Monday, February 2, 2015

Dear Pagans: Get Vaccinated

Every once in a while I'll stumble into a conversation where a Pagan parent is scared to death about going to a Pagan event because they're afraid their child will be exposed to the nudity that often goes on there.  There is an intense debate periodically going on about whether or not nudity is harmful to children, but more specifically whether or not nudity will result in a call to child protective services.  Parents are rightfully afraid of this, especially during divorces, because it's not unheard of for Paganism to be used against somebody in a custody hearing, and adding public nudity just compounds that issue.

You know what I've never heard seriously brought up, though?  How many Pagan parents refuse to get vaccines for themselves and their children.

I was thinking about this as I was looking into the world of religious and spiritual exemptions for vaccines.  Mostly I was curious about the following:  How many religions out there actually have documented, long-term, spiritually-based reasons for refusing vaccinations?  My hunch was (and at its most basic still is) that genuine religious exemptions are probably rare enough to be no big deal.  I didn't actually get so far as to find a real list, though.  Instead I found thread upon thread of people in parenting and anti-vax forums sharing lists of religions they could pretend to be in order to get a religious exemption for vaccinating their children.  And on every one of these lists I saw Paganism and/or Wicca.

I was upset but also not that shocked, to be honest.  There was a regrettable and lengthy period in my life when I was an anti-vaxxer, too.  And the Pagan community was one of the places I got those ideas in my head in the first place.  The first person I ever met who had never been vaccinated was raised a Wiccan.  Plenty of others started refusing after converting.  Still more refuse to get their kids vaccinated.  And many of vaccine deniers will cite Paganism or Wicca as their reason for doing so.  They're using Paganism to gain religious exemptions to laws and workplace requirements.

When I started digging into the why, the religious exemption for Pagans and Wiccans started to make less and less sense.  And some of the stuff I read actually punches me in the gut with how ridiculously uncomfortable it makes me with my own community.

"I don't vaccinate because my religion says to avoid harm!"

This is probably the number one excuse Wiccans will use when they justify their lack of vaccination.  The logic goes something like this:  "The Wiccan Rede says 'Harm None.'  I believe a bunch of conspiracy theories that say vaccines are harmful.  Therefore vaccination is against my religion."

Here's the problem:  Vaccines don't cause harm, they prevent it.  This is medical fact.  Vaccines have with very little competition saved more lives than probably any other medical intervention.  They wiped out smallpox and were damn close to wiping out a bunch of other diseases, too.  Diseases that cause a lot of damage.  Diseases that once ravaged entire populations and continue to do so in unvaccinated populations.

Many of the so-called side effects of vaccines are, to be blunt, bullshit.  Vaccines don't cause autism.  They don't cause leukemia and Dr. Jack Wolfson deserves to lose his license to practice medicine for even implying that.  They don't cause multiple sclerosis (Dr. Joseph Mercola also deserves to lose his license).

Sometimes vaccines do have side effects.  They can make somebody temporarily uncomfortable, give them a rash or muscle soreness or weakness.  Sometimes they result in minor sickness.  In rare cases somebody might have a more severe reaction, like seizures.  But focusing on extreme cases is horrendously irresponsible.  I can guarantee you undertake much riskier activities on a day to day basis, like riding in an automobile, or not checking the internal temperature of food you reheat in the microwave before you eat it, or lighting candles, or climbing stairs.

The illnesses vaccines prevent are easily life-threatening.  The flu is dangerous.  Whooping cough is dangerous.  Measles is dangerous.  Meningitis is dangerous.  When you refuse to get vaccinations--or, more unsettlingly, refuse to get your children vaccinated--you are causing documentable harm to not only yourself, not only your children, but to everybody around you.  If you are genuinely interested in following this principle, you are morally obligated to vaccinate.

"I don't vaccinate because my religion tells me to avoid chemicals!"

This is a really sketchy one for me, because there is certainly a trend among Pagans to strive for more natural and eco-friendly lifestyles.  There are a few problems with this, though.

First, "chemicals" is a massive, useless buzzword.  Every food you eat, medicine you take whether natural or conventional, gas you breathe, fluid you drink, and thing you can possibly touch is made up of chemicals.  And all of these chemicals can kill you in the right dose.  The amount of salt in a salt shaker has enough sodium to be fatal.  Drinking too much water can be fatal.  Eating too many persimmons can make you very ill.

So does your religion really tell you "to avoid chemicals?"  I certainly hope not.

In some cases, avoidance of vaccines is about some sort of ritual purity.  There are some Pagan religions out there in which there is an emphasis on ritual purity of some sort.  In my own faith I must be very picky with what candles I put on a shrine and what incense I burn, and for some in my faith that translates to avoidance of certain foods.  Ritual purity is a mainstream issue regarding vaccines and religious exemptions.  There are debates in the Jewish community for instance about whether vaccines that include non-kosher ingredients are acceptable, with similar debates among Muslims.  In both these cases, rabbis and imams seem to agree that vaccines containing such ingredients are acceptable because they save lives.

If this is your reasoning, I would strongly urge you to consider what this actually means to you.  Do you believe your Gods really want you to put peoples' lives at risk over a level of ritual purity you will likely cancel out anyway the next time you burn a stick of incense or take a multivitamin?

On a side-note, occasionally a Pagan who is also vegan or vegetarian will use religion as an excuse because some vaccines have animal products in them, like egg or gelatin.  Here's the reality, though:  The vast majority of vegans are not in favor of eschewing animal products in cases where there is a legitimate medical need.  Only the most fringe of the fringe in the vegan community would say you shouldn't take a medication for a life-threatening illness because it was tested on animals.  There's really only one conclusion: People have absolutely no idea how important vaccines are to our collective health.  Most of us haven't seen the damage that can be done in an outbreak of measles, or influenza, or mumps, because vaccination has been the norm long enough that we have no experienced these things.  Unfortunately, with things like the Disney measles outbreak happening, it looks like a lot of us will.  And like it or not, it's directly the fault of people not vaccinating.

"I don't vaccinate because my Pagan ancestors didn't vaccinate!"

This is another sketchy one, because it drills into what I call the ambiance of Pagan ritual.  Why do Pagans do things like burn candles/lamps in ritual or cook things in fancy cauldrons for magickal meals when for the ancients these were just a useful light source and a cooking pot?  Obviously there are differences, but these tools developed the way they did because they were the mundane things people used daily.  The same can be said for any herbal remedies Pagans use... our ancestors didn't refuse vaccinations or conventional medications, they didn't have them.

Can you imagine going back in time to when ancient Pagan traditions were still mainstream and telling them "In the future we will have invented a medicine that, when given, reduces the risk of contracting several diseases that regularly kill you today. In fact, we entirely eliminated smallpox!  Oh, no, I don't take this medicine, it's against my religion."

"I don't vaccinate because I believe my beliefs about them are divinely inspired!"

When looking for information on how many Pagans vaccinate I found this page where a popular Pagan figure (Rev. Patrick McCollum) assures an antivaxxer that refusing vaccines as a Pagan is totally legitimate and offers to help bring back measles by writing letters supporting her.  OK, he didn't say that, but in a nutshell it's what he's doing.

His reasoning is that Pagans believe that we are being constantly informed directly by our Gods.  Basically, we're being divinely inspired.

Listen, I'm all for unverifiable personal gnosis and forming your own opinions based on conversations with the Gods and rituals and meditations and whatever you choose.  But do you have any idea how many appalling crimes have been committed by people who believe their Gods told them to do that?  How many people believe beating their kids is fine because they have a hunch God wants them to discipline more?

I am reiterating once again: Vaccine effectiveness is fact, not opinion.  The resurgence of harmful diseases due to lack of vaccines is fact, not opinion.  There is wiggle room for peoples' divine inspiration, but not when it puts everybody around that person at risk.

Something that ties all of these things together:  These aren't even really religious reasons.  The reasons themselves have nothing to do with Pagan or Wiccan beliefs.  Rather, they're using Pagan and Wiccan beliefs to justify their lack of understanding about science and unwillingness to accept facts.  Saying you don't want to vaccinate because your religion says to harm none when vaccines are scientifically proven to cause less harm than not getting vaccinated is both insulting and ignorant.

And this will become more and more important as time goes by.  I opened this piece by talking about how concerned people are with the safety of their children at Pagan events due to accepted nudity.  Now consider that Pagans have a high rate of vaccine refusal.  Consider how many Pagan events--events that might involve many days in close quarters with other Pagans--are loaded with people who do not vaccinate, not because their religion really tells them it's bad, but because they refuse to believe medical facts.  How long until a Pagan festival becomes the next Disneyland measles outbreak?