The Price of Anti-Vax

Today I read that an art academy in the USA decided that students can only attend when fully vaccinated unless they’ve got a medical or religious waiver: “Of the major religions practiced in the United States, only the Church of Christ, Scientist (whose adherents are known as Christian Scientists) and the Dutch Reformed Church are the two religious groups that openly discourage vaccination.”

Of course, the American anti-vax movement would have its roots in Dutch religious zealots. The Dutch Reformed Church would be the church of the Secession of 1834, by Reverend Hendrik de Cock, and it was his own son he carried to the grave because of his stance against vaccination. Dr. Hanneke Hoekstra, university lecturer on modern history wrote about this in her paper The Deceased Child:

In 1840 a son was born to the De Cock family, Regnerus Tjaarda. When he was one year old, the child got the feared smallpox. To survive, the little boy had to be vaccinated with cowpox, but this brought De Cock a moral dilemma. His oldest son Helenius had been vaccinated against pox in 1838; he was witness to what happened.

My father became familiar with the arguments of dr. A. Capadose and others against the vaccine soon after his conversion. Then and also later he was suspicious of everything that came from the side of the non-believers or was heavily promoted by them. (…) He constantly left the sick room and when evening had fallen I followed him without being noticed and witnessed how he poured his heart out to his God.

Trusting on his direct connection with God, De Cock decided that “Your will, and not mine, will be done.” When his son died the next day, there was not a word of complaint against God from the mouth of his father, according to Helenius. The death inspired their religious practice and their religion decided on death. (from: The Deceased Child, Hanneke Hoekstra, p. 199)

Vaccination depicted as a cow-like monster, being fed children in 1807. A precursor of the modern “not my children!” movement. Everything old is new again!

Of course, he wasn’t the first anti-vaxer; in the earlier 19th century there’d been an offensive against the pox, met by resistance from orthodox religious corners. Still; this one church, and one man’s religious verve, and we now still have people in the USA (and The Netherlands?) who are not getting vaccinated because of him. Aside from his boy Regnerus, how many have died because of it?

Farmer and writer (and De Cock’s nemesis) M.D. Teenstra had seen how tuberculosis spread like wildfire through his family in the 1820s. He’d written about smallpox in the Dutch colony of South Africa in his The Fruits of my Labours (1830):

In 1713 and 1755 smallpox must have raged terribly here. It appears that these childhood diseases are more dangerous amongst black and coloured people and make more victims than amongst Europeans. It was the knowledgeable and humanitarian Dibbetz (…), I say it was mr. R. de Klerk Dibbetz, inspector-general of the Cape’s hospitals, who in secrecy went to the Portuguese ship Belisario, anchored in the Table Bay where it had arrived on the 18th November 1803, where he got a strand of the material without the people’s knowledge, with which he in the city started his beneficial deceit, until finally governor Janssens, even though at first against the vaccine, allowed him the use the great hospital, now the barracks, for the further application of it. When the government saw the beneficial results, they showed Dibbetz their gratitude for his dangerous and courageous, his beneficial undertaking, with a genuine display of admiration for him, as well as costly gifts.

Meanwhile, in the province of Groningen (where Teenstra and De Cock lived) a 1an emergency hospital was built in 1817 because of a typhus epidemic, while newspapers in 1849 had daily updates on cholera sufferers and mortality numbers.

Article from an 1849 regional newspaper, tracking cholera infections and mortalities, much like our modern news bulletins.

All this goes to show that people of the era were well aware of the dangers and suffering caused by the various epidemics; the 19th century was an era of epidemics, but also one of enlightenment and medical progress. Not having your children vaccinated in 1840 certainly was a choice.

The Risk of “Freedom Day”

To: robin.swann@mla.niassembly.gov.uk
CC: jeffrey.donaldson.mp@parliament.uk; michelle.oneill@mla.niassembly.gov.uk; naomi.long@alliancepartyni.org; clare.bailey@mla.niassembly.gov.uk; colum.eastwood.mp@parliament.uk; nolan@bbc.co.uk

Dear Mr. Swann,

I’m writing, as a clinically vulnerable person, to express my deep concerns at the prospect of Covid safety rules being dropped in Northern Ireland as of 19 July. I’ve just listened to the Prime Minster’s press conference, in which he announced abandoning most anti-Covid measures. This includes social distancing and masking rules, despite the advice of scientists. It should be clear that if Northern Ireland follow England’s lead, we are going to be in unnecessary danger, and our NHS – which was in more trouble than England’s to begin with – will be unable to function yet again.

Recognising how desperate the waiting lists are, so much worsened by non-emergency care being shut down last year, a so-called “return to normal” on the 19th of July is a bad choice. Vaccination has had a powerful impact on the number of patients needing ICU, but Long Covid is still a risk and will itself exert pressure on the NHS. It has already become clear that even a double vaccination is less effective against the Delta variant, and an Epsilon variant has already been named.

Nobody is more afraid of Long Covid than those of us who already have complex health issues: “Freedom Day” would be anything but, for us.

I have severe Crohn’s disease, Short Bowel Syndrome and Intestinal Failure, and I’m dependent on tube feeding. After shielding for over a year, from March 2020, I have finally had a bit of freedom in the past few months to get out and about in person, which for me largely means going to medical appointments. For this, I have just started using public transport, be it in the quiet hours. I don’t go to pubs or the cinema, and I don’t socialise indoors in groups. I am particularly cautious because we don’t yet know just how effective the vaccine will be in patients on various types of immunosuppressant.

For instance, we still await results on Ustekinumab, the medication I take to suppress the activity of Crohn’s disease, an auto-immune condition. When I ask my doctors if I should behave differently based on the rising case numbers locally, they refer me to the public health advice, but my fear is that the public health advice is driven by Boris Johnson’s irrational decision to pretend it’s no longer his concern, referring people to their own responsibility; the government’s use of the term ‘population immunity’ can not be read as anything else but a rebranding of the much-denied ‘herd immunity’.

Already, less care is being taken on our public transport in Northern Ireland around masking and social distancing. Translink, in my experience, don’t enforce social distancing at all other than putting stickers on seats and leaving the public to get on with it. From what I’ve seen, the people who are mostly not vaccinated – children and teenagers, and very young adults – are also the people who are least likely to wear masks on public transport. I remind you that wearing a mask is less to protect ourselves and primarily to protect others.

If we tell people that it’s a matter of personal choice and responsibility, then it’s inevitable that those who already take the least care to protect themselves and others from Covid – e.g. not getting vaccinated when it’s offered, breaking the rules on indoor gatherings – will be the people who use buses, trains and shops without a mask. And they put us all, and our NHS, at risk. This is particularly frightening in the context of so much recent political rhetoric about how there will definitely not be further lockdowns.

I’ve admired your good sense in steering NI’s health service through the most challenging period in its history, and I have particularly appreciated the times during the pandemic when Northern Ireland was more safety-conscious than England. I urge you and your ministerial colleagues to once again take the right decisions, no matter what pressure is exerted from Westminster.

Kind regards,

Angeline Adams

Vaccinated!

No essay on pop culture or folklore for you today, but some really good news instead: I got the Covid-19 vaccine today! 

For those who don’t know, I have Crohn’s disease, Short Bowel Syndrome, and Intestinal Failure. What that basically means is that I have an auto-immune disorder which I manage with immunosuppressants, and due to complications from it I need tube-feeding. Collectively these and other factors put me at much higher risk than the average person regarding Covid-19. 

I hugged my mum for the last time on 12th March last year. I haven’t been on a bus, or been able to attend a medical clinic without considerable precautions, since the middle of that month, and Remco hasn’t been to his workplace in person. I haven’t been into a shop since 29th March 2020, nor can I visit a bank, library or post office, or anyone else’s house. The only people in our house since we began shielding that day have been medical staff, and we’ve relied on the kindness of neighbours, as well as the support of my medical team, in order to cope. 

In short, despite enjoying considerable privilege compared with people who’ve had no choice but to attend work in person throughout the pandemic, we’ve had a terribly hard, lonely year. It was particularly tough when we learned that I wasn’t allowed the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, due to my history of anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction), and when I got a call from the hospital a couple of weeks ago to invite me for vaccination, unfortunately it was the only vaccine they had, so we were looking at another wait for either them or our GP to get supplies of the AstraZeneca vaccine. On my GP’s website I saw that they were hoping to vaccine CEV (Clinically Extremely Vulnerable) people next week. 

This afternoon, just after 5, I got an unexpected call from my GP. They had one dose of the vaccine left, and as I literally live round the corner from the surgery and they didn’t want that dose to go to waste, they called me first. They asked when I last had my immunosuppressant, and as I’m right at the midpoint between doses, they felt secure that this would not conflict with the vaccine. They said it’s not often they get to call people with something that makes them happy! I masked up and was there within five minutes. 

They went through the questionnaire with me, and had me check the list of vaccine components to confirm none of my allergens was on there. I would say that anyone concerned about their specific health situation and the vaccine can be reassured by how very thorough they’re being. Then I got the vaccination.

So, I’m not going to go wild just yet – we know that the vaccine doesn’t achieve maximum efficacy until you’ve had both doses, and it’ll be another ten weeks until I get my second dose. I’m aware there are more transmissible variants of the virus out there, and my trips beyond my own front gate for exercise are cautious and seldom. We’re still waiting to learn to what extent the various vaccines prevent transmission, so there’s every reason for everyone to remain careful, whether they’re at additional risk or not. 

Hopefully though, some of the fear a lot of us have been feeling about our health can lift, and the NHS can begin to recover from the enormous strain this has put on the system, the people who work in it, and everyone who relies on it to stay alive. For now, stay safe, avoid crowds as much as you can, and mask up when you can’t!