Published March 26, 2017
My favorite late night television host of all time was David Letterman. He was on the air for 33 years,...
— William Wilberforce
My husband and I indulged in a little prenatal uber-parenting when I was pregnant with our first child, and we interviewed several pediatricians known for being more sensible or holistic to see if we could find a good fit. One of the many questions we asked each doctor was about how they approached vaccination. The last physician responded by saying, “Well, there are many factors involved in supporting the immune system, and vaccines are just one part,” and then went on to talk about the importance of sunshine, breastfeeding, free play and a low-stress home. Bingo—we had our doc.
If we want to arrive at good conclusions about immunity, we have to be sure we are asking the correct questions, and in the correct order. If we start by asking, “Are vaccines good or bad?” or “Which vaccines should we give and are they safe?” we are putting the proverbial cart before the horse. If instead we start with the question, “What is the best way to support our child’s immune system so it is robust throughout his or her entire life?” that leads us to a more comprehensive understanding of immunity that can better guide us in our lifestyle and medical choices.
The human immune system has served us well for millennia, allowing our species to not only survive, but to thrive and grow. So first we must understand how this amazing, complex and highly competent system works. What is the role of fever and inflammation? How do childhood illnesses serve to build lifelong immunity? How does cell mediated immunity differ from antibody immunity? What role does breastfeeding and nutrition play in building immunity? How do bacterial microbes throughout the body serve the immune system? How does the method of birth, environmental toxins, stress, and genetics affect the immune system? What other factors interfere with optimal functioning?
As we explore these questions, we learn the importance of a natural birth, breast milk, loving attachments, regular sleep, sunshine, nutritious foods, an occasional illness and a little dirt. We recognize the compromising effects of toxic chemicals, radiation, discord, stress, disorganized sleep, nutrient deficient “junk” food, genetic modifications, sugar and harmful medications. We learn that happier children are healthier children.
We come to understand that the immune system is like a muscle—it must be challenged and tested with real threats in order to grow stronger. We begin to see childhood illnesses–colds, stomach bugs, chickenpox, measles and other acute ailments—as necessary challenges that help our body learn to defend itself so it can protect us over the course of our lives. We understand the healing role of fever and we don’t interfere with medications unless absolutely necessary.
We learn that most times chicken soup, popsicles, steamy showers, TLC and bed rest with plenty of cartoons is usually sufficient medicine. We learn that when kids recover from acute illness they seem stronger and more prone to big developmental jumps. We learn that we can make ourselves less susceptible hosts to infections from viruses and bacteria through our lifestyle choices, and therefore we may get sick less often.
We learn that, as we grow older, our immune systems depend on the “boosters” we get when we are around sick kids—that periodic exposure to chickenpox, for instance, helps asymptomatically boost our immunity to chickenpox and protects us against shingles. We stop seeing all illness as a horrible thing to be avoided at any cost, and realize that illness plays an important role in good health.
Then we want to understand viral and bacterial illnesses, including our individual susceptibility factors. We want to know which illnesses are contagious and whether they are life threatening, or simply mild and inconvenient. We want to know if the illness confers lifelong immunity and whether there are any potentially serious complications. We want to know how best to support the body in dealing with the illness. We want to know what research can tell us about particular susceptibilities: for example, we should know that vitamin A deficiency is correlated with complications in measles and that vitamin D deficiency increases vulnerability to complications from influenza.
Knowledge is power, and we need good information about illness as well as the immune system’s capacity to fight back. We need to understand that there can be risk from both illnesses and treatments, and that we can’t always know ahead of time what course an illness will take.
When we think comprehensively about illness and immunity we must consider that statistically our children are now at greater risk for chronic illness such as asthma, allergy, autism, autoimmune and attention deficit disorders, than they are for acute illness. An asthma attack can be every bit as scary as a fit of whooping cough, except that a child emerges stronger when he or she recovers from whooping cough, while the asthmatic usually deals with that chronic disease for a lifetime. If acute illness helps to protect us from chronic illness, we have to be sure we understand how that trade-off works.
Once we understand immunity and illness, we can begin to explore the possible role of vaccines in immunity. We want to know whether vaccines offer temporary or permanent immunity (or any at all, for that matter). And if the benefit is temporary, whether waning immunity later in life puts us at an increased risk for complications from having to mount an immune response that is best mounted earlier in life. We want to know if there is any downside to avoiding immune-boosting acute illnesses. We want to know the effects that heavy metals, human and animal DNA fragments, genetically altered components, and chemicals like polysorbate 80 have on the body and, especially, on the developing brain.
We want to know if there is adequate clinical research using double blind placebo controlled studies to evaluate the long-term effects for not just vaccines, but for any medication we put in our bodies. We want to know whether our doctor would recognize an adverse vaccine reaction and what he or she would or could do about it. We want to know if the information we get from doctors and public health officials is credible and free from conflicts of financial and political interest.
Every person deserves to have access to accurate information about disease, human immunity and vaccines so they can make good decisions for themselves and their families. They have to decide whether they have more faith in the immune system that has been created and evolved over many thousands of years, or in medical products developed by humans in labs during the last two centuries. Where do we place our trust? In the presence of fear and cultural norming towards dependency on vaccines by a profit-driven corporate culture and a decidedly pro-vaccine public health policy that employs coercion to attain conformity, those decisions can unfortunately become painfully confusing for many people.
Our family discovered that adequate sleep, nutritious homemade foods, regular family meals, plenty of exercise and manageable levels of stress served us well, and that when those things got too out of balance we could expect to be ill. For the most part, we put our faith in the innate wisdom of the immune system rather than in the medical system.
The funny thing is that taking a more comprehensive view on immunity and actively pursuing health served us so well that we ended up hardly ever seeing that pediatrician we looked so hard to find.