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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)