Lack of vaccine awareness and acceptance is a largely unaddressed issue that threatens the vegan community. It’s particularly relevant now, in light of the vaccine crisis we are experiencing. Influenza hit us hard last year in 2014. Infectious diseases that were nearly eradicated, like measles (in the Chicago area!) and whooping cough, are making a comeback. These are life-threatening diseases that a simple vaccination can help curtail. Now as a parent with a new baby, I have a revitalized concern. This is (some of) the story of our struggle in tackling anti-vaccination in our vegan community.
Vegan Chicago Advocates for Vaccination
Vegan Chicago is a vegan support and social group I organize. In 2012 we started promoting the idea of vaccinations to members. We have an interest in creating a safe space for our members. We also noticed a growing contingent of anti-vax sentiments within the vegan community. This was something we felt compelled to address and sought out an expert to speak at one of our speaker events.
We searched high and low for a credible expert to talk about vaccination. With the generous help of our science allies we found a good candidate. It wasn’t without controversy though. The event page started getting swamped by vegans peppering fear, uncertainty and doubt1 throughout. With the well poisoned, the event did end up having a reduced attendance unfortunately. The recording made a good podcast episode though2.
The doctor made an interesting point during the talk. He said herd immunity is a myth. People susceptible to infectious disease are not necessarily evenly dispersed throughout the population. They tend to cluster in communities (like those who tend to avoid vaccines). So there is a lack of any protection for an increased chance of exposure. On top of that, infectious disease is just a plane trip away. So our efforts in bringing together a vegan community may be putting individuals at a higher risk!
The Flu Vaccine
Fast-forward a year, 2013 and we’re tabling the Chicago VeganMania fest. We’re featuring a poster that’s reminding people to get their flu shot. Now, we know influenza vaccines use chicken eggs in their production. And eggs, as an animal product, are something vegans avoid. But we take the qualification of “as far as is possible and practicable”3 to heart. We advocate for this medical prophylactic over the modicum of egg used. Still though, many vegans balked.
But ok, since so many vegans had this hang-up, we rolled up our sleeves and sought out the rumored eggless version. We soon discovered that a new vaccine used an insect cell line instead of chicken eggs4. “ANIMAL INGREDIENT, NOT VEGAN!” you say. Well, it’s more wonderfully complicated than that.
The fall armyworm is a common agricultural pest, which makes it a much-studied organism. From this organism there is a continuously cultured cell line for use in scientific research. It was originally procured in 1970 from the ovarian tissues of fall armyworms. Specifically this flu vaccine uses a cloned substrain of these cells (Sf9). A virus is genetically modified to infect these cloned insect cells. The result is the creation of the appropriate hemagglutinin protein required for the final vaccine.5
A similar biotech process is used in creating synthetic insulin. We used to rely on mashing up tons of pig and cow pancreases for insulin. Now we now can create it using genetically modified bacteria. Technology has this potential to help reduce our reliance on animal bodies.6 The same is true here with this vaccine. This can help displace millions of eggs each year. Isn’t that an amazing wonder of biotechnology? The vegan concerns that fall armyworms in 1970 died in the development of this vaccine are absurd. Consider the number of armyworms killed with insecticide every year for vegan food (Organic too btw).
In 2014 we hoped to bring this eggless flu vaccine to Chicago VeganMania as a pop-up clinic. It was a natural fit and what an opportunity for vegans! There would be a ton of people there from all over the place and the timing was at the start of the flu season. We worked throughout the year to establish a relationship with the vaccine developer and all the people involved in doing a pop-up clinic. Ultimately we were told that the Chicago VeganMania board7 wouldn’t allow us to bring in the pop-up clinic.
What they did allow was the usual hodgepodge of charlatanry. Reiki, chiropractic, organic food, and anti-GMO are examples of such allowed vendors8. It was disappointing and frustrating. Withholding access to this amazing medical innovation doesn’t seem to me supportive of the vegan community. It’s a missed opportunity, at best, to promote true evidence-based health and wellness.
In looking for alternative venues to bring this vaccine to our community we talked to many people. From the Chicago Department of Public Health, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois, hospitals, alderpeople, and park supervisors, everybody was encouraging. There was a hint of: “You privileged vegans won’t get vaccinated when we have underserved populations clamoring for vaccines?!” Yep, I’m living an Onion article.
Vegan Chicago did send out a poll9 to our nearly 3,000 Vegan Chicago members to gauge interest in the vaccine. Over 50 replied in the affirmative and that was a nice surprise! I didn’t expect even that response. So it could be that vegans aren’t so anti-vaccine after all (or that our Vegan Chicago members tend to be more scientifically minded). The original Vegan Society sent me this page regarding their stance on medicine10 and paper11 on their stance on medicine.
Anti-Vax is Not Vegan
The eggless flu vaccine is relatively easier to find this year. When people’s lives are at risk a bit of egg isn’t worth avoiding. But isn’t it damn cool that we can have our kale and eat it too? Veganism is a loose guideline on avoiding the exploitation of another. Fear mongering over puritanical and dogmatic standards is not in the spirit of the movement. Nitpicking something for containing a molecule of animal can cause more harm than the originating vegan intention. It misses opportunities to displace animal products, and it puts animals (human and other) into harm’s way. As we saw with anti-GMO12 animals are now being tortured13 looking for any tenuous confirmation. Animals have suffered enough over this anti-vax nonsense. We are better than this.
It is our moral obligation to impede the spread of infectious diseases. Vaccination is an important tool in the toolbox to do that. Forgoing vaccination is a threat to the bodily integrity of others. This unethical practice has no place in the vegan community (and society at large). Be the immune response to this junk info viral invader. Let’s not offer anti-vax a refuge to fester and perpetuate. It does so when we are complicit in our idle silence.
Vaccines, Vegans, & Autistic Puppies, Oh My! | Skeptical Vegan
Vaccine “Controversy” | Vegan Skeptic
Anti-vax and Veganism | Reasonable Vegan
Vegan Flu Shots: A Guide | Ed v. Food
DNA – Playing God (PBS Documentary) | YouTube
- FUD – Fear, uncertainty and doubt | Wikipedia ↩
- Vegan Chicago Podcast: Episode #003 – Vaccines with Kenneth Alexander, MD ↩
- “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.” | The Vegan Society ↩
- The vegans arent going to kill us! Thanks to a GMO virus 😉 | erv ↩
- A Worm’s Ovary Cells Become A Flu Vaccine Machine | Health News : NPR ↩
- Celebrating a Milestone: FDA’s Approval of First Genetically-Engineered Product | FDA ↩
- Organizing committee for Chicago Vegan Mania 2014: Josh Alper, John Beske, Kevin Cooney, Mike Durshmid, Anne Marie Fosnacht, Robinlee Garber, Gill Gillono, Jim Glackin, Kristin Konrady, Jeff Olichwier, Marla Rose, Rob Sax, Robin Plotter Sax, Rachel Shippee, Minku Sharma, Sandi Swiss. ↩
- Are veggie festivals worth putting up with pseudoscientific trinkets and petty fraud? | Reasonable Vegan ↩
- Vegan Chicago email vaccine poll. ↩
- “Currently all medicine in the UK must be tested on animals before it is deemed safe for human use, but please note: The Vegan Society DOES NOT recommend you avoid medication prescribed to you by your doctor – a dead vegan is no good to anyone!”| The Vegan Society ↩
- Suitability of common drugs for patients who avoid animal products | The BMJ ↩
- Vegans Exploit Tumored Rat Victims | Pythagorean Crank ↩
- Antivaccine activists fund a study to show vaccines cause autism. It backfires spectacularly. « Science-Based Medicine ↩