Why I Think Vaccines Are Safe, Part II

Are “Childhood Diseases” No Big Deal?

When I was fifteen, I got chickenpox. I believe all my siblings had it earlier, but at a much younger age-in fact, I’m not sure if they ever remember having it or not.

The first symptoms were dizziness and fever: I almost passed out during a (don’t laugh) Sunday-school puppet theater I’d been volunteered for by my mother. That afternoon, I just felt terrible: I was burning up with fever, and just stripped to my underwear and lay in bed. I thought it was a garden-variety flu until I woke up the next morning and found red spots all over my body.

They itched like hell, but other than that, I felt tolerable. That was Monday. I had scratched about ten of them off before my mom told me that scratching them would cause scars. She was right-I still have several scars on my face and forehead from itching.

The good news was, I had an automatic week off from school. The bad news was that it was Thanksgiving week and I was stuck at home while my family went to Grandma’s for turkey-I’d been banished (I think it might have even been under doctor’s orders) because they were at risk of catching shingles from me.

I had to go to the doctor every day and get my blood tested. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I kept having to go, and the doctor got more and more concerned every time I went.

Around Tuesday, I got the worst sore throat I’ve ever had in my life, and it stayed around through the weekend. It was the sickest I’ve ever felt, and probably the sickest I’ve ever been in my life except being hospitalized for meningitis when I was a toddler. I lived on 7-Up and the little bit of food I could choke down. I couldn’t drink orange juice because the acid stung my throat. It was like swallowing razor blades. I felt so miserable that I literally at one point, said aloud, “If I’m dying, please just get it over with.”

The daily trips to the doctor continued, and he got more and more worried, but near the end of the week my immune system finally rallied and I was able to go back to school. The doctor was a friend of my mom’s, and years later, she still remarks about how worried they were about me. I was this strapping kid who ran and lifted weights-my entire life was centered around health (well, except for my diet) and a disease that people glibly lump in with colds and flu almost put me in the hospital.

The general reasoning behind vaccines is that the potential complications from the vaccine are far milder than the complications from the actual disease. According to the VAERS database, in 2014, 1,737 people reported an event (death, disability, hospitalization or adverse reaction) from a vaccine (and this is from TOTAL immunizations, not just chickenpox). Before the vaccine, according to the CDC, 10,500 people were hospitalized for chickenpox every year, and there were 150 deaths…many of which were previously healthy people. Given a 1 in 2,000 chance of suffering a (likely minor) side effect of the vaccine versus a 1 in 400 chance of being hospitalized for chickenpox complications, what’s the wise choice?

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Was I “Vaccine Injured?”

At my wife’s urging, around the time of my birthday last fall, I had a full physical for the first time in almost twenty years and had my blood drawn and my numbers checked. They asked me when my last dTap (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) booster had been, and I didn’t know, but it had probably been, well, twenty years. So, I opted to have a booster, after reviewing the three or so pages of warnings, disclaimers and advisories.

And, a curious thing happened…I got sick.

I rarely get sick-usually one or two mild colds a year, and maybe a flu or stomach bug every few years. And never one right after the other. But, last October, I got two colds, one right after the other. They were mild, sure, but for me, this was unheard of.

I stayed well until the beginning of May, and then got ANOTHER cold, a severe one. After a week, it subsided, and then I got one more, which stayed with me through a stage production I was playing for. I was coughing for almost three weeks. Again, for me, this was unheard of.

So, after getting a shot that was supposed to make me WELL, I got way sicker this winter than I usually do. A mere coincidence? Probably, and here’s why:

I teach part-time in the mornings, and my hours were tripled this year from last year, which means that I spend three times as much in school environments-and around the attendant kid germs, than I have in the past. Plus, I have a nine-year-old who is in school all the time-again with the kid germs.

The drought in California isn’t over, but it’s rained considerably more this year than last year (thank the Lord). Like most people, I suffer from occasional allergies. Not being a doctor, I can’t really tell the difference between allergy symptoms and mild colds, and in either case, there’s no point going to the doctor (unless you suffer several allergies to the point where you can’t function). And, the considerably greater rainfall brought out every pollen, mold, spore and God knows what else that was driven underground by the drought.

Plus, I’m reaching A Certain Age, and my body handles illness and stress differently than it used to.

So, maybe my dTap booster lowered my immunity and made me sick…or maybe I just spend more time around kid-germs and pollen than I used to.

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Doctor’s Orders

We get our medical insurance from my wife’s job. A few years ago, our insurance plan changed and we had to find a new pediatrician for our son. Not knowing anyone or having any recommendations to go on, I just went on the Anthem/Blue Cross website and started looking up pediatricians at random.

Turns out the Anthem/Blue Cross website was a complete joke. I called several numbers that were disconnected, called another that ended up being a direct line to an OR, and then finally found the pediatric desk. I asked if any pediatricians were accepting new patients, and they found one. When they were gathering data about my son, I explained that our son was autistic, and the receptionist said this doctor might be a particularly good fit because she also had an autistic child.

A few days later, we found ourselves in the office with our son’s new pediatrician, whom I’ll call Dr. B. Dr. B. was (and is) fantastic: caring, compassionate, professional and funny.

Our son’s medical records weren’t online, and so Dr. B. didn’t have a list of our son’s vaccinations (which he’d completed). Near the end of our son’s examination, she cocked her head and asked, “What’s your stance on vaccines?”

My wife answered, “We’ve had him vaccinated.”

Dr. B. nodded. “Good.”

Call me naïve, but as far as I’m concerned, this is the last word for me on the subject: a doctor with an autistic child still recommended vaccinating our son.

The ant-vax blogosphere is full of stories about tyrannical doctors refusing to treat unvaccinated patients, but she was very mild and diplomatic about it. There were no scenes, no thunderous decrees, just “good.”

According to the prestigious Internet, in order to become a pediatrician, you have to complete four years of medical school (of course, after completing your undergrad and then being admitted to med school, which less than half of the people applying will do). Then follows a three-year pediatrics residency, then an additional two years if you’re going to combine pediatrics with another specialty. So, that’s eleven years…if you’re “just” going to be a pediatrician. Combine that with around $1 million in student loans.

I remember having someone tell me once that “drug companies put doctors through medical school-then those doctors become glorified drug salesmen to pay the debt back.” If this is the case, I’m lucky I got an honest doctor because Dr. B. made an off-hand remark about taking 25 years to pay off her student loans. Either she’s one of the rare honest ones or the drug companies dragged their feet paying for their investment.

I actually (believe it or not) used to read a lot of right-wing media, and when our son started speech therapy, I was ready for them to try to drug him, because that’s the first thing “government schools” do with problem or special-needs kids. I even informed his school psychologist during his initial evaluation that I didn’t want them to drug him. The psychologist gave me a blank look: “He eats and sleeps. There’s no reason to drug him.”

If the pharmaceutical industry really has turned doctors into drug dealers,  wouldn’t that be the final argument for taxpayer-funded education up to the MD level? You don’t trust Big Pharma? Well, then take the power out of their hands. The only “substances” Dr. B. has ever urged us to put in our son are multivitamins and sunscreen. Maybe she’s in the pocket of Big Flintstone. Or Big Hawaiian Tropic.

Maybe this is naïve, but I have to put faith in a system that requires people to complete 11 years of schooling, followed by a grueling board exam. I’m not saying that “bad doctors” can’t exist. The modern age of vaccine paranoia was STARTED by a doctor (although he’s not a doctor anymore because he was stripped of his license to practice medicine in the UK). Multiple studies have been since published finding no causal link between vaccines and autism, but, as a commentator wisely said, it’s much easier to scare people than un-scare them.

Dr. B. isn’t just a pediatrician, but a mother. Now, if it were in fact true that vaccines caused autism, certainly during her eleven years of training and decades of practice, she’d HAVE to know this. What would it take for a doctor to urge parents to vaccinate their children, even with the full knowledge she was recommending something that had caused brain damage to her own child, and she was setting up other parents for the same hardships she’d endured as the parent of a special-needs child? Dr. B. would have to be a monster, an idiot, or both. An idiot/monster who somehow managed to complete one of the most demanding training programs in the world.

I understand there are doctors at varying levels of expertise. I’m sure there are doctors who are disillusioned or burned-out and would probably be better off carving sculptures out of driftwood. And, I wouldn’t go to a neurosurgeon for a knee replacement. But, I honestly believe people who criticize doctors out of hand haven’t thought about the personal, physical and financial hell people go through to earn an MD in this day and age, or how badly controls in place would have to fail before a genuine idiot, quack or opportunist could make it through the system and into practice.

I understand doctors make mistakes. This is why they have malpractice insurance, and this is why we have courts. Nobody’s saying that doctors shouldn’t be held liable in instances of gross negligence. Again, this is why they go through eleven years of training-to minimize risk as much as possible.

In order for anti-medicine hysteria to be justified, it wouldn’t take just one bad doctor. To keep “the conspiracy” going, it would take thousands. There are around 209,000 practicing primary care physicians in the United States. They’ve all been through med school and passed their boards. They all read peer-reviewed medical journals. They know that allegations of malpractice or fraud could be the end of their careers. They have families. And, not ONE of them has an attack of conscience? (at least none without serious financial or personal conflicts in place). There shouldn’t be one Andrew Wakefield. There should be thousands.

Right now, the overwhelming majority of doctors recommend vaccines. Maybe I’ll eat these words someday, but for now, that’s good enough for me.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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