Living a ‘natural’ lifestyle, eating healthy foods, avoiding harmful chemicals, and sometimes turning to herbal medicines, all fall in the same category with vaccination. All of these approaches have to do with disease prevention, prophylactic treatment, and taking the best care one can of their body. While many anti-vaccine proponents may think vaccines contain “toxins” that can harm one’s body, this is sadly misguided and misinformation.
I believe in the healing power of quality whole foods to improve one’s health, I avoid mindlessly taking any type of medication, even if its as harmless as ibuprofen, and I make sure the majority of my purchases contain some form of the following words - organic, free-range, grass-fed, no hormones added, etc. I run every morning because it’s good for my body, mind, and soul. I respect my sleep, meditate for a healthy mind and practice yoga for flexibility. Oh, and I also make sure I have all of my vaccinations, because they, in combination with food choices, exercise, sleep, and reading, keep me and those I love healthy. (And while I should probably exercise and eat healthy if I want to lose weight, the best part about vaccinations is that you don’t have to be a health nut - they work either way!) Let me explain further.
While there are several types of vaccine designs - live attenuated, inactivated, subunit, toxoid, etc. - the main idea of vaccination is to expose your immune system – the system in the body that fights germs and keeps you healthy – to a non-functional or non-infectious form of an otherwise dangerous pathogen. By exposing your immune system to an unproductive version of the pathogen, you allow your body to safely and controllably build up proper defenses against a subsequent infection with the live form of that pathogen. Therefore, when you do encounter said virulent pathogen in real life, your body can clear the infection much more quickly and effectively, sometimes without you even noticing. In this sense, vaccinations protect you, the individual who was vaccinated.
Not only do vaccinations protect the individual, they also have the capacity to protect entire communities. When a person is infected, there is a time frame before one gets sick, when he or she is contagious but asymptomatic. Hence, this individual will have no idea they are carrying an infection and can infect others they encounter. If those encountered are vaccinated, they will quickly and efficiently clear the infection allowing for the disease to be rapidly contained. However, non-vaccinated individuals will be completely susceptible to the pathogen and become a reservoir for it to continue propagating. This process of protecting communities by stopping the spread of a disease through vaccination is known as herd immunity. In this sense, herd immunity can protect even those who cannot be vaccinated, such as infants, pregnant women, the elderly, and the sick. It is exactly because of this phenomenon that it is imperative for every healthy individual to receive his or her vaccinations in order to protect the most vulnerable members of society.
Individuals who are medically able to receive vaccination but choose not to are seriously risking their own health and the health of their children. The best way to protect someone against a disease is to vaccinate them directly, rather than to rely on ‘indirect’ protection through herd immunity. Consider the following few examples. When vaccinated community members encounter an infection, they will not become seriously ill but will still be able to pass on the infection, albeit for a much shorter time frame than non-vaccinated individuals. In contrast, non-vaccinated individuals who become infected will almost certainly develop the full-blown and dangerous form of the illness even if they only interacted with vaccinated members of the community (which would be rather difficult and unrealistic). Additionally, herd immunity is only effective if the majority of people living in an area are vaccinated. It doesn’t take much of a drop in the number of people vaccinated in a population for herd immunity to become less effective, rendering it an unreliable way of protecting yourself or your child. Furthermore, herd immunity only works for contagious diseases that are spread by direct person-to-person contact. Non-contagious diseases that spread via other means (for instance, tetanus from soil) will infect any unvaccinated members of a community, even when everyone else around them is vaccinated and protected.
Vaccination has become one of the most heated topics in popular and public health discourse. While one can understand the concerns raised by anti-vaccine supporters, these concerns were based on a few disreputed studies. The findings of these have been disproven by thousands of subsequent research studies demonstrating the effectiveness of vaccines. The reality is that in addition to improved nutrition and hygiene, vaccines have been one of the primary drivers transforming our approach to healthcare from treatment to prevention. We are fortunate to live in a relatively free world. While one could risk the negative consequences of not getting vaccinated by relying on others to carry the responsibility of vaccination, this would truly be a disservice to yourself and your kids. If you are considering whether to vaccinate or not, please think of your neighbors, your friends, and your family, because these are the people whose lives you can positively influence with the choice to vaccinate.