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Vaccination polemics in a post-truth world

11 March 2017

For the last couple of years I have been vaguely aware of some sort of controversy over vaccination in the USA. I didn’t pay much attention to it because, as far as I was aware, it wasn’t controversial here, and most people (with some exceptions I’ll refer to later) accepted vaccination as a normal health precaution for certain diseases. It seemed to me that people who were raising vociferous objections to it were creating the proverbial storm in a tea cup.

But today I read something written by an Orthodox priest who said that he had recently discovered that one of his parishioners had applied for exemption from vaccination on “religious” grounds. The priest asked if there was anything, such as an authoritative statement by Orthodox bishops, to indicate what those “religious grounds” were.

In reply someone posted a link to this article — NY court lets woman refuse vaccine made with aborted baby tissue / OrthoChristian.Com:

An Orthodox Christian woman has won the right to refuse a vaccine developed using aborted babies’ tissue, based on her religious beliefs.

The vaccine is for measles/mumps/rubella and is required by New York City law for all schoolchildren. It was developed from fetal tissue procured from abortions, hence the moral dilemma for practicing Christians.

The woman, who remains anonymous, said her Christian beliefs against abortion compel her to have nothing to do with vaccines made using aborted fetal tissue.

That put a different complexion on the issue. It seemed to me that it wasn’t a simple Yes/No issue, but there were several shades of grey. Apart from anything else, it was news to me that some vaccines were made from aborted human babies.

I thought I needed to verify that claim. The article was from a source that cited another source. The intermediate source is a polemical site with an axe to grind, and so I wanted to find something more impartial. But it turned out that that was easier said than done. The headline spoke of a court, but the body of the article did not name a judge, but an official of the education department.

So I did a web search to see if I could find an article that could verify the story. I found an article on a site called “Science-based Medicine” which I hoped could either verify or refute the story, but it turned out to have far more intemperate polemical ranting that the other site, and was anything but scientific — “Aborted fetal tissue” and vaccines: Combining pseudoscience and religion to demonize vaccines – Science-Based Medicine:

Overall, the view that somehow vaccines whose virus strains are grown in these two cell lines are the product of pure evil seems to rely on a magical thinking that an evil (in the view of those who oppose abortion) from over 50 years ago continues to taint these cell lines over hundreds of passages seems rather like the law of contagion in sympathetic magic, more than anything else.

That’s not science, it’s ideology.

So the Google search was to no avail; all I could find was ideological rhetoric, on both sides.

So I post this here in the hope that someone reading it might be able to point me to some factual information about the assertion that some vaccines are made from aborted fetuses, preferably without the partisan polemical rants from either side.

I said at the beginning that vaccination was uncontroversial in South Africa, with some exceptions. I am one of the exceptions, as I was never vaccinated as a child. My father was a conscientious objector to vaccination, what the Americans call an “antivaxxer”,and he got whatever authorisations and exemptions were needed so that I could go to school without being vaccinated. He never discussed his reasons for this with me, but I do know that he was a convinced atheist and something of a health fanatic. He was a biochemist by profession, and used to read me bedtime stories out of his biology textbooks, where the illustrations of sea urchins and liver flukes looked far more fantastic than any mere human conception of extraterrestrial alien life. My own theory, looking back, is that my father was a bit of a Darwinist. If you got the diseases that the vaccines were supposed to protect you from, your immune system was there to overcome them, and needed to be exercised by overcoming them. If it failed to so so, then you weren’t among the fittest who survived.

I never saw the exemption certificate, and in any case it was not recognised by any government beyond the borders of South Africa, and when, in the middle of 1964, it became necessary to have a passport to travel to Lesotho, and proof of a smallpox vaccination, I got myself vaccinated, since I did not know the reasons for my father’s objections, and had none of my own. Because I had not been vaccinated before, I had to go back after 10 days to make sure it had “taken” before they gave me a certificate. In the mean time, as a result of not having been vaccinated before, I was sick as a dog, and spent several days in bed. Cowpox, I suppose.

When I was 13 our school holidays were extended by a week because of a polio epidemic, and I knew several people who had had polio and had to walk with the aid of leg braces. A few months later a vaccine for polio was developed, too late for those already crippled by the disease, but one heard of no more epidemics.I was never vaccinated against it myself, but our children were.

Almost every year we get circulars from our medical aid urging us to get vaccinated against influenza. I can understand their reasoning — the vaccination, which you can get at the chemist, is cheaper than the cost of a doctor’s consultation. But I suppose I’m enough of my father’s son to be sceptical of the efficacy of such things. Unlike things like polio and smallpox, influenza viruses seem to mutate so rapidly that a vaccine against one strain doesn’t seem to be very effective against another.

So when it comes to vaccination, I’m neither excessively pro- nor obsessively anti, in principle. It’s the kind of thing one needs to be able to make informed decisions about, but, because of the fanatical pro- and anti- views in the USA, it seems to be very difficult to get the information one needs to make informed decisions, because all the information is so wrapped up in propaganda that it is very difficult to distinguish facts from polemics.



2 Comments leave one →
  1. 13 March 2017 12:12 pm

    Not sure if this is going to be helpful or not. I remember it from quite some years ago. Info may be dated?

    • 13 March 2017 1:54 pm

      Thanks for sharing. Yes, interesting enough in its way, but not really the question I was asking, which was whether and which vaccines are made with cells from aborted fetuses. That at least, was the question that sparked off my Google search,

      but even that was not the main question I was asking in the blog post. It was rather why it was so difficult to find the facts without the polemics. Perhaps if I’d drilled down to the 10th or 20th or 50th page of Google hits I might have found such information.

      And, to judge by comments people made in the Facebook link to this post, most people seem to be unable to envisage vacts being presented without polemics.

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