Some thoughts on the Pro/Anti-vaccination debate/tribes:
- I wish it was a debate, but sadly what I see is people on both sides posting stuff that shames/dismisses the concerns of the other. This achieves nothing except to reinforce egoic pride in the righteousness of our positions. It certainly has no chance of changing the perspectives of people who think differently and is more likely to further cement them in their own positions.
- The stakes are very high! (Rather like Climate Change) and this means we tend to operate from emotions of fear and anger more than compassion and reason. We need to be aware of this and take responsibility for managing our emotions.
- Each side has legitimate concerns and truths. I don’t mean that every point is true or valid, or that each side’s overall position is equally valid. But I do believe that whatever side we fall on we can learn important perspectives from the other, and we should be open to listening to find that truth, rather than hearing with an intention to demolish and dismiss the other’s arguments.
- I believe there are people with hidden manipulative agendas on both sides (bad actors). These are people who are not interested in the truth but want to wage narrative warfare (propaganda) to advance a separate agenda [note: see update at the end of this post]. These other agendas may include profit. For example, whoever creates an effective vaccine or treatment for Covid-19 stands to make billions. But also, in our “attention economy” people who get huge numbers of followers on social media also profit from that. Motives can also include sowing fear, division and chaos as a political strategy. We know, for example, that Russia under Putin is actively doing this in order to undermine democracy, and politicians within democracies are also seeking to benefit from the confusion and chaos. Amongst this there are scientists and doctors with personal agendas and axes to grind. It’s important to be aware and beware of these hidden agendas.
- The most dangerous and compelling lies always have a layer of truth in them. This is what makes them dangerous because we fixate on the part that is true and it blinds us to the part that is false.
The above are all general points about how to do better sense-making and how to approach seeking the truth. I am much more likely to take you seriously if you post stuff in that same spirit!
What follows is where I have got to on vaccination. Please note that I have a degree in microbiology and a mind that is curious and open to different perspectives.
- I believe that vaccines work – sometimes spectacularly well, as in Smallpox (a major killer now eradicated) and Polio, and sometimes less well, as in influenza. Some diseases, such as the common cold (caused by a variety of coronaviruses and rhinoviruses) we have been unable to create a vaccine for. How effective a vaccine is seems to depend on the properties of the virus and the complexities of our immune system. It’s not a simple binary “yes they work /no they don’t work”. The core principles are well known and probably humans have been doing something like this for centuries. For example when I was a child there were not vaccines for things like Measles, Rubella, Chicken-pox and Mumps. It was well known that these tend to be mild diseases for most children but serious diseases if caught when older, so I was taken to play with children with the diseases in order to catch it as a child and thus become immune and protected from catching it when older.
- The “terrain” (state of our general health and immune system) is also very important in whether we get sick or not. This is a hugely complex and still not fully understood area. It includes things like nutrition, vitamins and micro-nutrients, overall cardio-vascular health, our genetic make-up, the state of our microbiome (all the microbes that live in our gut, on our skin and other parts of our bodies) and also regular challenges from microbes in our environment (some dirt is good for us!). BUT – and it is a huge BUT! – having a healthy terrain, no matter how healthy, is no guarantee against succumbing to a virus. When colonisers arrived in North America and Australia bringing smallpox with them, the indigenous peoples in both continents were probably way healthier than the Europeans, and yet their populations were decimated by smallpox (often deliberately spread).
- Vaccines carry risks. [See update below] Some we know about from the safety trials that vaccines normally undergo before getting approved. Some may be longer term risks that we don’t fully understand and which only show up years later. The risks can come from the chemicals used to stabilise the vaccine (the “excipient”) which our bodies may have a short or longer-term reaction to. The risks may also come from the other DNA/RNA from the living cell cultures (culture media) used to grow/produce the vaccine which may include dormant viruses we don’t know about. The risks may be around what it does to our immune systems and microbiome. Auto-immune disease is a huge and growing problem, particularly in developed countries. There is some evidence that conditions like Autism may also connected with the microbiome/gut health. There is much that we don’t know. The longer a vaccine has been around the more chance we have of understanding the risks that go with it. But there are problems with this because under late-stage capitalism there is little funding and interest to research these longer term risks.
- Not getting vaccinated carries risks. We don’t know how a particular virus will impact us. Some viruses are very high risk with a high percentage of people dying or having long-term health impacts. Other viruses, such as influenza, have lower risks – we might die but the chances are lower. And there are risks we don’t know about or understand yet. Some viruses (such as Herpes or Epstein-Barr) can insert themselves into our own DNA and remain latent, flaring up again from time to time and causing lifetime problems.
- Our decisions impact others. If I get vaccinated I protect not only myself but other people from getting infected by me. When smallpox was eradicated it required almost everyone to get vaccinated. The result is now that nobody needs a smallpox vaccine (with the risks and expense that goes with it). If some had refused to get vaccinated then smallpox could still be around today, flaring up from time to time killing more people.
Summing it all up, for me it comes down to weighing up risks: the risks of the harm the virus may do, the risks of the vaccine itself and the risks to my community if I choose not to vaccinate. When it comes to COVID-19 I’m waiting to see what vaccines may be approved and what the safety and efficacy data looks like. I have some concerns about the way these vaccines are being rushed through and the short-cuts on safety trials that may be happening. But I’m also very aware of the real and serious dangers caused by COVID-19, so I’ll be weighing up these risks when I know more. But I also recognise that not all risks will be known and I will have to make the best choice I can with the information I have available.
This is where I have got to. You don’t have to agree with me, and I welcome debate and discussion. But don’t expect me to take you seriously if you just going to shame or dismiss and are not prepared to listen to perspectives you disagree with.
Update – 8 Feb 2021
Since writing this a few things have changed – most notably we now have vaccines being rolled out in several countries, so I wanted to add a few points.
- I probably over stated the risks from vaccines. I have been reassured from several trusted sources that no safety corners were cut in fast-tracking the Covid-19 vaccines. The speed was achieved by prioritising and pushing trials to the top of the queue (normally many different drugs and vaccines are waiting in line for safety trials, and this can take a long time just to get to the front of the queue).
Also the tissue cultures and the exipients used for new vaccines are not themselves new, so the long term risks from these can be taken as minimal even though the vaccine is a new product in response to a new virus.
- I have been seeing a lot of really outrageous, false and misleading propaganda from the anti-vaxxer side. For example posts saying that vaccines are created from harvesting the cells from aborted foetuses. This is a massive distortion built on a tiny slivver of truth: Yes, some tissue cultures commonly used are cell lines that go back to stem-cells harvested from a couple of aborted foetuses in the 1960s, before current regulations. But the propaganda gives the impression that aborted foetuses are being used now to produce vaccines. Simply not true! Another post I saw this morning claims that people are dying in droves from the Covid vaccines, and that the vaccines are untested. Again, demontrably false on both counts.
- I haven’t seen equivalent obvious propaganda from the pro-vaxxer side. But what I have seen is a persistent bias in favour of patented or patentable drugs and a more subtle propaganda war against low-cost non-patent drugs such as Ivermectin which show promise against the Sars-Cov 2 virus.This bias shows up in trials that look designed to fail, publishing distorted summaries, and a lack of interest in these drugs compared with more expensive drugs with patents.
- The speed we are seeing new mutant varieties of the Covid-19 virus is very concerning, and points to a need for a globally fair vaccination roll-out, rather than prioritising rich countries that can afford to pay most. For example a new variant in Brazil looks to be re-infecting people who have already had the older form of the virus and should have acquired immunity.
Here’s a link addressing some of the concerns about the vaccine ingredients: https://www.sciencealert.com/here-s-what-s-really-in-the-coronavirus-vaccines-there-are-no-microchips
Update 23 May 2021 – Blood Clots
There has been some concern about the AstraZeneca vaccine causing an increased risk of blood clots, with a few people even dying after receiving the vacccine. This has led some countries to stop using it, or in Australia’s case to only use it for the over 50s (where the risk of clotting us much lower).
A few observations on this:
- The risks are still extremely low – a rate of about 1 in 250,000 compared to around 1 in 1000 women who are affected by blood clots caused by contraceptive pill, and certainly much lower than the risk of blood clots and worse from getting infected by Covid-19 (see https://theconversation.com/blood-clot-risks-comparing-the-astrazeneca-vaccine-and-the-contraceptive-pill-158652)
- The fact that this has been widely reported really shows that they system is working. If (as some anti-vaccers would claim) there is a conspiracy, hidden agendas and we are being lied to in order to take a dangerous unproven vaccine, then we would not be seeing such transparency and we would certainly not be seeing governments switching to other vaccines which don’t have these reported side-effects.