This week, I've been doing a deep dive into the issue of vaccinations. I've found myself pulled back and forth between the pro- and anti- camps as I've tried to get a nuanced picture of the issue. I found a lot of misinformation, and not just on one side. So, when I asked what I should write about for this post and opened to the same page of the Book of Mormon where I opened last week, I was reminded of the mostly-past human suffering from polio and rubella as I read "and he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time even down to the present day...yea, and ye also ought to retain in remembrance...their captivity."
For people of my generation and younger, it's challenging to retain that captivity in remembrance. I was 4 years old when the first rubella vaccine came into use. But for the grace of God, that could have been too late for my family. I was born at the tail end of a rubella epidemic. I have a vague memory of a family story that that one of my brothers or myself contracted rubella while my mom was pregnant. According to statistics, if my mom caught the disease it would have shown mild symptoms in her but there was a 50-90% chance of passing the virus on to her unborn baby. The likely result would have been miscarriage, stillbirth, or the baby being born with severe disabilities. But we were blessed. Mom didn't get sick and the baby was born healthy.
There were plenty of others who were not spared. During the 1964-65 US epidemic, 20,000 children were born with congenital rubella syndrome: "11,000 were deaf, 3,500 blind, and 1,800 intellectually disabled. There were 2,100 neonatal deaths and more than 11,000 abortions – some a spontaneous result of rubella infection in the mother, and others performed surgically after women were informed of the serious risks of rubella exposure during their pregnancy" (History of Vaccines).
Not only were we spared suffering from rubella, but I never really saw polio; Canada's last big polio epidemic was 6 years before my birth, with 2,000 cases of paralytic polio. But that was when the disease was winding down, with the first vaccine being offered in 1955. Between 1949 and 1954, 11,000 Canadians (mostly children) had been paralyzed by polio.
The oral vaccine was introduced in 1962. I remember taking it in school. I believe it was pink, and dispensed in tiny cups. What I know is that it was delicious. I have wondered why my kids had to get polio shots instead of the tasty vaccine I remember fondly. I found out this week.
The oral vaccine uses a live but weakened virus and is more effective than the shot. But it has a rare side effect: about 1 in every 2.4 million doses causes paralysis. So, once polio was eradicated at home, both Canada and the US switched to the less potent, less risky shot with a killed virus. The oral vaccine is still in use in the developing world, where polio is still being eliminated. My youngest sister reports that my baby nephew, recently born in India, loved his first dose of oral polio vaccine.
Vaccines have done away with a great deal of suffering and saved literally millions of lives. But then, there's the side effects; the ones we know about as well as the ones we don't.
It's what we don't know that can be frightening. This week, I encountered a study about babies who were vaccinated with Diptheria-Tetanus-Pertussis (and no oral polio vaccine) in a low income, West African community in the 1980s. They were more likely to die in infancy than unvaccinated babies. This was especially the case for baby girls. They didn't die of the disease they were vaccinated for, but of other illnesses. Researchers don't know why. Neither do they understand why the mortality rate decreased for babies who received OPV alongside DTP.
Now, this risk does not apply in developed countries where infant mortality is low. But the study highlights the reality that we are still dealing with developing science and there are yet many things we do not know.
I also did my best to calculate the risks of getting vaccinated in Canada or the USA. If you don't have an underlying condition that puts you at special jeopardy, it appears that you're less likely to suffer a rare side effect than you are to get injured in a car accident. You are less likely to suffer a debilitating side effect than you are to die in a car accident. Undertaking that risk is what keeps epidemics at bay, protecting not only ourselves but also those who do have underlying conditions and can't get vaccinated.
The hard part is, how do you know if you're at special jeopardy? The research is clear about some conditions. But what about the conditions that haven't been studied? I took a walk this week with a friend who feels deeply unsettled about vaccinations for her family. She and her kids have a number of physical sensitivities. For example, she mentioned that she had blisters on her eye that day because she'd wiped her hand across her face the night before after having touched nickel.
Another verse on the next page of the Book of Mormon to the one above leaps out at me in answer to this question. Here, Alma is talking to his son Helaman about the sacred record that's about to be entrusted to him, but I think the promise holds true to all of our stewardships from God, including preserving the health that we and our children need to fulfill our missions:
But if ye keep the commandments of God, and do with these things which are sacred according to that which the Lord doth command you, (for you must appeal unto the Lord for all things whatsoever ye must do with them) behold, no power of earth or hell can take them from you, for God is powerful to the fulfilling of all his words. (Alma 37:16)
I also think of the First Presidency's January 19, 2021 statement on COVID-19 immunization:
As appropriate opportunities become available, the Church urges its members, employees and missionaries to be good global citizens and help quell the pandemic by safeguarding themselves and others through immunization. Individuals are responsible to make their own decisions about vaccination. In making that determination, we recommend that, where possible, they counsel with a competent medical professional about their personal circumstances and needs.
I feel like that statement embraces both sides of the question. There is general encouragement to take advantage of the blessings of vaccines. And there is also a statement of accountability to figure out what opportunities are personally appropriate. Counselling with a competent medical professional can help correct the kind of misinformation that interferes with hearing heavenly direction. But in the end, the responsibility to decide what is appropriate is personal. I get to follow the promptings that come to me and appeal to the Lord for guidance. So does my friend. And we will support each other in our vaccination decisions, even if they're opposites.