Lawrence Solomon: Get dirty and avoid vaccines

(January 6, 2012) Health authorities insist the benefits of immunization outweigh the risks — a mindset that stems from faith, not science, without any incentive to curb needless or even harmful use of vaccines and medications.

“We can’t suggest we become dirtier and expose our children to more bacteria,” said Dr. Moshe Ben-Shoshan of the Division of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at Montreal Children’s Hospital. Our determination to prevent disease may lead to more allergies, he believes, but if so, it would be worth it. “If the price of having fewer allergies is more infection, I don’t know any parent who would expose their child to more infection.”

Dr. Ben-Shoshan, lead author of a study just published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, is both wrong and wrong-headed. Wrong because parents in their thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, willingly expose their children to infection. Wrong-headed because he has no basis to assert that dirt and bacteria hurt children more than they help them. Evidence abounds to the contrary.

The parents that Dr. Ben-Shoshan seems entirely unaware of include those who have made headlines throughout the Western world. “Playing chicken: Some parents want children to catch chicken pox,” read a Vancouver Sun headline. “The return of the measles party,” announced the UK’s Guardian: “Popular in the 1950s before mass immunization, the measles party is making a comeback. If you’re worried about media reports of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causing autism, then you can join a network of parents who are trying to infect their children naturally with these diseases.” Those networks are now easier than ever to find thanks to social media, as visitors to the Facebook page, “Find a Pox Party in Your Area,” well know.

The parents leery of vaccines and other medications for normal childhood diseases are among a large majority: 89% of parents, according to a University of Michigan poll, cited vaccine safety research as their No. 1 health-care priority, followed by concern over the safety and benefit of medications. Many parents — about one-fifth — have questioned or refused a vaccine for themselves or their children, despite the immense pressure from health authorities to submit to medical dictates: In most jurisdictions, unvaccinated children are denied the right to attend school.

Dr. Ben-Shoshan, along with the majority working in his field, claim that concerns over the benefits of vaccines and antibiotics are dwarfed by the benefit of saving children from contracting serious allergies. Perhaps they’re right. But they have no way of knowing, because their mindset stems from faith, not science. Take HPV vaccines, which are now being widely administered to boys and girls as young as age 9, to prevent cancers that may be sexually transmitted in future. As of September, according to the Centers for Disease Control, a U.S. government agency, the vaccines have led to the reporting of over 20,000 adverse effects, most of them considered “non-serious,” which means the patients did not need hospitalization, did not face a life-threatening illness or succumb to a permanent disability, and did not die. But some 1600 reports were considered serious, including cases of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder, and scores of deaths. The CDC says these “serious events may or may not have been caused by the vaccine.”

Parents are concerned, as much about the immediate consequences of vaccines as about their future consequences, about which little can be known. And why wouldn’t parents be concerned? The same health authorities that insist the benefits outweigh the risks have no explanation for the apparent epidemic of allergies, autism, asthma, immune disorders and learning disabilities that afflict ever-more Western kids.

But increasingly, the authorities do offer an explanation — the hygiene hypothesis, the view that today’s obsession with Purell, anti-bacterial soaps, antiseptics for minor scratches and other drivers toward a sanitized environment has unintended consequences. “We’ve developed a cleanlier lifestyle, and our bodies no longer need to fight germs as much as they did in the past,” explains Dr. Marc McMorris, a pediatric allergist at the University of Michigan Health System. “As a result, the immune system has shifted away from fighting infection to developing more allergic tendencies.”

Third World countries without this sanitization obsession don’t have our levels of food allergies, asthma, and autism and even within developed countries, allergic reactions depend on demographics. Dr. Ben-Shoshan’s survey found that Canadian-born respondents were twice as likely as immigrants to suffer from food allergies, and that people in homes whose respondent had graduated from a post-secondary institution were almost 2½ times as likely to have a sesame allergy, twice as likely to have a tree nut allergy, and 63% more likely to have a peanut allergy.

It should come as no surprise to any scientist that a sanitized environment can be dangerous, as can be medical procedures that change the human body’s chemical balance. Our bodies are ecosystems for trillions of microorganisms that, each doing its own thing, somehow keep the body’s impossibly intricate circulation, muscular, hormonal, digestive, skeletal, respiratory, and nervous systems in balance and functioning. We have thousands of known species of bacteria in our bodies with more being discovered every year. For the great majority of these species, we have no inkling of their functions. Blasting our bacteria with blunderbuss antibiotics, or bludgeoning other systems in the human ecology with equally blunt weapons such as vaccines, will almost certainly cause collateral damage, some of which may not be known for decades to come.

Who has an incentive to curb needless or even harmful use of vaccines and medications? Not the government health bureaucracies that enlarge their influence with each new dictate that they deliver. Not the medical research establishment that depends on grants from the health bureaucracy. Not the pharmaceutical companies that lobby for and then profit from government mandates that require their products be used. In the case of vaccines, a $30-billion a year global business, the pharmaceutical companies have even been exempted from any liability whatsoever in the U.S. market in the event that their products debilitate or kill.

The only people with an overwhelming incentive to protect children are parents. Dr. Ben-Shoshan and his cohorts will be hearing more from them in the years to come.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and the author of The Deniers.

To see Dr. Moshe Ben-Shoshan’s study, click here.

This article first appeared in the Financial Post.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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