, it’s painful, it can do permanent damage. It can come back to haunt you long after the original infection is gone. Death is another possible complication, just to repeat myself. None of which are caused by vaccines. After Wakefield started spouting his crap, extensive studies were done looking into the possibility that vaccines caused autism. None were found. People have been making the same tired attacks on vaccines since, oh, the whole concept was discovered.
There’s another facet to the whole current outbreak. Measles is expensive, and, one way or another, everybody pays for it, even people who have kept up with their vaccinations.
Finally, slowly, slowly, people are beginning to realize just how serious the situation is. When your children’s school sends your unvaccinated child home because they pose a direct threat to their schoolmates, parents notice. When pediatricians won’t accept your children as patients unless you agree to vaccinate them, parents begin to realize this may be a problem. Finally, when the “happiest place on earth” is ground zero for a measles outbreak, even the most obtuse parent starts to pay attention.
About bloody time! Look, I have an autistic nephew, and I know for a fact he was born autistic. I realized that right after he was born, when we visited him in the hospital. Babies make noise, always, except when they’re asleep. That’s how they communicate, the only form of communication they have. This particular baby was much too quiet. Even as his mother played with him, he made almost no sounds, not even the little “grunting” noise most babies produce. I knew then something was wrong. His diagnosis came as no surprise, and it had nothing whatsoever to do with being vaccinated.
What’s darkly ironic about the whole situation is that there is research indicating prenatal exposure to measles and influenza can cause schizophrenia. It is known that pregnant women who catch measles are at high risk of bearing a still born or disabled child. By the way, anti-vaxxers don’t just confine their attentions to the MMR vaccine. They’re against them all, including those for the flu. Which last really drives me wild. They also claim the concept of herd immunity is a myth. Since that “myth” is what keeps me safe and healthy, at least so far, I find this particular claim particularly infuriating.
All, all the objections have been addressed. Thimerosal, so long the focus of anti-vaxxer hysteria, has been removed from all vaccines. Researchers have combed through the studies available, and created their own. Not a one could replicate Wakefield’s conclusions. Brian Deer, a reporter with The Sunday Times investigated Wakefield thoroughly. He found ethical failures, numerous conflicts of interest, and that Wakefield had tampered with the evidence. In 2004, The Lancet retracted part of the paper. In 2010, the entire paper was withdrawn, while The Lancet’s editor in chief declared the journal had been deceived and that the paper was “utterly false”. Deer did more digging, bringing to light more information about Wakefield’s irregular research habits which were published in another British medical journal. In 2010, Wakefield was struck off the British Medical Register. He can no longer practice as a doctor in the UK. Nor is he licensed to practice medicine in the US, where he currently lives. But the damage has been done. With a lot of help from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Jenny McCarthy, Alicia Silverstone, Bill Maher, Billy Corgan, Charlie Sheen, Kristin Cavallari, Rob Schneider, and Robert Kennedy Jr., the anti vaccine mythology marches on. Just as an aside, may I say how beyond enraging it is that my health, my life, is dependent on the pronouncements of a bunch of know nothing celebrities, who have fallen for what has been described as one of the greatest science hoaxes of all time. Even Wakefield’s colleagues in research have come out against the conclusion that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Google can be anyone’s friend, but it doesn’t substitute for a scientific education.
There are signs of hope. Pediatricians are finally putting their collective feet down, refusing to treat children unless they’re vaccinated.
Reputable organizations like the CDC and WHO have gone on the attack. More and more newspapers are publishing editorials blasting the anti-vaxxer movement, citing them for being to blame for the falling rates of vaccination, and the resultant loss of herd immunity. More and more schools are banning unvaccinated children during times of high risk, like now. Just think, before the anti-vaxxer movement kicked into high gear, the Disney measles outbreak would simply not have happened, or at least, not been as severe. Simply because there wouldn’t have been so many unvaccinated people vulnerable to catching one of the most contagious diseases known. Calls are increasing to make vaccination waivers much more difficult to get, and to ban personal belief waivers completely. If nothing else, the sheer economic damage outbreaks like the current one can cause are being recognized. At least that’s getting people’s attention, none too soon, but you always have to start somewhere. That more and more vaccines are being offered at little to no cost is also helping. In Canada, there are now calls for a national vaccine policy, and a computerized national registry to keep track of everyone’s vaccinations. Australia already has one.
I am going to leave the final word to Melinda Gates, who has travelled worldwide, helping people in the developing world gain access to basic health care, including vaccines.
“We take vaccines so for granted in the United States,” Gates told the Huffington Post in a prerecorded interview published on Thursday. “Women in the developing world know the power of [vaccines]. They will walk 10 kilometers in the heat with their child and line up to get a vaccine, because they have seen death. [Americans have] forgotten what measles deaths look like.”
I hope more people will listen to such wisdom. Because my life and health is at stake. I have no choice but to rely on herd immunity for my safety. I can, and do, take all the vaccinations deemed safe enough. The rest lies in the hands of strangers I do not know, and will never meet. That’s a terrifying feeling, a feeling of helplessness in the face of the ignorance of others. So don’t tell me it’s “your” choice whether or not to get yourself vaccinated, whether or not to get your children vaccinated. When you make such a choice, you are making a choice that affects entire communities. Some of whom are people like me, with a wonky immune system that leaves them extremely vulnerable to opportunistic infections.
I wish I had something profound and moving to sum all of this up. All I know is that my safety is currently a very, very fragile thing. So I will leave you with the statement all medical and healthcare workers are taught world wide:
First, do no harm.