What Do You Say to Anti-Vaxxers? Dr Norman Swan

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You’ve gotta differentiate between people who are anti-vaxxers and people who are just hesitant over being immunised. Two very different kinds of person.

I don’t engage with anti-vaxxers. They have a point of view, which is not scientific. The evidence doesn’t support them and when you engage with them, you just give them oxygen. They’re a tiny, tiny percentage of the Australian population.

Most people who don’t, either, get the kids immunised or don’t immunised themselves, it’s either they’ve been busy and forgotten or it’s just the tumble of life or it’s they’re just not sure. And they just want to be sure that the vaccine’s safe and they’re just a little bit hesitant. And that’s a very different situation and people who are vaccine hesitant often ask very sensible questions about vaccines. Such as isn’t it better, for example, for a child to get a real infection? Doesn’t that train the immune system better than an immunisation? And aren’t you harming their immune system by giving them an immunisation? So the answer to that question is, no.

What you’re doing with a vaccine is actually imitating a live infection and you are training the immune system. And you’re training it without getting the disease. Nobody would wish polio on any child. You would not wish measles on any child with the risk of something called SSPE (Subacute Sclerosing Panencephalitis), which destroys the brains of young children. Doesn’t happen very often, but it can happen. You don’t want to a kid to get whooping cough and have their lungs affected and if they’re young enough, maybe, they can die of it. So you are not harming the immune system by doing it. But it’s not a stupid question, it’s a logical question.

Another question I’ve had about vaccines, such as the new COVID vaccines which go inside the cell and use genetic machinery to produce the coronavirus. Could it cause cancer? Now you think, well that is actually a really good question. Because we know that cancer is a genetic disease, it’s caused by genes going wrong. Therefore, why couldn’t there be a risk of COVID-19 vaccines causing cancer? And the answer is, you can say with confidence, that it won’t for three reasons. But it’s a great question. One is, coronaviruses are not cancer-causing viruses. Hepatitis B is a cancer-causing virus, human papillomavirus is a cancer-causing virus, Epstein-Barr virus which causes glandular fever can be a cancer-causing virus, but coronaviruses, common cold viruses and other such things are not cancer-causing viruses. So that’s the first thing.

The second thing is, what these vaccines are doing is imitating what the coronavirus does inside a cell anyway. It’s just that the whole virus goes in and says to the cell stop, I’m turning over your genetic machinery to produce the whole of me. And what these vaccines do is they come in and say to the cell, stop but I only want to produce a little bit of me. And what they’re not doing is, they’re not changing the core genetic structure of our cells. In other words, they’re not splicing genes or doing anything like that. It’s entirely external to the genes in our cells that are on our chromosomes. It goes into the soup our cells, kind of bypasses all that and tells our cells to produce this spike. And that’s not how cancer occurs.

Cancer occurs when the core genetic material gets changed from smoking or pesticides or radiation and that sort of thing. But that’s not happening here, all this stuff is happening outside that core genetic material. So for that reason, you can say, it’s not gonna cause cancer.

I’m just giving you those two illustrations to show that people who are vaccine-hesitant are not daft, they’re not mad, they often have sensible questions and the important thing is to answer them and answer them straight and tell people what you know and what you don’t know. For example, I would have no hesitation in having one of the mRNA vaccines, knowing what they do and don’t.

And so in summary, I don’t have any conversation with anti-vaxxers, they live on a different planet from me. But people who are vaccine-hesitant, they live on the same planet as me, asking very intelligent questions which need to be answered. And sometimes there is no answer.

Dr Norman Swan, Physician and Journalist

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