Last week, a screenshot of an Instagram comment by tattooist, make-up purveyor, and celebrity vegan Kat Von D crossed my Twitter page. In response to another user’s comment to “do your research on vaccines, they aren’t vegan!”, she replies “there’s no way we are vaccinating our baby. High-five to you for promoting that!”
There’s no way we are vaccinating our baby.
It’s just words, right? But, words have meanings, and these words are dangerous. They’re words that bely not only a fundamental misunderstanding of vaccination, but also a callous disregard for the baby’s health, and public health more generally. She doubled down on her anti-vaccination sentiment later, in a post explaining that she wants to raise “a vegan child, without vaccinations”. It’s a disgrace. Kat Von D has a platform, millions of followers, a business empire, and she’s using the power that comes with that to promote an agenda that is both harmful and ignorant to the facts.
Presumably, the reason she links veganism with being anti-vaccination is the use of “animal products” in the vaccination development and storage process. Some vaccines use gelatine derived from pigs as a stabiliser — this keeps the vaccination safe while it’s being stored, allowing it to be kept and transported effectively. Religious leaders have been clear that the use of gelatine in vaccines is okay, putting the health of their followers first. Some flu vaccines are incubated in eggs – you can read more about this here. There is no denying that some vaccines use animal products. There is also no denying that there is no safer way to protect your child from disease than to have them vaccinated. Homeopathy won’t do it. Positive thinking won’t do it. Science will.
Vaccination is a Very Good Thing. That is not, and should not ever be, up for debate. Vaccines have massively reduced the number of people dying from disease worldwide every year. In the last thirty years, polio cases worldwide have dropped from almost 350,000 a year to 22 a year. Not 22,000. Twenty-two cases. That is an astonishing drop, and it’s because of vaccination. Similarly, after the development of a successful smallpox vaccine, a disease that used to kill millions was completely wiped out worldwide.
Most people in developed nations undergo a programme of scheduled vaccinations as children. In the UK, we benefit from a comprehensive vaccination timeline that covers us against… well, all sorts of things, from rotavirus to diptheria. There is a small proportion of the population who cannot have vaccinations because of existing health conditions, and those people rely on herd immunity to keep them from becoming infected. The more eligible people that get vaccinated, the harder it is for diseases to spread. It’s simple, it’s sensible, and it’s safe.
“It is scientifically provable that not vaccinating your child is much worse than vaccinating them.”
But for as long as there have been vaccines, there have been people that believe that vaccines are bad. People who think that somehow their personal liberties are being infringed because the government makes them vaccinate their children. People that think it’s all a big plot to make money for doctors and pharmaceutical companies. People who think that protecting their child against disease actually poisons them somehow. But here’s the kicker. All of this reasoning? It’s nonsense. It is scientifically provable that not vaccinating your child is much worse than vaccinating them.
One of the most recent, and most famous, examples of this is the falsified controversy around the MMR (Measles Mumps & Rubella) vaccine in the late 90s and early 2000s. In 1998 a paper by Andrew Wakefield appeared in the medical journal The Lancet; this paper used a study of just 12 children who had been given the MMR vaccine and incorrectly inferred that there was a direct link between the vaccination and autism, among other conditions. The media jumped on this story like a rat up a drainpipe. In 2007, The Lancet publicly announced that the story should never have been published. In 2010, the research was fully discredited by the General Medical Council, and Wakefield was struck off the medical register and roundly castigated for peddling lies. But the damage was done. People were scared. In 2005, only 83% of children received the MMR vaccination.
“The odds of a child being hospitalised from measles is one in 100.”
First, this is wildly dangerous. The odds of a child having a severe reaction to a vaccination are incredibly small – 1 out of every 100,000 children could be at risk of a severe allergy after MMR. However, one out of every 1,000 children getting measles contracts meningitis. The odds of a child being hospitalised from measles is one in 100. The odds of getting pancreatitis from contracting mumps? One in 30.
Secondly, this fear is incredibly ableist. Parents who aren’t vaccinating their children because of this type of discredited research are saying “I would rather my child contracted a possibly deadly disease than that my child had a disability”. They are saying “I’d rather my child infected other children with weakened immune systems than my child was autistic”. Not only is this a disgraceful attitude that puts children’s lives at risk, but it’s based on invalidated research that has done nothing but harm. The NHS put it better than I ever could:
“It may be tempting to say “no” to vaccination and “leave it to nature”. However, deciding not to vaccinate your child puts them at risk of catching a range of potentially serious, even fatal, diseases.”
“But what if I have valid safety concerns?” people say, “isn’t it a private thing if I want to vaccinate my child?” Well, no. Vaccine refusal is already leading to a drop in vaccination rates, and a demonstrable rise in disease – measles rates in Europe quadrupled between 2016 and 2017. For those with weakened immune systems, this is extremely dangerous. Anti-vaxxers are gaining a foothold, and they shouldn’t be. It’s an attitude of “do what you want, and everybody else can hang”. But denying vaccinations to your children can kill them, and it can kill others. It’s as simple as that.
Articles about this topic have called the decision to vaccinate a “parenting choice”. But here’s the kicker. It should not be a choice. It should be a necessity.