Tyranny of the Past

February 14, 2022

Shortly after beginning my family medical practice in 1978 I was privileged to care for a young couple with 4 children who were expecting their 5th child. The pregnancy, labor and delivery went well. Our first memorable disagreement occurred during the two month old “well-child checkup” when the mother informed me they would not permit “routine immunizations”. As a young physician I assumed this stance was due to ignorance so I waxed authoritatively and excessively about the vast benefits and exaggerated risks of vaccines. The family was not moved and ongoing disharmony in our relationship festered.

This experience is being played out on the international stage now as the COVID pandemic continues into its third year. Teasing out some of the many threads that are braided into vaccine refusals might be useful.

Wild accusations and vigorous protests ensued in 1796 after Edward Jenner’s revelation that injecting humans with material from a cowpox pustule could prevent the human disease called smallpox. (The persisting word vaccination derived from the French word “vache” meaning cow.) Variations of vaccination actually occurred centuries before Jenner’s experiment but the injected material was usually obtained from a sick person rather than derived from a similar human illness that had originated in a different species. Although there was some success using this conception, the risk of causing the illness rather than preventing the illness in the injected human was unacceptably high. Jenner’s breakthrough inspired subsequent efforts that led to development of vaccines using ill human extracts that were attenuated or injured in some way. Since then, relatively safer immunizing materials have proliferated and continue to be refined and improved in both efficacy and safety.  

In fairness, the efficacy and dramatic benefits of vaccination have been exaggerated by vaccination proponents. Many diseases that have apparently been effectively controlled with the help of vaccines were already on the decline prior to the advent of vaccination. Similarly, the risks of vaccines are also vastly inflated. Causing an illness is not possible using components of a viral protein instead of using a weakened but living virus. Problems that have been caused by dirty needles and vaccine contamination can never be eliminated, but the risks of such unfortunate events are rare. Many other problems that are attributed to vaccines are only guilty by association. Since millions of children are vaccinated and some catastrophic unrelated illnesses and conditions emerge during the same timeframe, vaccines have been wrongly blamed.

Objections to vaccination are often attributed to religious beliefs. However, few of the recognized world religions expressly prohibit vaccination. Needle phobia was reported by the rare American soldier who died of tetanus during WWI. All American soldiers were required to be vaccinated, but needle fearing inductees are suspected to have dodged the injection lines.

Current political viewpoints are an apparent anti-vaccine influence since people who refuse COVID vaccinations often also refuse masking and social distancing. Some people are simply against any mandate that violates their concept of freedom. Refusal to accept vaccinations is not limited to America, but our country’s lower vaccination rates compared to other wealthy nations suggest these concerns are more prevalent in the United States.

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