Vaccines have widely been considered the greatest advance in healthcare in the 20th century. Polio, mumps, measles: these are just three examples of serious conditions that harmed and killed thousands before the advent of safe, effective vaccines to prevent them.
But concerns that vaccines are harmful, or that they are merely a product of the pharmaceutical industry’s limitless appetite for profits, have grown in recent years. These claims, which took off after a British doctor engaged in fraudulent research and published a made-up research study in one of the most prestigious medical journals in the world, have cost vaccines their credibility. In Canada and other places around the world, anti-vaccine sentiment has reduced the uptake of vaccination amongst the general public. The Canadian Public Health Agency has found that only 62% of Canadian two year olds are up-to-date with their recommended immunizations. A recent measles outbreak in Wales, in which over 1000 people contracted this preventable disease, highlights the danger of inadequate vaccination.
In order to regain the public’s trust, health regulators around the world must be diligent at reviewing the evidence for any vaccine licensed for use, to ensure that only safe, effective vaccines are available for public use. That’s what makes Health Canada’s continued decision to license homeopathic “vaccines” for use in Canada so concerning.
First of all, homeopathic “vaccines”, called “nosodes”, don’t work. They consist of concoctions of bodily fluids (such as blood, pus, and saliva) from people who have contracted a disease, which are then sterilized and diluted, often until there isn’t a single molecule of the original compound left. Their manufacturers- for-profit corporations every bit as committed to their shareholders as traditional pharmaceutical companies- suggest they are effective at preventing illnesses. But this isn’t true, and never has been. It is not the case that the medical community wants to ignore evidence to the contrary- it’s that this evidence doesn’t exist, despite attempts by the homeopathic industry to convince us otherwise. Health Canada currently licenses over 80 of these products as safe and effective for the prevention of various diseases including polio, mumps, and measles.
So what, you’re thinking: if they don’t work, then at least they don’t cause harm. But ‘not working’ does not mean they are neutral. Precisely because the act of taking a homeopathic product means you are not getting a safe, effective vaccine means that they are actually harmful. Although we have not yet seen an outbreak in Canada like the one in Wales, it is not difficult to see that Health Canada’s decision to license these products, thereby declaring them to be safe and effective, could end up with the same tragic results. The strength of vaccines relies on something called “herd immunity”, in which a population is only protected if a large proportion of the individuals are immunized. We are all in this together, and one person’s decision to use something that doesn’t work can impact the health of everyone else.
It is inappropriate for Health Canada to license these products, and Canadians deserve better. Already this year we have seen Health Canada refuse to review emerging evidence that Tamiflu, a commonly-prescribed antiviral medication purported to reduce the severity of influenza symptoms, may be ineffective. As Canadians we have spent hundreds of millions of dollars stockpiling this drug, and now that evidence has come to light that puts its effectiveness in doubt, our national regulator has been silent.
We should be focusing on interventions that are safe, effective, and have been demonstrated to save lives; and the regulatory body in which we put our trust as Canadians seems to have forgotten this. More worryingly: if Health Canada isn’t figuring out what is safe and effective in this case, what else are they getting wrong?