What No One is Talking About in the Vaccine Debate

This week, several of my favorite people in the entertainment world have all taken jabs at the "anti-vaxxers," saying their view is not based in science and that ALL doctors agree that vaccines are completely safe. 

I started feeling really frustrated and sad and disappointed. 

Not about the debate. I'm used to that.  

Being a doctor in integrative medicine, I tend to see and hear from people who feel failed by conventional medicine, or who don't feel listened to by their physician. So, I realize that my patient base is very different from a typical primary care provider or pediatrician, but I have seen several cases of adverse effects from vaccination in my young, seven year career.

Does that mean I'm anti-vaccine? No. 

What no one is talking about, is that these people, who have lost loved ones, or who's lives have been devastated by side effects such as paralysis or narcolepsy or yes, autism, are being ignored.

You cannot dismiss someone's experience by simply stating "it didn't happen" or "science proves otherwise." 

In fact, in science, the data is there, or it isn't. We can't cherry pick what data we want and discard the rest or pretend it didn't happen. Side effects happen in literally everything in medicine. In fact, more people in the US die from Tylenol each year than die from the flu or certainly the measles. But it's still the first drug we're told to turn to for pain or fever. 

Were vaccines created to harm people? Of course not. They have saved millions of lives. 

Do vaccines have side effects? Absolutely. Most of which are mild and temporary, but in some cases can be more severe, even causing death.

And that is a fact. Just read the vaccine insert if you disagree.

The story does not begin and end with autism and MMR. All vaccines and all medicines have side effects and respond differently in different people. That is not "bunk," or "anti-science," or "quackery." You can look up the adverse effects yourself on the VAERS database or check any drug handbook for a list of potential side effects. 

And you know what else? Sometimes coincidence does happen. Or several factors all line up and adverse outcomes therefore cannot be blamed on just one thing. In fact, that happens a lot more now that we are exposed to so much more in our environment since the industrial revolution. Health, in general, is no longer so cut and dry any more. As we say in med school, "no patient seems to have 'read the book' anymore," when it comes to disease. 

This is why medicine is in fact an art, not a science. 

To me, the tragedy here is that there is a large group of people who's terrible, life-altering experience is being dismissed and big name people and media outlets are all making them feel as if their experience doesn't exist. 

The Internet is full of rating sites that allow for people to express their terrible experiences, proving that when people have a rough time, or a bad experience, they want to share it with the world in hopes that no one else has their awful experience. It is no different in medicine, especially when the terrible experience involves death.

Just because someone wants to tell their story about a vaccination side effect does not mean they are against all vaccines. 

Yes, there are zealots, on both sides. 

But the people who have been harmed or who have lost a child are just trying to bring a voice to the unheard and are wanting to have someone acknowledge that THIS DID HAPPEN. And that it was terrible.

So, let's be compassionate and hear them and say, I am so sorry you experienced this. This is a terrible thing to go through. I am deeply sorry for your loss. 

That's it. No "but," no, "research says..." Acknowledge, accept and move forward. 

It is not productive to keep going round and round, denying something has happened when it has. Yes, it is a shame. But this is how science and medicine work. There is a risk for everything, even aspirin. 

So I am asking that everyone calm down and listen to each other, stop quoting sound bytes and stop dismissing someone else's experience, because it was theirs to live, not yours. You were not there to see the loss. You did not see your child become an entirely different person overnight. You did not wake up unable to move your arm and continue to struggle with your paralyzed arm months later. 

Let's embrace these people with compassion and empathy and work together to get more transparency in the research that is going on so that we can learn more about what type of person is more susceptible to side effects, helping us to move forward and develop safer vaccines and medications.