It's National Immunization Awareness Week in Canada and across the world, and UNICEF is reporting the failure of Canada to achieve the 95 per cent immunization rate required to protect the community from resurgences of deadly and debilitating infectious disease.
At just 84 per cent, we are even below the U.K., which is experiencing a severe measles outbreak, and we are at risk for an outbreak of whooping cough, measles or the dreaded childhood paralysis also known as polio. All it takes is one infected person to travel from an area where the disease is rampant to an area at risk in Canada, and we will have an outbreak.
This is no one organization's fault. I have spoken to concerned parents about their misgivings about vaccines and most site a distrust of the medical system or unwillingness or lack of time on the part of their doctor to discuss the side-effects or risks associated with vaccines.
If the doctor does not want to discuss this, they feel, then the risks must be more dangerous than we thought -- or physicians are in the pocket of drug reps and the pharmaceutical industry and just want to sell more vaccines.
It is also no wonder that in the wake of actual conspiracies on the part of industry to hide the dangers of smoking, and acid rain or other environmental pollutants, we have a rise of a belief in phantasmal conspiracies from other big corporations.
If this was just a grassroots problem then education would be the answer, I think. Outreach to patients and parents groups concerned about these problems would be easier and a little time set aside for education or frank discussion at the doctor's office would go a long way.
This is not the case, however, and there is a concerted effort on the part of those left out of the medical establishment to twist, misinterpret or out make up facts about immunizations and vaccines. The alternative medical community -- naturopaths, homeopaths, chiropractors -- has made a considerable effort over the past three decades to spread fear and mistrust about vaccines and we have to recognize that they are part of the problem, no matter how well-intentioned.
We have solid evidence that naturopathic students become less supportive of vaccines as they progress through their training. They receive more training in homeopathy than in pharmacology and now naturopaths want to become primary care providers, the first point of contact for Canadians seeking medical advice.
Chiropractors, many of whom deny the idea that germs cause disease, have been shown to spread anti-vaccination ideas, and some Canadian homeopaths are even offering bogus alternatives to vaccines called nosodes, which Health Canada has deemed efficacious but that have no scientific evidence to support their use.
In the U.K., Wales is currently under the thumb of a measles outbreak, with over 800 cases so far, and one 25-year-old dead because of it. This is the result of a severe decrease in the immunization rate in that country after a bogus paper -- rife with conflicts of interest and bad science -- was published by Andrew Wakefield in the late 1990s, connecting vaccines with autism. This was picked up by the alternative medical community because it already spoke their prior beliefs that mainstream medicine kills people and "natural medicine" can offer better solutions.
This is a gross oversimplification. Immunization by vaccine has been one of the most successful public health campaigns in the modern era, right up there with water and waste treatment. There are risks, to be sure, and vaccines are not 100 per cent effective, but the benefits far outweigh the risks.
To achieve the level of immunity in the community we need to ensure that childhood infectious diseases do not take hold we need to have everyone immunized. If someone only speaks to you about the risks of vaccines, then you are not getting the whole story; any medical treatment has risks and benefits, and when the proven benefits outweigh the risks, then they should be considered as effective treatments.
Time and again we see alternative medicine practitioners comparing the risks of standard medicine with the risks of alternative medicine, the unspoken premise being that they both work. This is disingenuous and unethical. Not only should you be including the benefits in this equation, but most of the time the alternative treatments have NO proven benefits and are the result of a non-scientific world view based on a fantasy. Informed consent, the cornerstone of modern medicine, means you give all of the facts, not just the ones that are convenient.
The solution is clear here. We have a disenfranchised public driven into the arms of alternative medical practitioners because the public doesn't trust or lacks access to physicians and nurses that can help. Mainstream medicine needs not only to make a concerted effort to have frank discussions with their patients, but needs to speak out against the fake treatments and bad science of alternative medicine.
Provincial and Federal governments need to recognize that alt-med and natural health product industries are working at cross-purposes with public health agencies and we need a national vaccination registry to track rates and identify problem areas.
Finally, parents and patients need to be wary of false promises and charismatic spin and seek out unbiased and scientific sources for their information. Together we can all keep Canadians safe and eliminate the need for vaccines altogether: by eliminating the diseases themselves through proper immunization.
Fact: This myth just will not die. So let's clear this up: You cannot get the flu from your flu shot. Why? That vaccine is made from a dead or inactive virus that can no longer spread its fever-spiking properties. In rare cases, a person may experience a reaction to the shot that includes a low-grade fever, but these reactions are not The Flu, Everyday Health reported. Note: Even though the flu shot cannot cause the flu, there are a number of other reasons not to get the vaccine, including for some people with an allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Fact: Unfortunately, even after slapping a bandage on that injection site, you may only be about 60 percent protected, according to the CDC. That means, yes, you can still get the flu after your shot. Some people may be exposed to the flu in the two weeks it takes for the vaccine to take effect, reports NPR. Others might be exposed to a strain not covered in the vaccine, which is made each year based on the viruses experts predict will be the most common, according to Flu.gov. (This year's batch seems to have been matched well to what is actually going around, NPR reports.)
Fact: Plain and simply, antibiotics fight bacteria, not viruses. The flu -- and colds, for that matter -- are caused by viruses. In fact, antibiotics kill off the "good" bacteria that help to fight off infections, so that viral flu may only get worse.
Fact: Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, while often dubbed the "stomach flu," are not typically symptoms of seasonal influenza, which, first and foremost, is a respiratory disease, according to Flu.gov. The flu can sometimes cause these issues, but they won't usually be the main symptoms -- and are more common signs of seasonal flu in children than adults.
Fact: Younger, healthy adults aren't among the people the CDC urges most strongly to get vaccinated, like pregnant women, people over 65 and those with certain chronic medical conditions. The young and healthy will more often than not recover just fine from the flu, with or without the shot. But protecting yourself even if you don't think you need protecting can actually be an act of good. The more people are vaccinated, the fewer cases of flu we all pass around, which in turn offers greater protection to those at-risk groups.
Fact: Mom or Grandma probably told you this one at some point, and while you might not feel so cozy if you head out the door straight from the shower, doing so doesn't exactly condemn you to bed. The only way to catch the flu is to come into contact with the virus that causes it. That might happen while you are outside in the cold, and flu season does certainly happen during cold weather, but it's not because you're cold that you catch the bug.
Fact: It's not antibiotics that cure-seekers should be looking for. While the two antiviral drugs available to fight the flu aren't a quick fix, they can reduce the length of your bout of the flu and make you less contagious to others, according to WebMD. This year's earlier-than-usual flu season has already led to shortages of one of the drugs, Tamiflu, in the children's liquid formulation, according to the medication's manufacturers. However, a number of experts in countries around the world have questioned Tamiflu's efficacy in fighting the flu, and some have even suggested a boycott until further data is published.
Follow Michael Kruse on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@anxiousmedic