Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having

While America is still in the grips of swine flu mania, let me use
this opportunity to clear up a few things about my beliefs concerning
the flu shot, vaccines, and health in general. I do this because there
is obviously a lot of curiosity about this subject of vaccines -- it
comes up in every interview I do these days, and I've been finding that
people, including doctors, are privately expressing a skepticism that
is still not very prevalent in public. I feel like I've become a
confessor for people who want someone to be raising questions about

But I don't want the job. I agree with my critics who say there are
far more qualified people than me -- its just that mainstream media
rarely interviews doctors and scientists who present an alternative
point of view. There is a movement to stop people from asking any
questions about vaccines -- they're a miracle, that's it, debate over.
I don't think its that simple, and neither do millions of other people.
The British Medical Journal from August 25 says half the
doctors and medical workers in the U.K. are not taking the flu shot --
are they all crazy too? Sixty-five percent of French people don't want
it. Maybe its not as simple as the medical establishment wants to paint

Vaccination is a nuanced subject, and I've never said all vaccines
in all situations are bad. The point I am representing is: Is getting
frequent vaccinations for any and all viruses consequence-free? I feel
its unnecessary and counterproductive to try and silence people with
condescension. Michael Shermer wrote me an open letter and felt I
needed to be told that "vaccinations work by tricking the body's immune
system into thinking that it has already had the disease for which the
vaccination was given." Thanks, Doc, I thought there might be a little
man inside the needle. Yes, I read Microbe Hunters when I was eight, I have a basic idea how vaccines work.

That's not -- or shouldn't be -- where the debate is. I admit, its
hard to get as clear a picture of my beliefs, as you could, say, if I
had written a book on vaccines, versus someone in the setting of a talk
show. So I understand why its easy to take bits of things I have said
and extrapolate into something I actually have never said. I understand
it, but its not exactly "scientific."

But rather than responding to every absurd thing said, let me just
tell you want I do think -- because I will admit, I have gone off half
cocked on this issue sometimes, and often only had time on my show to
explain a fraction of what needed to be explained, and for that I am
sorry. Some of it can't be helped, some of that is the nature of the
show we do: live, off the cuff, lots of interruptions. Some of it was
just from me being overexcited about finally finding a health regimen
that actually made me healthier and feel better. And many a time I have
wanted to stop the show and clarify a point or provide the nuance I
think it deserves, but I am serving many masters, and you have to get
out of the way as much as you can so the guests can say their piece.

But some of it I would do differently. For example, I recently
joined Twitter Nation -- what can I say, Demi Moore is a very
convincing salesperson -- and what everybody told me about Twitter was
that it was supposed to be whatever stray thought or thing just
happened to you -- you know, for people who find blogging too formal
and stuffy.

But apparently it's taken very seriously, because there was Scott Pelley on 60 Minutes
asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services what she thought
about the fact that "Bill Maher told his viewers anyone who gets a flu
shot is an idiot."

Well, not quite. It was twittered, which I guess doesn't make a huge difference, but as 60 Minutes
is the last bastion of TV journalism, accuracy is appreciated. And I
see that counts for Twitter, too -- my bad -- so yes, some people are
not idiotic to get a flu shot. They're idiotic if they don't
investigate the pros and cons of getting a flu shot. But, come on -- it
was a twitter from a comedian, not a treatise in the New England Journal of Medicine, that's not what I do.

I'm just trying to represent an under-reported medical point of view
in this country, I'm not telling a specific pregnant lady what to do.
With unlimited air time, I would have, for example, added to my
discussion with Dr. Bill Frist on October 2 that, yes, any flu or
health challenge can be dangerous when you're pregnant, and if your
immune system is already compromised by, for example, eating a typical
American diet, then a flu shot can make sense. But someone needs to be
representing the point of view that says the preferred way to handle
flus is to have a strong immune system to begin with, and getting lots
of vaccines might not be the best way to accomplish that over the long

Now, sometimes its OK to fuck with nature -- I believe "intelligent
design" is often anything but intelligent; that "God's perfect
universe" is actually full of fuck ups and design flaws, like cleft
lips and Down Syndrome -- so correcting nature is sometimes the right
thing to do. And then, sometimes its not. For me, the flu shot is in
the "not" category.

In addition, my audience is bright, they wouldn't refuse a flu shot
because they heard me talk about it, but if they looked into the
subject a little more, how is that a bad thing? If they went to the CDC
Web site and saw what's in the vaccine -- the formaldehyde, the insect
repellent, the mercury -- shouldn't they at least get to have the
information for themselves?

But just to reassure all those people who have such a romantic
attachment to vaccines: I know, there are vaccines that have had their
battles with the bad guys and won -- great! And if you have a
compromised immune system and can't boost it naturally, as in poor
countries where the children are eating dirt, then a vaccine can be a
white knight -- bravo! Does the polio vaccine have the power to prevent
children from getting polio, and did it indeed do just that in the
1950s? I believe it does, and it did. But polio had diminished by over
50 percent in the thirty years before the vaccine -- that's a pretty
big fact in the polio story that you don't often hear and which merits
debate. It may be the case that the vaccine should have been used
anyway to finish polio off, but there are some interesting facts on the
other side.

So yes, I get it, we learned how to trick our immune systems. And
maybe sometimes, you gotta do it. But maybe the immune system doesn't
like being tricked so many times. Maybe we should be studying that
instead of shouting down debate.

Someone who speaks eloquently about this is Barbara Loe Fisher,
founder of the National Vaccine Information Center. I find her
extremely credible, as I do Dr. Russell Blaylock, Dr. Jay Gordon and
many others, but I shouldn't have even mentioned them because I don't
want to be "the Vaccine Guy"!! Look it up yourself, and stop asking me
about it -- I'm already the Religion Guy, and that's enough work!

Anyway, Ms. Fisher is someone who says she is not "anti-vaccine,"
but just has a lot of questions about the long term effect of using a
lot of vaccines. After devoting her life to studying this, she says
that the influenza vaccine studies that have been done "are not
persuasive in proving that a seasonal flu shot provides immunity." She
also points out "that what we need, but do not yet have, are studies of
vaccinated vs unvaccinated children."

Is it worth it to get vaccines for every bug that goes around?
Injecting something into my bloodstream? I'd like to reserve that for
emergencies. This is the flu, and there's always a flu. I've said it
before, America is a panicky country. It's like we look for things to
panic about.The reports from Australia, where they're over their flu
season, is that its not a terribly virulent flu. The worldwide numbers
support that. But you'd never get that impression from the media in
this country.

60 Minutes has done two pieces on swine flu within a month.
The first one introduced us to a high school football player named Luke
Duvall who, we were told, was the picture of health, and then got hit
by the flu so bad he was in the hospital at death's door. But later in
the segment we learn that Luke had staphylococcus pneumonia along with
the flu. Was that staph bug in him when he got hit by the flu? Its not
clear from the reporting, but since every other kid on both football
teams got the flu, as well as the cheerleaders ... ahem ... and all of
them got over it just fine, then it seems quite possible that Luke had
a co-existing infection, and that's why his experience with H1N1 was so

On the follow up visit a couple of weeks later on 60 Minutes,
we were told Luke had "beaten H1N1." No, he beat H1N1 and staph
together: that's very different! If 99 percent of people have
relatively mild symptoms, shouldn't science's first job be finding out
why the one percent get felled? Having an underlying health issue is
the point I was raising with Dr. Frist: maybe Luke wasn't the picture
of perfect health they described in the opening.

By the way, when Scott Pelley asked the government spokesman about
the fact that only one percent of people who get the flu find it to be
anything other than a typical, mild flu, the answer was an analogy to
seatbelts, that "only 1 percent of people riding in a car will be in an
accident, but you don't want to take a chance on being that 1 percent."

That went unchallenged, which is sad, because what a horrible
analogy! I would think vaccines containing many different dicey
substances shot directly into the bloodstream have a slightly greater
chance of secondary effects than a piece of fabric lying across your
waist. Maybe if you had to swallow the seatbelt this would be a good

If one side can say anything and its not challenged, then of course
dissent becomes heresy in the minds of many. I don't trust the
mainstream media to be thorough or exacting enough to inform me as much
as I need on this subject. Sorry, they're just not up to it. At the
very least, they should have pointed out, as we watched Luke fighting
for life on a ventilator, that, of course, flu vaccines don't have any
therapeutic effect on bacterial infection.

While we're on the subject of bacteria, let me say clearly I understand germ theory also -- I believe they also covered that in Microbe Hunters
-- nor have I ever said I was a "germ theory denier." What I've been
saying is that Western medicine ignores too much the fact that the
terrain in which bacteria can thrive is crucial and often controllable,
which shouldn't even be controversial. I don't care what Louis Pasteur
said on his death bed -- it was probably, "Either the curtains go or I
do" -- that's not the point!

And it's precisely because I am a Darwinist that I fear the overuse
of antibiotics, since that is what has allowed nasty killer bugs like
MRE to adapt so effectively that they are often resistant to any
antibiotic we can throw at it. There are consequences to vaccines and
antibiotics. Some people want to study that, and some, it seems, want
to call off the debate.

Instead of setting up this straw man of me not understanding germs
or viruses, let's have a real debate about how much we should use
vaccines and antibiotics. Of course it's good that we have them in our
arsenal, but isn't the real skeptic the one who asks if these powerful
but toxic methods do harm to what actually is a a very good defensive
system, the one you were born with?

Also, I have never said there was a medical conspiracy. In fact,
when Howard Dean asked me that, my response was "I wouldn't call it a
conspiracy." Any more than there's a conspiracy for the Pentagon budget
to be obscenely bloated and operated largely for the corporate welfare
of defense contractors. If these are conspiracies, they're mostly legal
ones that happen in plain sight. (Good time here to plug the hostess'
book, Pigs At the Trough,
it's all in there!) I have, in fact, used the phrase
"medical-pharmaceutical-food industry" complex in comparing it to
Eisenhower's famous depiction of a "military-industrial complex."

But no, I don't think the A.M.A. and Big Pharma and Aetna and Dr.
Frist's hospital chain all meet in a board room and cackle about
keeping us sick. They meet on the golf course. (Just kidding.)

Do pharmaceutical companies want to cure diabetes or do they want to
sell diabetes drugs and equipment? Well, they sure do sell a lot these
days, and the food companies are what make that possible. Read David
Kessler's book about the deliberate way food companies use salt, fat
and sugar as foodcrack to get people literally addicted to eating bad
food and too much of it. Is that a conspiracy? Only if you define
corporations putting profit ahead of human health as conspiracy. The
fact that Americans will do anything to each other for money is not a
conspiracy, it's a scandal.

I believe in science and I believe in studies to determine the
truth. I also believe Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon was correct when he
said recently on MSNBC: "If you've got a checkbook in this town, you
can get just about any set of facts you want." So if I remind you of a
conspiracy theorist, you sometimes remind me of Britney Spears when she
said "we should just do whatever the president says to do, and not ask
questions and just support him." The medical community can be brutal on
dissent, which would hold more weight if I thought this was a terribly
healthy country, which it isn't. Health care is one sixth of our
economy, and we spend way more on it than any other nation. The
elephant in the room of the health care debate is that we are going to
have a high health care bill every year no matter what law they pass
because we're sick -- we need a lot of drugs and services.

Am I a conspiracy theorist if I suggest that since the network's
nightly news broadcasts are sponsored almost entirely by prescription
drug ads, that you might have to hold your breath a long time before
you hear the alternative point of view to using pharmaceuticals to cure
all our ailments?

Is it conspiracy theory to believe that American medicine too much
treats symptoms and not root causes of disease? I always ask my friends
when they go to the doctor for something, "Did your doctor ask you what
you eat?" The answer is almost always 'no,' and a lot can be cured with
diet and a healthier lifestyle. (And a lot can't. I also understand the
role of genetics and generations of artificial selection). But
Americans don't want to hear that, so doctors don't push it. It's
easier and more profitable to write a prescription for Lipitor. They're
not bad people, and at the end of the day, you can't make someone eat
right. I like and respect all the M.D.s I've had over the years, and
for the record, I have a naturopath doctor and I have a Western doctor.
I would make an analogy to Republicans and Democrats: in both politics
and health, I don't commit to either party because I'm on the side of
the truth, whoever has it. In both cases, I'm an Independent.

Ms. Fisher said "If we want to create a society that is dependent on
shots for immunity -- the same way we are getting dependent on
prescription drugs, antibiotics, and surgery -- this is the path we
should keep going down."

I don't think its "anti-science" to pause and consider that point of view.

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