Old Geezers Out to Lunch

Old Geezers Out to Lunch
The Geezers Emeritus through history: The Mathematician™, Dr. Golf™, The Professor™, and Mercurious™

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Vaccination Vascillation

Traveling on business with a friend and colleague, the subject of vaccination against various public health threats came up in conversation. My colleague and her husband, I learned, had chosen not to receive influenza vaccinations this year, after many years of following the advice of the health-care community in religiously being inoculated against flu.

The reason?  The previous year, her husband had developed a frightening serious of symptoms that turned out to be Bell's Palsy.  It was, they learned, a well-established and well-documented, albeit rare, reaction to vaccination in some people.

I do not believe that public vaccination is the cause of widespread autism in this country, as a notable group of parents (and some celebrities) believe. The fact that so many parents believe so and are not vaccinating their kids is almost certainly the reason we are facing a mild outbreak of measles right now. My kids were of course vaccinated against all those various illnesses, as are most school age kids today.

A right of passage for Geezers in their youth. 
But  I don't believe you can compel people to accept medical treatment against their will. And I do worry, sometimes, about our hysteria regarding illnesses that most of us Geezers thought of as simple facts of childhood. As a kid, many if not most of us went through measles (both "German" and sometimes the "red" or "hard" measles), mumps, chicken pox. Once you had them, you were free of them for life. In fact, in some cases (chicken pox), parents actually encouraged kids to get infected so as to get the illness out of the way before adulthood, when the effects could be more severe. I recall instances where parents would send their kids to play with other kids who had chicken pox, seeking the inoculation that occurs naturally when a body fights off an illness.

These days, we treat these illnesses as though they are bubonic plague, and I wonder, really, if biologically we are doing ourselves any favor by preventing our bodies from going through them. I wonder if our kids are perhaps too tender and might actually be sturdier if their bodies had fought through the routine illnesses we all did as kids. Among my working staff, I'm frequently struck by how some young workers have so little stamina and grit when it comes to working through minor problems. They are so unused to physical malady of any kind that a simple headache can utterly incapacitate them.

A difficult question. A physician friend pointed out that back in the day a certain percentage of measles victims died or developed very serious conditions when they had the illness—far more as a percentage than those today who have serious reactions to vaccinations. As a matter of overall statistical public health, vaccinations make sense.  And I do recall as a kid that there were friends for whom chicken pox was so severe as to leave them with permanent scarring. And would you suggest, my friend asked, that people should also fight their way through small pox if that disease were to crop up again?

And as was also pointed out, it's not clear what Geezer conditions might be related to those childhood illnesses we all went through.  What if we find out that heart valve problems, Alzheimer's disease, or other serious maladies are long-term consequences of our having had measles or mumps as kids?  The jury is simply not in on such possibilities.

But I have to question the current hysteria that wants to force parents into vaccinating their kids. Liberal though I am, I do not think this is the kind of thing government can mandate. Nor do I think it is a catastrophic public health crisis if a dozen cases of measles pops up here and there. I have also heard enough compelling anecdotal stories of kids who developed frightening symptoms after vaccination, including sudden autistic like symptoms, to discount the possibility that this might occur in a few people. Parents should have the right, I think, to weigh those potential merits and risks and decide for themselves, even if their fears seem a little wacky by community standards.

I've an argument that suggests that, since we mandate things like wearing seatbelts or using child car seats, we also have a right to mandate vaccination. I'm uneasy about drawing such a parallel, since it feels like a slippery slope to begin forcing medical treatment on people.

At my last routine medical checkup, my doctor suggested that I'm at an age where I might want to consider a shingles vaccination. I'm finding this a harder decision than you might imagine.


  1. I totally blame the news media for blowing this thing up into something "newsworthy." It seems like they need to have a catastrophe every couple of weeks. I clearly remember having chickenpox and measles as a kid and they weren't that bad. I'm not sure that the government could enforce a rule on total mandatory vaccinations. Would we really throw people into jail for not getting their kids vaccinated? I don't think so. The part that amazes me, is that some parents really don't want their kids to get them. I actually went to get a shingles vaccination a while back. I changed my mind when I got there. I have good insurance and my share of the bill was $300.00!

    The whole subject of vaccinations is worthy of thought and dialogue. However, without the news media blowing it all out of proportion, we wouldn't even be talking about it.

  2. I had measles in 1945, when I was three.It put me in the hospital for a a week or more, with pneumonia and a raging fever. I had the other communicable diseases, chicken pox and mumps, much more easily. I chose to have my children vaccinated. I believe parents who do not vaccinate should have their children sent home when a cluster of cases appear. Let their child acquire natural immunity somehow, or worse yet, contract mumps as a adult. Diphtheria and whooping cough are far more serious; asking a child to develop natural immunity to those through contracting the disease is playing roulette. Then, there's tetanus. However, I suppose if a child never ventures outdoors in bare feet, the child is safe. Whoops, I forgot the accidental spill, hands gouging through the soil. Basically, I think anti vaccine parents are ignorant of facts.

  3. You make excellent points. I'm by no means anti-vaccine—I have my flu shots (though I sometimes get it anyway) my kids had their shots, as a gardener, I have my tetanus boosters whenever needed. But let's realistically acknowledge that the history of medicine is full of "facts" that later are disproved. More than likely, vaccines are a good idea, for most people, most of the time. But that's also what pregnant mothers suffering from morning sickness were told by the medical establishment about thalidomide

  4. There was the summer of infamy when my mother had to deal with three children under the age of five with measles, chicken pox and mumps... I'm sure she would have vaccinated us herself if she could have avoided that! As for the measles, I agree with Pat. The media needed another crisis and since ebola seems to be on the wane (or people have tired of hearing about it), the measles were a good marketing ploy to glue folks to the 6 O'clock news.

  5. Autism caused by vaccinations is a crazy theory that has been scientifically proven to have no basis in fact. People who do not have their kids "get their shots" because of a disproven conspiracy are doing a disservice to others. 'Course, that's just my opinion.

  6. You raise good issues and arguments. First, we must protect freedom of choice, though in a society we must also calculate for the public good. In the case of Small Pox and Polio I think the public good weighs in favor of universal vaccination. Measles could seriously affect people with compromised immune systems so not to vaccinate could lead to harm to others. It is a tough issue. As for folks of our age, I think the shingles and pneumonia vaccines are wise. My wife and I have taken those shots. Pneumonia can be quite harmful as we age and I've known friends who have suffered miserably with shingles. Clearly this is an issue we'll continue to work on.