Follow a philosophy of natural health? Vaccination may have more in common with it than you think
The natural or “alternative” health community is often presented as hesitant to vaccinate.
Yet the relationship between the natural health community and immunization is complex.
Stories like Adelaide’s naturopath recently sanctioned for using a newspaper column to spread vaccine misinformation can make headlines.
But other stories like the director of Australia’s largest natural medicine company or even Nimbin’s herbal medicine columnist publicly advocating for COVID vaccination are more representative.
While the link between natural health beliefs and vaccine reluctance has received a lot of public attention, there is actually little evidence on the subject.
I led a 2016 review that found opposition to vaccination to be a minority opinion among natural health practitioners and users. The opposition was more likely related to an individual’s personal beliefs than to a default philosophical position associated with natural medicine.
Some have suggested that natural health practitioners might even help support immunization activities. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. There are growing communities of natural medicine practitioners highlighting the alignment between vaccination and natural approaches to health.
One thing people often forget is the adaptive immune response caused by vaccination is natural. Vaccination prepares the body’s immune system in the same way as “natural” exposure to infection. It just does it in a safer and more controlled way with a much lower dose.
Since there is no underlying reason why natural health and vaccination cannot coexist, why does this perception exist and why does it persist?
Opposition to vaccines has not always been obvious
One of the main reasons for the historic opposition to vaccination in natural health communities was not due to the vaccine. This was because they rejected the “germ theory” itself – the concept that invisible external pathogens like bacteria and viruses lead to disease.
Naturopathic pioneer Henry Lindlahr rejected vaccination in the early 1900s because “germs, bacteria and parasites are the products of disease rather than its cause.” He argued that “germs themselves cannot create disease – if they could, mankind would soon be extinct.” Also in the early 1900s, chiropractic founder Daniel Palmer rejected the idea that there was a cause of disease beyond spinal misalignment.
It is important to put this historical opposition in context, given that the theory of germs had only become mainstream in conventional medicine in the last decades before these statements. Views on these natural health professions have similarly evolved.
Natural health communities have sometimes raised “toxins” in vaccines as a concern. It’s important to remember, however, that vaccines until the mid-1900s were not like vaccines today. First-generation smallpox vaccines, for example, were crudely produced from calf lymph in a process seen as cruel by animal rights groups, which were often closely linked to natural health movements.
Additionally, the natural health community has not reserved judgment for vaccines and pharmaceutical drugs. Proponents of natural health viewed other “drug systems,” such as herbal medicine and homeopathy, as equally invasive and unnatural. Although few people today consider these therapies to be incompatible with natural health, their adoption by naturopaths has caused significant tension in the nascent “drug-free” profession.
Just as vaccine reluctance may be an indicator of deeper concerns about medicine and the condition, conflict between the natural health community and medicine has come to influence opinions about vaccines as well.
The opposition has not always been obvious. One of Australia’s first naturopathic journals criticized medicine for stealing vaccinations from natural healers without credit.
By the second half of the 20th century, anti-vaccination claims began to increasingly target vaccinators (usually physicians) as much as the vaccine. Ultimately, the opposing position of “alternative” health subsumed parts of the natural health community.
Due to their marginalization by the medical community, parts of the natural health community began to take positions that were aimed more at opposing mainstream medical practice than aligning with natural health philosophies. .
These underlying factors are similar to why so many people opposing COVID as unnatural vaccines trust equally unnatural alternatives such as ivermectin today.
What are the natural alternatives to vaccination?
To put it bluntly, there isn’t.
Homeopathic remedies are marketed by some practitioners as alternatives to childhood vaccinations. The most commonly promoted are those who claim to protect against infectious diseases such as malaria and even COVID. A 2011 survey found that nearly a quarter of Australians believed these “homeopathic vaccines” were an effective replacement for conventional vaccinations. Some have even received homeopathic vaccines without knowing it, thinking they were conventional vaccines.
Linking homeopathy and vaccination is not surprising. Both emerged during the same period in the 1790s and both focused on infectious diseases (vaccination for the prevention of smallpox, homeopathy to treat symptoms of malaria).
The founder of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann, saw vaccination not only as effective and potent, but also as an extension and validation of his own theories.
It may not surprise you that homeopathic vaccination alternatives are not supported by the scientific community. But it may surprise you to know that they are also not supported by the homeopathic community.
According to homeopaths, this is because the mechanism of action of “homeopathic vaccination” is totally incompatible with homeopathic theory.
Homeopathic vaccines are neither homeopathic nor vaccines.
What about just increasing immunity “naturally”?
Some natural health practitioners have claimed that their therapies can provide immunity similar to that of vaccines. However, these views are generally marginal and categorically rejected by their peers in natural health practice and research.
Also, stimulating for a stronger immune response is not necessarily better. Boost the bad parts in favor of others, and an overactive immune system can make things worse in the short term, as well as in the long term. Autoimmune disease (where an overactive immune system begins to attack the body) is believed to be one of the causes of “long COVID”.
In natural health, we speak of a therapeutic hierarchy. This recommends using low-level interventions that encourage self-healing processes to avoid more intrusive and invasive therapies where possible.
Vaccines – when properly tested and evaluated for safety and effectiveness – clearly fit this bill. It is a minimum dose preventive intervention that supports and develops the body’s own healing resources to fight disease.
And they offer the possibility of avoiding the alternative of aggressive treatment and subsequent management of the infection and associated symptoms.
Ultimately, vaccination, like the use of natural therapies, is a matter of personal choice. But as someone who is passionate about both natural health and public health, I would highly recommend people to embrace it.
If you are hesitant to get the vaccine because you are concerned that it may not suit your preferences for a natural approach to health, it is not necessary. Vaccines may have more in common with natural health approaches than in differences.