Vegans and Vaccinations
The following article was printed in The Vegan magazine and was compiled by Gill Langley MA PhD MBiol.
One of our body's most important defence mechanisms is the immune system, which enables specialised cells and proteins (antibodies) in the bloodstream to combat 'foreign' substances, including bacteria and viruses. When exposed to germs, the body creates antibodies to deal specifically with them, and in a healthy person infection is overcome.
The aim of vaccination is to prime this natural defence system. A vaccine consists of large numbers of killed or weakened bacteria or neutralized toxins. Introduction of these substances into the body by vaccination results in their recognition as 'foreign' and the production of antibodies against tyhem. As the vaccines are not virulent (i.e. cannot cause infection), the main result is that if the vaccinated person subsequently, the immune system swings into action much more quickly and gives protection against the disease.
... and Practice
That's the theory anyway; do the results show that vaccination is always successful? Vaccination, being based on the germ theory of disease, is a central part of modern medicine. The 'conquest' of the infectious diseases of the last century and early years of this is often claimed by doctors to be one of the major successes of modern medicine. But a closer look at the history of medicine reveals a somewhat different picture.
In his book The Role of Medicine (Blackwells, 1979), Professor Thomas McKeown writes that the contribution of clinical medicine to the prevention of death and increase in life expectancy was smaller than that of other influences (and certainly smaller than is often claimed), and he spends some time dealing with the part vaccines have had to play. For example, deaths from tuberculosis fell consistently from the time it was first recorded in 1838, and by the time the BCG vaccine was introduced in the mid-1950s, deaths had already fallen from 3,500 per million people in 1838 to 200 per million people. The rate of decrease in deaths from tuberculosis has not changed since vaccination became common, and McKeown attributes most of the reduction in mortality to increased resistance due to better nutrition, and to less overcrowding. By comparison with Britain, the Netherlands has never had a national BCG vaccination programme, but has the lowest death rate form tuberculosis of any European country.
Since the early years of this century the death rate from diphtheria fell constantly both during and after the introduction both of antitoxin treatment and later, in the 1940s, a national immunisation campaign. Even though Professor McKeown reckons diphtheria immunisation is one of the more successful, he admits that because deaths from whooping cough and measles also fell over a long period - when there was not vaccine available - it can't be assumed that vaccination alone accounted for the decrease in diphtheria deaths. Again, better nutrition, improved sanitation and housing conditions, and purer drinking water played a major role.
It's impossible generalise about the successes of vaccines of different sorts. As we've seen, results depend not only on the effectiveness of each vaccine but only on the effectiveness of each vaccine but also on nutritional, environmental and behavioural factors. So it seems that smallpox has been eradicated, at least for the time being; and yet a study of BCG vaccination in India showed after seven years that there were as many cases of tuberculosis of the lung in vaccinated people as there were in those who had not been immunised. Success rates for BCG vaccine vary from 80% among American Indians to nil among schoolchildren from Georgia!
Everyone is concerned that vaccines should be safe, and vegans will also be concerned about the origins of vaccines and the way they are tested for safety.
In the case of viral vaccines such as smallpox and rabies, in the early days the virus was obtained from infected animals. Smallpox virus was collected from skin sores on infected calves. But later developments have allowed the virus to be grown in cell cultures, and human cells are now used in culture to produce rabies, smallpox, polio (in the UK), german measles and measles vaccines. Bacterial vaccines such as diphtheria and tetanus were originally produced from meat broths, but the bacteria are now grown in chemically-defined liquids.
Each batch of vaccine is subjected to a number of tests before it is sold, and most of these entail the use of laboratory animals. Safety tests are done to ensure that there is no active, virulent virus remaining in the vaccine, and these involve injecting mice, guinea pigs, rabbits or monkeys, sometimes directly into the spinal cord, to see if any infection results. Potency tests check that the vaccine really does give protection: two groups of animals are infected with the disease, and one group then receives vaccination. This group shouldn't develop the disease, but the other animals aren't so 'lucky'. Finally, the vaccines have to be tested for purity, to ensure that there are no other infectious viruses contaminating the vaccine, and these tests are conducted using adult and suckling mice, guinea pigs and rabbits.
Alternative humane methods of vaccine testing are being developed, such as cell-culture techniques and biochemical tests, but so far there is no vaccine which does not at some stage involve animal exploitation.
The safety of vaccines in use remains a contentious issue. If animal tests are effective, all vaccine batches which 'pass' should be safe for human use, but this is obviously not the case. Cause of the greatest concern has been the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine. In the early 1970s eight out of every ten children received the triple vaccine, and fears led to a fall in the vaccination rate so that by 1977 only three out of ten children had been immunised against whooping cough, and even now only six in every ten are vaccinated, and mini-epidemics occur every two or three years.
Until 1968 the whooping cough vaccine was only effective 20% of the time, but doctors claim that since then the vaccine has been improved. There are, though, some eminent doctors who regard the whooping cough vaccine as ineffective and dangerous. A study of its safety was set up, and in 1981 reported that the risk of permanent brain damage after pertussis vaccination was 1 in 110,000 injections. Critics claim that by only counting those children who were hospitalised, the numbers were underestimated and the risk could be as high as one child brain-damaged for every 50,00 injections. Earlier this year the controversy was sparked off again by the sudden deaths of five-month-old twins two hours after receiving the triple vaccine. So the situation remains unclarified, and although there is also a risk of brain damage from the disease itself, the words of reassurance from the Department of Health have a hollow ring to them.
A question about the long-term safety of vaccines has been posed by a study of measles in Denmark. A team of doctors found that most of the people who apparently never had measles in childhood actually did have antibodies to the measles virus in their blood, showing they had been infected but hadn't developed the characteristic rash. These people developed more apparently unrelated diseases in later life including such serious conditions as arthritis, bone problems, skin diseases and certain tumours - than those who had a full-blown measles infection.
The doctors suggest that if a person is exposed to measles but doesn't develop a rash, the virus may survive and cause illness later on. This casts a doubt on the advisability of vaccination, which causes a build-up of antibodies to the measles virus. A doctor will not know when vaccinating a child whether or not they have already been exposed to infection, in which case measles may be in the incubation stage. If so, the rash could be suppressed and the virus may linger in the body, causing much more serious problems in years to come.
This study provides unexpected support for the philosophy of holistic medical practitioners who have always believed that suppression of illness damages the body's long-term ability to fight off disease; to them, childhood infections such as measles help establish natural immunity in later life, and suppression of symptoms drives disease deeper into the body. The Unitary Theory, common to all natural therapies, states that the identity of the disease-causing bacteria or virus is of less importance than the equilibrium of the body, mind and spirit.
Naturopathy or nature cure has a long history and has been evolved by its practitioners in the clinical situation largely by observation of humans in health and disease. Its methods have been developed by practical experience and owe nothing to animal experimentation. The principle of nature cure is the stimulation of the body's natural healing powers, both by building a good foundation for health and by such treatments as diet, relaxation and meditation, and hydrotherapy.
Sound nutrition plays a vital role in naturopathy, whose practitioners advocate a wholefood diet, with food being eaten as near to its natural state as possible. Some, although not all, naturopaths recommend a vegetarian or vegan diet for some of their patients, but all agree that junk foods contaminated with chemicals or drugs will hinder the body's natural resistance to disease by causing a build-up of toxins in the tissues. Nature cure practitioners believe that infection is likely to occur when the natural balance of the body breaks down, and this usually owes more to emotional, nutritional or mechanical stresses than to bacteria or viruses. They point to the fact that many people are exposed to germs and yet don't succumb to illness, their bodies have a high level of natural resistance.
If a child brought up on a health-promoting diet does catch an infectious disease, s/he is more likely to recover without complications such as eyesight problems, which can result from measles infection. In treating childhood infections a naturopath would be likely to 'prescribe' a short fast or fruit juice-only diet for a few days, possibly combined with hydrotherapy and herbal or homoeopathic remedies. While this approach may sound highly unorthodox to some, it's worth remembering that for many years tuberculosis patients benefited from fresh mountain air and good food at a time when there was no drug treatment. The charted decline in many infectious diseases in the late nineteenth century was also due mainly to improved nutrition, purer drinking water and better sanitation, which boosted people's ability to fight off illness - the basic precept of naturopathy.
Homoeopathy, while playing a part in the naturopath's approach, is also a system of holistic medicine in its own right. Developed nearly 200 years ago, it works on the basis of treating like with like; remedies are used in extremely dilute forms which, if concentrated, would actually cause symptoms similar to the illness being treated. Homoeopathic remedies are prepared from natural substances - vegetable, mineral, human or animal - and are potentised by special techniques of repeated dilution. The more dilute the remedy, the more powerful it is.
No-one has yet satisfactorily explained how homoeopathy works, but there is no doubt that in many cases it has proved to be extremely effective. Because different remedies may be used to treat the same illness in different patients, homoeopathy isn't amendable to orthodox scientific methods of assessment, such as large-scale clinical trials and animal experiments. Nevertheless, some scientists have misguidedly conducted animal testes on an effort to establish the efficacy of homoeopathic treatment. Homoeopathy was originally developed through provings on people and, despite occasional animal tests, such is still the case when new remedies are discovered. Vegans must be on the look-out for remedies derived from animal substances such as bee venom and cuttle-fish ink, and should also bear in mind that many remedies are made in tablet form containing the milk sugar, lactose.
Homoeopathic remedies can be used preventatively or curatively and there are remedies for most childhood infections, such as Germany measles and whooping cough.
When cholera struck London in 1854, the London Homoepathic Hospital treated many patients. On the release of official statistics on the epidemic, it was found that 54,000 people had died of cholera. Of these, 59% had died while receiving orthodox treatment, while of the patients treated homoeopathically only 16% died. This prompted the then Medical Inspector to remark "If it should please the Lord to visit me with cholera I would wish to fall into the hands of a homoeopathic physician!"
For vegans, whether concerned chiefly about animal exploitation or natural health, there is ultimately no easy answer to the vaccination question. I hope, however, that this article has provided some guidance in the matter.
The following information is taken from Green Line magazine, October 1995.
· DPT: The DPT vaccine contains cultured diptheria bacterium, pertussis organisms, and tetanus toxoid. It also contains sodium chloride, sodium hydroxide, formaldehyde, hydrochloric acid, aluminium and thimerosal (a mercury derivative).
· MMR: The MMR vaccine contains live measles virus and live mumps virus grown in cell cultures of chick embryo; live rubella virus grown in human diploid cell culture (human foetus medium); neomycin (an antibiotic); sorbitol, and hydrolized gelatin.
· Polio: The live polio vaccine contains 3 types of polio viruses grown in monkey kidney cell culture and calf serum. It also contains neomycin, streptomycin (antibiotics) and sorbitol. The inactivated polio vaccine contains 3 types of polio viruses grown in monkey kidney cell cultures. It also contains formaldehyde and polymyxin B.
· Hib: The Hib vaccine contains Haemophilus influenzae type b saccharides, sodium chloride, aluminium hydroxide and thomerosal.
· Hepatitus B: The Hepatitus B vaccine is derived from fermentation cultures of a recombinant strain of yeast (fungi) containing a part of the Hepatitus B virus gene. It also contains aluminium hydroxide, thimerosal (a mercury derivative), and formaldehyde. A genetically engineered hepatitis B vaccine contains aluminium hydrochloride, sodium chloride and thimerosal."
· The British Homoeopathic Association, Basildon Court, 27a Devonshire Street, London W1N 1RJ.
· The Institute for Complementary Medicine, 21 Portland Place, London W1N 3AF.
· The British Naturopathic & Osteopathic Association, 6 Netherhall Gardens, Hampstead, London NW3 5RR.
· Mothers Know Best, 4 Wallace Road, London N1 2PG (information on the scandal & cover ups of childhood vaccinations)
· British Anti-Vivisection Association, PO Box 82, Kingswood, Bristol BS15 1YF (information on vaccinations - 50 things doctor forgot to tell you)
· The Informed Parent, PO Box 870, Harrow, Middlesex HA3 7UW Tel or Fax: 020 8861 1022. (produce a bulletin with a forum for discussion on the safety of vaccinations)
· Vaccination Information
· Vaccination Awareness Network UK, Vaccination Information Centre, 178 Mansfield Road, Nottingham NG1 3HW. Tel 0115 948 0829. Fax 0115 950 3858. E-mail
· Immunization Theory vs Reality by Neil Z. Miller. Published by New Atlantean Press. Available for £10 (including p&p) from Vaccination Information, PO Box 43 Hull, HU1 1AA.
· Vaccines: Are they Really Safe & Effective? by Neil Z. Miller (£7.50 incl. p&p) and the Vaccination Information Pack (£1.50 inc p&p) are available from Catalyst Collective Ltd, PO Box 5, Lostwithiel PL22 OYT.
· Vaccine Legacy by Pat Rattigan. £1.50 from BAVA, PO Box 82, Kingswood, Bristol BS15 1YF.
· The Vaccination Bible. £8.55 from What Doctors Don't Tell You, 4 Wallace Road, London N1 2PG.
· Vaccination by H.L. Coulter & B.L. Fisher. Published by Warner 1996.
· Mass Immunisation: A Point in Question by T. Gunn. Published by Cutting Edge Publications 1992.
· Vaccination: 100 Years of Orthodox Research Shows that Vaccines Represent a Medical Assault on the Immune System by Viera Scheibner 1993.