Our bodies have changed in the last generation, making us more susceptible than we were a scant few decades ago.
Something’s happening to our bodies and we don’t know what it is. At the same time that we’re living longer and seemingly stronger, we’re also becoming surprisingly vulnerable.
A striking example of our new vulnerability involves the smallpox vaccine, which a generation ago was universally administered — credited with eradicating smallpox, this was seen as a safe vaccine whose serious side effects were infrequent. Today this same vaccine is no longer seen as safe, not because it has changed but because we have.
“Thirty percent of the population has a contraindication to receiving the current vaccine,” says Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, which makes us susceptible to dangerous complications such as encephalitis and heart attacks. The risk to us from this once tried-and-true vaccine, explains Dr. Poland, has become “higher than the risk of exposure to the wild virus.” To protect against a possible terrorist attack using smallpox, the U.S. government has funded Poland’s team — leaders in the field — to develop a new smallpox vaccine that won’t put so many at risk.
In other areas, too, our body’s ability to cope with medical challenges has changed over the last generation. Peanut butter sandwiches, formerly a staple of school lunches, are today so dangerous they’re banned from school grounds. Autism rates have especially soared, with no end in sight. A generation ago, autism was all but unknown. A decade ago its rate reached one in 150, and today, says the Centers for Disease Control, it afflicts one child in 68.
The causes can’t be solely genetic — humans don’t evolve in a single generation.
According to a 2010 study in the Journal of American Medical Association, the rate of chronic health conditions such as asthma and learning disabilities among children more than doubled in just over a decade, from 12.8% in 1994 to 26.6% in 2006. Life-threatening allergies have become so common that EpiPens have become ubiquitous in schools, day care centres and summer camps. Ironically, these afflictions rose at the same time as health authorities declared victory over major childhood diseases such as measles. Even such victories, though, must be qualified. In 1960 when measles was ubiquitous, it killed one child out of 10,000 who contracted it. Today, although the incidence of measles is low, our bodies are less capable of dealing with it when it does arise: The death rate from measles cases is now estimated to be at least 10 times higher: between one and three in 1,000.
Death and morbidity rates are also on the rise among many adult diseases, particularly among autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, whose incidence leapt by 50% in women between the 1980s and 1990s (the rate for men was unchanged). The National Institutes of Health has identified more than 80 clinically distinct autoimmune diseases, which collectively afflict 8% of the population and represent a leading cause of death in young and middle-aged women. Unlike diseases that thrive when the body’s immune system is weak, autoimmune diseases thrive when the body’s immune system goes haywire, attacking the body it was supposed to defend.
What has changed to cause our systems to go haywire, and to make us vulnerable where once we weren’t? The causes can’t be solely genetic — humans don’t evolve in a single generation — making the culprits environmental factors of some kind, likely in concert with an individual’s genetic susceptibilities. Although no one knows what these factors are, theories abound — everything from industrial processes which put chemicals in the air or water to power generation which releases mercury and radiation into the environment to medical products such as antibiotics and the Pill to changes in our diet through genetically modified plants or food additives.
Reactions also abound. NGOs have organized around every theory, lobbying to ban this product or that chemical. Individuals, in attempts at self-defense, buy organic foods, avoid gluten or load up on vitamins and natural supplements. Government bureaucracies, in response to public pressure and also to augment their own importance, ratchet up regulations on consumer products and industrial processes alike.
In Europe, governments promote the precautionary principle, which judges all new chemicals as guilty until proven innocent. In a next, more extreme step backed by UNESCO as well as the EU Parliament and over 1,000 scientists, the International Declaration on diseases due to chemical pollution — better known as The Paris Appeal — calls for a ban on all products that are either “certainly or probably carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic.” Where an immediate ban is impossible — say, gasoline — its use would be limited “to a minimum with particularly stringent measures of fixed quotas.”
The reactions to the mysterious flood of ills are understandable but generally wrong headed. Virtually all chemicals, all products, all medicines and other such scientific innovations have their place, and their value — for every sad step back in our health, there have been two happy steps forward. The trick is to understand when and for whom the scientific innovations are beneficial and when and for whom they’re not.
This calls for a revolution in regulation, tilting away from our current broad-brush approach in favour of a more targeted approach focused on the individual. And it especially calls for a revolution in health research that personalizes medicine, to recognize that we each respond differently to stimuli in our environment. To end the top-down research that ignores our individual differences requires ending the government’s near monopoly in the field of medical research. How to do so will be the subject of my column next week.
This column is the first in a series. Next: Crippling medical research.
Lawrence Solomon is a columnist with Canada’s National Post and is research director of Consumer Policy Institute.
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For previous columns by Lawrence Solomon on vaccines, see here.