I’ve talk about the pressure we’re all under to get an annual flu vaccine. But you and I both know your healthcare providers aren’t likely to be content with just one vaccination. They want to inoculate you against a whole host of health conditions.
Pneumonia. Shingles. Tetanus. Even childhood diseases like mumps and measles.
But do you really need all—or any—of these vaccines?
Confusing immunization “facts” can spread as quickly as…a virus. So it’s no wonder you may be concerned about vaccinations. Especially as you age, and are bombarded with propaganda about more “essential” vaccines you “must” have.
At the same time, there are increasing concerns that the more vaccines you get, the more imbalanced your immune system becomes. And an imbalanced immune system can make you more susceptible to chronic diseases. Not to mention the public health consequences of eliminating natural immunity in the population.
Then there’s the shocking lack of science (and lack of effectiveness) of the government’s influenza vaccine. It’s certainly enough to make you wonder whether it’s worth getting jabbed with any vaccination needle.
Based on my concerns about the flu vaccine, you may think I’m against vaccines in general.
But let me be clear. As I have said before, I am not anti-vaccine. I am pro-science.
Throughout my career, I have witnessed important developments in the history and science of vaccines. And I’ve found that some of the more recent vaccines are ones we would actually be better off not getting.
So let’s take a look at the science behind common vaccines. And whether that science suggests you should—or shouldn’t—get a particular vaccine.
But first, it’s helpful to know the dramatic history of vaccines. And how that has led to where we are today. An environment where healthcare workers feel increasing pressure to inoculate everybody for everything.
Immunization goes back over 200 years
Some of the greatest advancements in modern medicine resulted from the ability to vaccinate people against deadly infections.
For instance, Dr. Edward Jenner’s experiments with cowpox in England led to average village doctors throughout the Western world being able to provide smallpox immunity to their patients by the late 1700s. Centuries before, Eastern doctors accomplished the same thing for some residents of the vast Chinese empire.
Of course, neither East nor West knew then about viruses or the germ theory of disease. They just based their findings on trial and error and observation (which is how Chinese medicine still works).
When the germ theory did become widely understood and accepted, it led to development of more vaccines during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Some were developed by doctors who worked in the same job I held myself, almost 100 years later, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (including Dr. Walter Reed himself.)
One of the most notable vaccines to emerge in the mid-20th century was the injectable polio vaccine, created by Dr. Jonas Salk, whom I once had the privilege of meeting later in his career.
The debate over polio vaccines
Interestingly, Salk’s vaccine kills the polio virus once it enters the bloodstream from the gastrointestinal tract. This is important because if polio gets into the bloodstream, it can then migrate into the central nervous system (CNS)—causing the dreaded “infantile paralysis.” But the vast majority of younger children who are exposed to the polio virus just end up with a GI infection. The virus never gets into the CNS. And children who get this GI polio infection develop lifelong immunity to the disease—without being vaccinated.
Dr. Albert Sabin later developed the oral polio vaccine. (I met Dr. Sabin more than once, and about 10 years ago, I was even interviewed to head the Sabin Foundation for Infectious Diseases.) But there is a problem with the oral polio vaccine—it prevents natural GI infections caused by the virus, which means that children can’t develop the natural immunity I mentioned above.
Without natural immunity, doctors have to make sure to vaccinate each and every child. Otherwise, there would be pockets where there was no immunity at all—and every child would be susceptible to polio when it periodically came through the population. And potentially at older ages, when contracting the virus is more likely to cause paralysis (as in the case of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who got polio as a young adult).
Scientific debate between oral and injectable polio vaccines continues to this day. I had my own “debatable” encounter with polio when I was doing fieldwork in Southeast Asia in 1977.
There was an outbreak of polio in a jungle village, and the local government health officials refused to investigate it. Fortunately, Catholic priests from the nearby Columban Mission were happy to guide me and help map the outbreak—which we traced to a contaminated common water source.
I turned in the maps and data to the local health authorities, who refused to do anything. Instead, they castigated me as a foreigner for interfering and “insulting” what must have been their very fragile egos. They even lodged incendiary complaints against me with my sponsoring organization back in the U.S. It was a shocking and dispiriting introduction to government public health for me.
The eradication of smallpox
Like the polio vaccine, smallpox vaccination was another great global achievement. It was so successful that during the late 1970s, medical teams working for the World Health Organization were able to isolate the last remaining pockets of smallpox in the horn of Africa.
As a new medical anthropologist, I was asked by a senior health professional at the CDC (which was good at doing its job back then because it still focused on its mission against infectious diseases) to speak at an annual American Anthropological Association meeting in the 1980s. You see, these infectious disease doctors realized they needed anthropologists to figure out the cultural and social factors that were keeping people from getting vaccinated. So the CDC wanted me to help generate awareness about completing the eradication of smallpox and other infections.
Unfortunately, I learned the ivory-tower anthropologists were not really interested in anything as relevant as helping to eradicate an infectious disease that had been a scourge of human populations since earliest recorded history. Although many did make politically correct careers writing about how smallpox and other diseases introduced by Europeans had decimated Native American and other populations hundreds of years ago. (And a few well-trained medical anthropologists who could not get an academic position, because medical anthropology was not yet a recognized field, even ended up working for the CDC.)
But in terms of contemporary medical practice, these academic anthropologists were more interested in studying how indigenous concepts of belly buttons related to beliefs about causes of illness (or maybe it was their own belly buttons they were interested in studying—I never quite got that straight).
Thankfully, my faculty advisor for my MD/PhD in anthropology, Nobel laureate Baruch Blumberg, wasn’t one of those ivory-tower investigators. He did early research with Dr. Irving Millman to develop a hepatitis B vaccine before Merck took over the research. (Blumberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976 for discovery of the virus.)
How the “golden age” is turning into a bureaucratic rage
The idea of being inoculated against every conceivable virus may sound appealing in terms of disease prevention. But as with pharmaceutical drugs, it seems the last generation of vaccines has really stuck us with some problems.
Part of this is due to the emergence of a sub-specialized field of “virology” that includes many scientists and physicians. These careerists see every health issue as a nail that needs to be pounded. So they focus on developing the technology to ”hammer” viruses with vaccines.
Take the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, for instance. This vaccine is very controversial, as I have often reported. fact, some doctors and whistleblowers have described it as the greatest medical scandal of the century.
Why? First of all, in terms of the actual infection, HPV is not any more dangerous than viruses that cause the common cold. And there is no data showing the vaccine actually prevents cervical cancer. Finally, the vaccine works against only a few of the HPV strains—and the latest concern is that vaccinated women may be more likely to get infected with higher-risk strains of the virus.
Plus, there are already excellent, safe screening techniques that effectively help prevent cervical cancer (which is already relatively rare and becoming more rare) without any vaccination.
Sadly, the push to give every girl the HPV vaccine is less about public health and more about profits. Which is ironic because previous generations of vaccine developers, including Dr. Jonas Salk, gave away their creations for the benefit of humankind.
But that all changed when today’s big pharma entered the vaccine industry. Drug companies started complaining they couldn’t make enough money from vaccines. So our “public servants” in Congress got into the act of vaccination.
These bureaucrats were convinced to pass legislation making drug companies “immune” from malpractice lawsuits for all of the harm done by their vaccines. Instead, there is a vaccine injury compensation fund (which the taxpayers are stuck with). But according to many consumers, trying to get compensation for vaccine injuries is like trying to pass the proverbial camel through the eye of a needle.
So where are we today? Certainly, there are too many useless and dangerous vaccines. But that doesn’t mean all of the current vaccines are worthless.
Vaccines you should consider
Pneumonia. Dr. Robert Austrian, my former professor at the University of Pennsylvania and colleague at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, spent his career developing an effective vaccine for pneumonia.
Pneumonia is the eighth leading cause of death in Americans. And people over age 65 are particularly at risk. The good news is that the vaccine prevents pneumonia in 60 to 80 percent of people over age 65.1 That’s why I think older people—and younger people with chronic diseases or immunological problems—may want to consider getting this vaccine. One vaccination will usually last your entire lifetime.
Chickenpox/shingles. Painful (and now distastefully well-publicized) shingles outbreaks are triggered by the same virus that causes chickenpox during childhood. If you had chickenpox or were vaccinated against it, the virus may be reactivated in later life as shingles.
One clinical trial of 38,000 people age 60 or older found that the shingles vaccine reduced the chance of suffering an outbreak by 51 percent. You’ve got better odds if you’re under age 70—the vaccine was effective for 64 percent of that age group. But for those age 70 or older, the vaccine only reduced the risk of shingles by 34 percent.2
So consider those odds when deciding whether to have a shingles vaccine.
Another factor to take into account is that shingles appears to have become much more common since universal childhood vaccination for chickenpox started. So that suggests you may have more protection from shingles if you actually had chickenpox as a child—rather than receiving the vaccine.
If you’ve never had chickenpox or been vaccinated against it, I recommend getting the vaccine. It can be very dangerous to get chickenpox as an adult. You may end up with serious complications like encephalitis, myocarditis (inflammation of the heart), or pancreatitis.
Vaccines that probably aren’t worth it
Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR). Healthcare workers may try to tell you that even if you had this trifecta of diseases as a child, you still need a vaccination as an adult. But there is no reason for older adults to get this vaccine.
Even the vaccine-pushing CDC admits that if you were born before 1957, you’re “generally considered immune” to measles and mumps.3 You don’t need any so-called “booster shot.”
But today’s children must have the MMR vaccine to be allowed to go to school (and of course, children have to go to school—typically without choice of public schools). So that means natural measles, mumps, and rubella immunity will soon be gone from the general population, requiring all children in every new generation to get the vaccine. Forever. What a gold mine in those steel needles.
Meningitis. The only time this vaccine is really useful is for young people who live in close quarters like college dorms, boarding schools, and camps where the disease has been known to spread. It seems that today the typical college student is more interested in having multiple “close contacts” than, say, hitting the books, so it might make sense for them.
But for older adults, the risk of getting meningitis is very low, making the vaccine unnecessary.
Tetanus. This vaccine doesn’t protect against a virus, but rather against a toxic chemical made by anaerobic bacteria that hide deep in the soil. This bacteria can burrow deep into your injured tissues and cause infection.
Many doctors say they have never seen a single case of tetanus (lockjaw) in their entire medical careers. And the vaccine requires a booster every 10 years—which may unbalance the immune system. Taking all of that into account, tetanus vaccines may simply not be worth it—at any age.
Don’t succumb to the politics of vaccinations
The big questions when it comes to all vaccines are really a matter of elementary logic. If vaccines work so well and provide immunity to those who get them, why are so many parents, teachers, physicians, and government bureaucrats so insistent about taking away all choice and forcing everyone to get potentially dangerous vaccines—because somehow the unvaccinated are a threat to others?
If you get a vaccine and become immune, then you are protected from that infection. Regardless of whether someone, or anyone, else is vaccinated and protected. So why bully, hector, and strong-arm everyone around you to get a vaccine for your own protection?
This issue came up in a recent Republican presidential debate. Three of the candidates, including two who are licensed physicians, raised serious questions about mandatory vaccination.
No matter where you come down on the subject, one thing is true. Without universal vaccination, there is still the opportunity for natural immunity to develop in the population (as it can with polio). But universal vaccination requires that everyone—everywhere, forever—get vaccines.
Bottom line: eliminating all natural immunity in the population may have long-term, unforeseen consequences for the human immune system and health.
So be aware and be informed the next time you hear you “must have” a certain vaccine. I always say the least medicine that works is the best medicine. Likewise, the fewer vaccines needed to sensibly protect your health, the better.