It will surprise few of you that I am right into organic gardening. I care deeply about my family’s and my own impact on the environment, and part of that is trying to use as little intervention as possible when growing the food we’ll eat. Not just for our own benefit, obviously, but also for the soil, the insects and the other animals which call our garden home.
To this end, I practise a method called ‘integrated pest management.‘ You can read all about it on the link, which is quite long-winded, but the basics are: you accept that there will be some loss of crop due to pest and disease, but you hope that on balance, you’ll reap more than you lose. In other words, nature will pretty much sort it out (read: I am a lazy gardener).
And that has, to a great degree, been my experience. If there is a population explosion of cabbage whites, or 28-spotted ladybirds, or aphids, I just have to wait it out, and sure enough, the predators will come. I’ve had to deal with all of these this summer in the garden, and nothing delights me more than seeing a shield bug stabbing a caterpillar with its spiky proboscis, or watching a praying mantis stalk and devour some little critter which was eating the tomatoes. I do feel a little pang of sadness for the pests, of course. But it’s satisfying watching the game play out in front of me, realising that this is nature, and I’m just providing the conditions.
Sometimes, though, it doesn’t work as I’d like. As much as I’d like to only take care of the occasional dumping of chicken manure around the roots and watering everyday, sometimes the scales tip, and I have to step in. Occasionally, the predators don’t come, and I have to hand pick off the very fat grubs from the corn and feed them to the chickens. And powdery mildew? That’s not going to just go away if I ignore it. I have to treat it (milk and water, 1:10 ratio, sprayed on the leaves, in case you’re wondering). If I don’t do anything, it spreads over the affected plant, sometimes so badly that it won’t bear fruit. It’s not that nature is doing anything wrong. I can’t blame nature – after all, I’ve provided the conditions. If I want my pumpkins or sunflowers to survive, I have to step in.
So while I was treating plants for mildew this week, it struck me how similar this was to vaccinations. Most of the time, the immune system works a treat. And then there are times when the powdery mildews and grub infestations of the human world hit us. Luckily for many of us, it’s easy enough to get a vaccine so we can avoid it – we don’t even have to treat the problem, because we won’t even have it in the first place. We’re not even providing the conditions! How clever is that? It’s a no-brainer, to use a rather linguistically ugly but appropriate term.
But when First Offspring was born, I wanted to know if I were doing the right thing by choosing to vaccinate. I searched for information about alternatives, the safety of the vaccines, any sort of evidence which might indicate that it was better not to vaccinate than to do so. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any. I’m not saying that there isn’t any, I’m just saying it was really hard to find. I could either choose the path of Western medicine, which to be fair, had been good to me in terms of protecting me against childhood diseases, or I could choose the other path, which seemed to be mostly full of very hyperbolic claims about autism and DEATH-DEATH-DEATH-YOUR-CHILD-WILL-DIE-IT’S-ALL-A-CONSPIRACY sorts of warnings.
I chose vaccinations. Mostly because the logic of the opposing side seemed flimsy at best, and because I’d had whooping cough when I was a teenager, and I couldn’t imagine putting my newborn through that. And my friend’s dad had had polio when he was a child and was consequently disabled (but counted himself lucky that he could still walk. Oh, and that he was alive) and I didn’t want to expose my child to that. And an acquaintance at university had had measles as a baby and was deaf and blind because of it, and I worried that that might happen to First Offspring, too. My first-hand experience of these diseases convinced me that it was worth the risk.
And there is a risk. I think that is something that, eight years ago when I was looking into this with First Offspring, wasn’t acknowledged openly. There was very much an attitude that the medical profession knew best, and the parents who were asking questions were simply being hysterical. But now, the risks are more openly discussed. It’s a lottery, but with the better odds in our favour if we do vaccinate. There’s not much argument there. Statistically, they’ve saved more lives than they’ve taken. And there is risk in everything we do. So I decided to reduce the risk, and they get their needles. Then I watch them with bated breath and a scrutinising eye for the next week or so, waiting for a reaction and hoping they’ll be fine. Hoping I’ve done the right thing.
So far, so good, though. Third and Fourth Offspring only have one more round of childhood vaccinations to go, and I’m looking forward to them being over. And so far, so good, we’re yet to experience any major illnesses or diseases. They’re healthy children, and as much as I worry whenever they get sick, at least I don’t have to worry quite so much about them getting the kinds of illnesses my parents’ generation did, and died from.
There’s an argument against vaccinations, and interestingly enough, it comes back to the theory of integrated pest management. The argument is that nature will endure. That humans have an immune system which, kept healthy, will fight off disease. And I agree! Nature does endure – there is a balance, and it often rights itself. But it doesn’t always right itself the way we’d like it. And given the failure of my corn crop, or indeed the fate of the caterpillars in my garden when the praying mantises are on the hunt, I’m not sure I want to leave it all up nature to make the call when it comes to my children. Goodness knows I feel like they’re pests at least half the time, but I’d still really like for them to stay around for a good while longer.