Vaccines and your vegan family

March 9, 2010

Vaccination photo by stevendepoloFor this week’s question to the Council of Vegan Parents, we decided to stir the pot a little and address something we’ve gotten a few questions on but were, frankly, a little hesistant to ask about: what about vaccines?

There are various controversies around them (though one of the largest seems to have been discredited recently,) but perhaps more importantly from a vegan perspective, there are animal products in most vaccines and they’ve all been tested on animals at some point. Where do our Council respondents stand on this one?

A few things before we get started: first and foremost, as with all stories on Spawn Better, these are the collected experiences and opinions of a group of vegan parents, and while we hope they’re helpful for you, nothing on this site should be construed as a substitute for actual medical advice. Secondly, while nobody asked for anonymity, I’ve decided to post the responses to this one mostly verbatim but with the names removed (except for Elaine, whose identity as a foster parent is pretty obvious if you’ve read any other posts here.) Vaccination is a personal decision made on behalf of a child, and I’d like to thank the Council members who were willing to share some of the thoughts they went through.

You may also have some legal or other health regulations (such as from your school board) to consider, depending on where you live. As our foster parenting advisor Elaine says:

“With foster children, we are technically agents of the state. Until or unless we adopt, we don’t have full parental rights. So, unless or until birth parents rights have been terminated, we must go along with whatever medical decisions that the birth parents or the state makes on behalf of the child.

“That means, for example, that if a birth parent wants their newborn baby boy to be circumcised, we cannot stand in the way and prevent that from happening, even if we object. Or vice versa, we cannot get a child’s ears pierced, hair cut, or any other nonemergency medical procedure or body modification.

“So… legally we have no choice but to follow traditional vaccination schedules with our foster baby.”

A balance of risks

“Our son is not vaccinated at all. We chose not to vaccinate for many reasons and ironically the non-vegan aspects were very low on the list of concerns. Many of the reasons we chose not to vaccinate were because we felt the risk of our child getting some of these mostly, non-life threatening diseases were less than the impact of all of the unnatural ingredients going into our little boy’s body and to be honest I had a gut feeling that overloading our son’s system wouldn’t be a good idea. Although I will never know for sure if my gut reaction was spot on I do know that my son has been diagnosed with a minor neurological condition called Childhood Apraxia of Speech which has impacted his ability to speak clearly and he is about 1 year behind in fine and gross motor skills. One of the first questions doctors and neurologists have asked us is “was he vaccinated;” this is part of their list of questions to determine if there was any harm done during pregnancy, birth, or as a baby. It has always made me happy that we chose not to vaccinate our son on the schedule that most babies get shots.

“We knew that I would stay at home with him so he wouldn’t be in daycare, we exclusively breastfed for 12 months, we never planned on traveling out of the country, and we did things to keep us all healthy. There is always the chance too that a child can still get the disease even when vaccinated and in my husband’s case he caught the chicken pox disease from the actual vaccine (he decided to get himself vaccinated last year because he never had the chicken pox as a kid and he is a school teacher.) We have given thought to getting our son vaccinated with the tetanus shot after he turns 6. I would feel better about this now that his body is older and better developed.

“But most of this rambling has nothing to do with them not being vegan. For me the risk of vaccines were more of a concern for me than if they were made with animal ingredients but that still had some impact on my decision.”

Choosing your battles

“This is one of the subjects in which I’m sort of a naughty vegan. My daughter has (and will have) the minimum vaccines required by schools. We made this decision on a two factors: first, the simplicity that comes with not having to fight with every single school, class, sport, and extracurricular activity about it; second, the security of knowing she’ll almost certainly be safe from some awful diseases (we travel to foreign countries often so there is actually a chance she may be exposed at some point). I suppose, as much as this will earn judgment from some people, that we also partially gave into what our parents and doctor wanted us to do. I feel like the chance of us regretting giving her vaccines will probably be small compared to the chance we will regret not getting her vaccinated. That said, we aren’t getting any vaccines that aren’t required by the public school system, and our daughter will never receive a flu or HPV vaccine. To us it’s more a matter of our daughter’s well-being than of being vegan.”

Vaccinations as a gift

“The way I look at it is that my kids are lucky to be vaccinated. Kids die in other countries that kids [here] don’t die from because of vaccinations. That being said we go overboard on some of them – chicken pox and H1N1??? The bare minimum is what my kids got.”

Deciding on a case-by-case basis

“My husband at first assumed that all vaccines were beneficial. He assumed we would vaccinate our children unless there was a specific medical or ethical reason to avoid them. He says he understands a vegan rationale for abstaining from vaccines, but his level of veganism allows for such compromises until there are better alternatives. He says, for example, that if humans had a biological need for animal protein, then he wouldn’t be vegan. He avoids unnecessary animal products and he feels that some medications and vaccines are necessary. In general I agree with him.

“I feel that vaccines are beneficial in general but that their benefits are overstated. For example, I think the risks of most of the diseases that vaccines prevent are very low, particularly when the affected person has clean drinking water, good hygiene, and medical treatment when they’re ill, like antibiotics. For example, the actual risk of dying from measles is slight so long as the person who contracted the disease has plenty of safe things to eat and drink and has access to medical facilities. I see vaccines as a sort of bandaid for larger public health problems. I’m no germaphobe, but it drives me crazy how many people discount the simple act of handwashing and all that it can do to prevent the spread of disease.

“MY MAIN POINT: I think that when it comes to ensuring good health for our children and the public at large, we ought to put more emphasis on healthy eating (vegan obviously), clean air and water, education about good hygiene, and access for all people to medical facilities for emergency care.

“Another area that has influenced my thoughts on vaccines is that they’re required for so much: day care, school, field trips, etc. And I have had to receive certain vaccines in order to obtain employment or to volunteer in certain situations. Getting vaccinated can make life easier. This social benefit weighs in on my decision.

“However, that has to be balanced with the potential risk. I absolutely agree with the Green Our Vaccines campaign and I think vaccines should be free of heavy metals and all other impurities. But I’m currently unconvinced that the potential harm of vaccines outweighs the benefits.

“So… my husband and I have talked about vaccines. He says I’ve changed his mind a bit and he’s less likely to just go with the flow and get all the standard vaccines for our children. We decided that… we’ll investigate each vaccine and decide on a case-by-case basis. But in general, because of the social expectation, the social convenience, and the medical benefits we’ll be vaccinating our children.”

“Veganism is about doing what we can”

“I first had to confront this when I was pregnant and they offered me a flu shot. While I could’ve taken some time to mull it over, I made the decision quickly and went ahead with the shot. Afterward, I had plenty of time to think about whether I’d made the right decision and, for us, I think I did. I remain unconvinced that the dangers of vaccines outweigh the benefits.

“I grew up with a friend whose mother had been paralyzed by polio. I know a number of women who’ve had to deal with HPV. My grandmother’s sister died of scarlet fever (which there was a vaccine though she hadn’t had it) before penicillin was used to treat it. Because there is no vegan vaccine option and I believe that the possible dangers of foregoing vaccines are significant, we are all vaccinated. We all got the swine flu vaccine, our son is being vaccinated on schedule, my daughter got the HPV vaccine as soon as it was available, and – particularly with the new recommendations from the AAP – I plan on making sure my son is vaccinated against HPV as well.

“As responsible, thoughtful vegan parents, sometimes we have to make choices that don’t line up with our lifestyle. For us, though, veganism isn’t about being perfect, it’s about doing what we can. In the absence of a vegan option, I don’t believe that we have compromised or lifestyle of beliefs.”

Staying vigilant

“We don’t vaccinate our kids, but we do keep up-to-date on symptoms, outbreak patterns (seasons, geographies, etc.), treatments, complications, and so on for all the diseases commonly vaccinated against in childhood, such that we might rapidly diagnose and treat our kids if they do catch them. We watched Sherri Tenpenny’s two-hour DVD Vaccines: What CDC Documents and Science Reveal [aff. link] in which she convincingly argues that “herd immunity” and other pro-vaccine concepts do not hold up to scientific data. It seemed to us that good diet and good hygiene are perhaps the safest and most potent disease prevention measures.

“Rejecting vaccines solely because they are made from animals (chicken eggs, monkeys, cows, and others) would seem to lead logically to rejecting most of Western medicine. We reject vaccines because we’re not convinced that they work as advertised or that they have acceptable side effects. For example, many children who contract pertussis or chicken pox have been vaccinated against those diseases – can these vaccines be said to ‘work’? Yes, childhood diseases can kill and maim, but vaccines are not 100% safe either and have serious side effects.”

Researching and Prioritizing

“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what to do with vaccines when our son was born. I have a particularly distinct memory of the pediatrician who happened to be on call when we went in for his 2 day (yes, 2 DAY) appointment harassing me because I hadn’t figured it out and wanted to wait for our 2 week appointment with our normal nurse practitioner to ask some questions and decide what we were going to do. Luckily, she was a lot less pushy and we were able to work together to find a plan that we were all comfortable with…

“I ended up doing a lot of my own research, talking with the nurse practitioner, and then spreading out the vaccinations that we did, with an eye to balancing how ‘urgent; the different ones seemed. Hep-B didn’t seem like a big risk in our house at birth, so we put that off and bought ourselves more time to do research. Some of the others (HiB, pneumococcal, DTaP) seemed more likely to affect an infant, so we prioritized those.

“Vegan concerns have come into our decisions in the sense that I really, really didn’t want to find out that he was allergic to, say, chicken eggs because they were injected into his body as part of a vaccine. That played into the risk-benefit analysis that I did, and made it easier for me to decide against things like the seasonal flu vaccine since I didn’t know what his risk for an allergic reaction would be.

“We haven’t talked in too much detail about what we’ll do this time around but I imagine it will be pretty similar. Our pediatrician has a pretty similar practical, laid-back approach to things and seems willing to have an open discussion with us and to give us her opinions without making us feel dumb for even asking questions, which is nice.”

Thanks again to all the Council members who shared their thoughts on this one! If you have any opinions of your own to share or any questions, be sure to leave them in the comments!

(Photo credit: stevendepolo)

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Elaine March 13, 2010 at 1:55 am

I got the feeling that many vegans weren't opposed to vaccines in principle, just wished that vegan versions were available, but it's nice to see actual vegan parents chiming in on the issue.

I'm so frustrated with how many people assume that since they met one vegan who does things one way that all vegans feel the same way. That's what happened when were were looking for pediatricians; all the doctors reacted with questions and comments about vaccines, which I found surprising because I never brought up vaccines and I specifically chose not to bring up non-diet issues. I referenced our “vegan diet” not our “vegan lifestyle” because I wanted to make it clear that I wanted a doctor who was knowledgeable and supportive of a vegan DIET. I did NOT want a doctor who was presumptuous about what they thought constituted my vegan lifestyle, including vaccine preferences, because usually they get that stuff wrong .

Unless they themselves are vegan they often don't understand how to differentiate between necessary and unnecessary nonvegan items. For example, if the doctor prescribes a baby lotion and it happens to be lanolin based, I'm going to ask for a vegan alternative. But if the doctor says the kid needs an emergency life-saving operation, I'm going to say, “Do it, do it well, and do it using the products you're most comfortable and familiar with, regardless of whether or not they're vegan.”

Michele June 3, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Hi, I’m wondering if I might be able to ask Elaine a few questions (off this thread if preferred :-)) regarding the issue of fostering as related to not vaccinating biological children. I am a foster parent in NJ & the state will not allow us to foster children under the age of 12 months of age because they say my unvaccinated children are a dangerous health threat to any infant! I’m curious if this was ever an issue for you, Elaine, & if so how did you deal with it? Thank you, & I’m sorry if this is a bit off-topic.

Elaine Vigneault June 4, 2010 at 11:25 am

Hi Michele,
It’s not an issue for me because we’ve only cared for one foster child at a time and we don’t have biological children or roommates with children. But, you should know that…

Every state’s laws related to foster parenting vary slightly. But each county’s interpretations and guidelines vary widely.

In my state the law says “All children residing in the foster home must be currently immunized against any communicable and contagious disease” but also says “the administrator […] may, on a case-by-case basis, waive a specific requirement of this chapter if the waiver is for the betterment of the foster care program and child and is not in violation of any statute of this state or federal law.”

Thus, if the need for infant care was great enough and the biases against families who didn’t vaccinate were few enough, some families like yours could become licensed foster homes. I could see that happening in certain counties more than in others.

Kimberly August 13, 2012 at 11:08 pm


I have never vaccinated my own child or any of my foster children. My decision was not based on veganism but on the safety of vaccines. My now adopted foster child has only had the vaccine which was given to her in the hospital on the day she was born. Unless the pediatrician or social worker report you, you are usually able to get away with not vaxxing. I suppose we’ve also been lucky. I was never asked the direct question, other than by the doctor, and I swore I’d never lie if I was asked, and the birth mothers were either against vaccines themselves or simply assumed it was something we were doing….

Sandra August 24, 2012 at 12:25 pm

My children are grown, so this is not a perspective I can offer with too much personal relevancy. My position in a public health WIC clinic, however, might offer another viewpoint.

Vaccines are most effective when there is a herd response. By that, we mean, when enough of the community is protected by being vaccinated, that the efficacy of the vaccination is “enjoyed” by everyone, even those with impaired immunity e.g., (elderly, those people with chronic disease).

Currently, there are epidemics of Pertussis — whooping cough — in most states. In California, I know of 20 children/people (or more) who have died from this preventable disease in just the last year. Many more have been very ill. Here, in Kentucky, our public health department has been put on alert and anyone can receive a vaccination against pertussis if it is not available from their private physician. This is a devastatingly difficult disease for a small child or infant. “Pertussis” means, “the hundred-day cough.” Take croup and multiply it by 10 times as tiring and 100 times as long. Both of my kids had croup at one time or another. I felt helpless for the day or two they struggled…the worst (as always) seemed to be the nighttime.

There are other vaccinations that parents may feel are “optional.’ The HPV vaccination is one of these. There are times when our immune system is prime for a vaccine. In the case of the HPV vaccine, the ages 9 to 15 provide optimal efficacy of the vaccine: it does not create as great an immune response at later ages, though the immunity against over 20 HPV strains is significantly imparted to all ages. So, even though your child is not sexually active — especially if the child/teen is not sexually active — immunity at the younger age is extremely beneficial … and, for those of you who think your child will not be exposed to HPV, think again. It’s their first sexual encounter (including their new spouses) that can expose them to these preventable diseases.

I guess what I’m rambling on about is that, like breastfeeding provides benefits to the community as a whole, so does vaccination. As you ponder this issue, think holistically and globally. Going back to days when measles can wipe out a population might not be that far away if enough people choose to have their children by-pass the needle.

Madame Chicken May 31, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Just an aside – there has never been a vaccine for scarlet fever, as is mentioned in one section – ” My grandmother’s sister died of scarlet fever (which there was a vaccine though she hadn’t had it) before penicillin was used to treat it.”

Mike Maybury July 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Having read the logical and interesting reasons for making decisions above, I can only add my personal experience.
Born into a medical family I guess that I would have had the small number of vaccinations available at that time (1930s). We all had whooping-cough and later, at school, almost everyone at school had measels (a really unpleasant week in bed feeling horrible). Measels vaccination did not exist then.
Since that time I have never had a vaccination, specifically because, at age 16, I came across vegetarian, anti-vivisection and anti-vaccination ideas.
At age 78 I look back on a healthy life as a wholefood vegetarian with ‘flu only once as an adult and no colds even for the last 9 years. I have no aches or pains, and no allergies or any of the sensitivity problems that anti-vaccinationists claim may be caused by vaccination.
We did not have our son vaccinated. However, due to our marriage breaking up, I do not know about any vaccinations that might have occurred after age two and a half, as I knew that this might be a source of conflict.
One of my objectives in adopting a wholefood vegetarian lifestyle was to reduce the need for medications which I realised were all tested on animals. I have taken antibiotics about 6 times in 60 years. Much of life seems to be about compromise. In the United Kingdom we have a free Health (disease) service and ‘alternative’ practitioners are costly and not easily accessible.

Lyn December 21, 2013 at 12:15 pm

I just recently discovered that some vegans are against vaccination and decided to google it. I found some of the comments here rather interesting and while I’m no one to judge, part of me cringes at the idea of some people not getting vaccinated because vaccines are all about herd immunity. If one person in the community doesn’t vaccinate against it and gets infected, there’s still a chance of an outbreak happening.

Just as a side-note: To Elaine: I’m sorry that you feel offended that every time you told your doctors that you have a vegan diet, they proceeded to ask you about vaccinations and so forth, which are all more related to vegan lifestyles. However, doctors are specifically taught to make sure of everything and not make assumptions. Seriously, you won’t believe the number of people that will tell you “I’ve stopped smoking.” Then when you asked when did they stop, they’ll tell you, “Oh, this morning.” Sounds insane but it happens. So you can imagine how doctors will ignore the finer nuances of ‘diet’ and ‘lifestyle’ and choose to play safe. Anyway, chances are, even if you aren’t a vegan, he’s still going to ask, “Has your child been vaccinated?” because it’s part of a routine questioning.

Let me give you an example based on the ones you gave. How will you feel if, because you said you have a vegan ‘diet’, your doctor prescribes something with lanolin in it to your child to be applied on the skin because he assumed that you aren’t practising a vegan ‘lifestyle’? That’s bad, but not fatal. Now imagine you’re in the second situation and he assumes that since you’re a vegan, you’re not going to want to use this life-saving treatment that has animal products. That’s going to end real badly. In short, doctors can’t assume anything and must always ask to confirm. Hope this helps 🙂

anton May 21, 2014 at 8:40 am

just a little correction, chicken eggs are not part of the vaccine, what IS in it is derived protein from a chicken muscle. For the rest a good read and some good advice for all vegans out there!

מדרגות צפות תל אביב November 14, 2015 at 2:34 pm

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Em February 6, 2016 at 6:50 pm

This was great; particularly the “Deciding on a case by case basis” section: I agree with the statement “avoiding unnecessary animal products.” Thanks.

Laurie Endicott Thomas November 28, 2016 at 9:37 am

We are having the wrong conversation about vaccines. Rather than worrying about the false rumors being spread by antivax zealots, we should be talking about driving diseases like measles into extinction. Smallpox has been driven into extinction by vaccination. Polio has been driven nearly to extinction. Measles is next in line for eradication. Once measles, mumps, and rubella are extinct, there will be no further need for the MMR vaccine. But it would be madness to stop vaccinating before then. (A friend of mine is deaf in one ear because of mumps. Another lost a lot of hearing in one ear because of shingles.)

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