Thursday, February 23, 2012


People don’t go to cemeteries much anymore.  We have moved away from the home town, or are able to do our genealogy online or from reference books.  In modern times, the remains of relatives are scattered about, buried in different places as different parts of the cemetery filled up and others were opened.  In smaller, more contained populations, burials would cluster more.

Tracy did a college anthropology project on an old cemetery in Scituate, and kept getting caught up in the stories the stones told – not part of the project, but a natural response for a reader of fiction.  She outlived her husband by forty years and her only child by twenty-seven.  I wonder what that was like.  You can read a churchyard and watch an epidemic go through.  His oldest daughter died February 3, his wife two days later, two other children the day after that. The other children died years later.  Family of seven, reduced to widower and two small children in less than a week.  She told me about that one in particular, and showed it to me when we visited it in later years. There were several other deaths about the same time recorded on nearby stones. Epidemic.  Fact of life.

Genetically, they were the same as we are.  Their natural immune systems built up protections against a host of diseases.  Because they were hardy folk, we pretend that they had these hardy, USMC-style immune systems as well, much tougher than our pansy modern versions.  If we just lived the type of strenuous life that they did, and ate natural foods, why, our bodies would just naturally toughen up and fight off diseases…

Except they wouldn’t, and lots of us would die.  They had medicine then.  Natural treatments, organic lifestyles, plenty of fresh air and exercise. No vaccines, though.

It was a different world then.  More accurately, it is a different world now – that 17th C world was more like the history of mankind than our present world is.  It is we who live a life that would not be recognisable to any of our ancestors.

I have written about vaccines before, here and here, speculating on what causes the anti-vaccine sentiment. (I wondered if evangelicals were especially prone to this.) Y'all made some pretty wise comments then, if you want to go back and see how smart you were.

Concerning the idea of spreading them out as a sort of compromise solution, to reduce the risk - don't bother.  There's nothing remotely like an overload under the current scheduling.  These vaccines are small potatoes to your immune system.  Diseases, now, those are a problem.

The immune system does in fact quite naturally fight off potentially bad bacteria every day, many more than the number of diseases we vaccinate against.  Once exposed to a bacterium or virus, your body figures out over the next few days or weeks how to knock out that particular organism. Then it puts the formula for that personalised, natural medicine on file for rapid reproduction in case that particular critter shows up again.  But a particular few diseases can make you very sick very quickly, before your body has a chance to mount an adequate defense. Plus, they are so contagious that a lot of children can be infected before anyone has time to respond and keep the sick away from the well.  

In terms of exposure, your kid could get dozens more vaccinations a day and it would still be barely noticeable to your immune system.  (How you would trick your kid into getting into the car after about the third day of this would be a whole ‘nother problem.) To our eyes and ears looking at the whole system, it seems like a lot – there’s the trip in the car, the unnatural look of the needle, the crying kid, this weird idea of intentionally exposing a child to a disease – and above all, the memory from our own childhood of what it was like to go to the doctor’s and get A SHOT! OMG, THAT MAN WANTS TO STAB ME WITH THAT HUGE NEEDLE AND MY PARENTS ARE SMILING AND AREN’T EVEN PROTECTING ME! So there’s that.  But to your immune system, it’s not even noticeable.  It’s just one more thing that showed up in a tiny amount that needs a natural medicine made for possible use later.  The system does this all day, just one more donut to make, one more haircut to do.

Your immune system won’t even think these diseases are particularly bad ones that are hard to fight off.  It’s just that when they show up as a disease in your kid, they arrive in big numbers, multiply fast, and can be passed on to his sister before he shows symptoms.  So we give the immune system a head start on a limited number of diseases that can kill your kid. Nor are the dangers from the shot itself that big a deal, even one right after another.  It’s just that they are OMG SHOTS!  Petting the cat or the ride in the car are about as dangerous.

I suspect that the idea that vaccines are dangerous persists for two reasons, one positive and one negative.  We don’t see epidemics anymore, don’t experience the sudden onset and spread and death, so we don’t see that mass illness is as “natural” as health.  We think a predictable healthy childhood with just a few bumps and bruises is what is normal, and how life has always been. This rosy picture of the past infects our ideas of education, product safety, human relations, nutrition, and disease. Specific to health, we have this odd idea that Nature has worked all of this out before, that our interfering with Nature creates as many problems as it solves. 

So the risk of vaccines seems overlarge, because we have this ridiculous underestimation of how dangerous the diseases are.  Rather like the joke "I plan to live forever.  So far, so good." Our impressions of what is dangerous are different from the reality.

Relatedly, we think it would be a better, more sensible world, so it must be the one that God created – or, if you prefer, that Nature designed over time.  Isn’t the whole idea of a vaccine creepy?  I mean, how can that be right?  How can that be what God wants us to do? Wouldn’t it be better if we only used natural treatments?  Well yeah, I suppose it would be cool if reality were more like that.

It isn’t.  Kind of a shame, though.

Added:  Good links about childhood vaccines.
Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia
Science-Based Medicine


james said...

People have trouble remembering the disasters that didn't happen. Vaccines work too well for people to respect them.

DOugas2 said...

Huh. I had immunotherapy shots as a pre-schooler. Once-a-week off to the doctor to get jabbed again...

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Son #1 had those. I had forgotten. Inconvenient and uncomfortable, but not impossible.

Texan99 said...

I think you're exactly right that people worry about vaccinations because they've forgotten what it was like to worry about epidemics. (I say that even though I've always had an irrational reluctance to get a flu shot, and in fact have never had one. I really have no idea why. I don't avoid other vaccines.)

Now that we have HIV, and drug-resistant bacterial infections that can flat-out kill you very quickly, we may get another glimpse of what routine illness was like for our grandparents. Or great-great-grandparents for you youngsters.

Anonymous said...

And now there's no escaping the dreaded needle as you get older.

I just got my geriatric updates -- Flu shot, Shingles shot, records check to make sure my Tetanus was up-to-date, and then: Surprise! MMR. Yup. Mumps, Measles, Rubella. It seems that us geriatrics are now, again, subject to getting our childhood diseases in our second childhood.

Y'know, This is my seventh try to get your "prove you're not a robot" word check. Which is a similar problem I often have on your site. Usually I just get frustrated and give up. I hate your word check. My openID is uptodate, but now I'll try anonymous.

Texan99 said...

I got a tetanus booster a couple of years ago and developed a splitting headache that plagued me for several weeks. I read somewhere that that's a fairly common side effect. Annoying, but better than worrying about tetanus. I saw an educational film about it in elementary school that stuck with me for life. Nasty disease, ubiquitous in soil, and a hazard with all puncture wounds, where the anaerobic bacteria can thrive. Hard to cure once it gets going.

And robot-check is giving me fits, too.

Diablo 3 Items said...

Pleased to discover your blog post and also the excellent images which you have often!