Vaccination debate: Dr Neil Gower
Here is the full transcript of our interview with Dr Neil Gower, national secretary of the Homoeopathic Association of South Africa, who argues for carefully considered vaccinations.

Does the Homoeopathic Association of South Africa support vaccinations?

Yes. If you look at South Africa's health status and what it is the Department of Health has to try and achieve, we support their vaccination programme rollout. The reason being, they obviously prevent disease going forward.

A concern from the anti-vaccination lobby is the fact that a small number of these vaccines may not be safe. What we've tried to ask our membership to do is not to advocate against vaccination from the outset and promote homeoprophylaxis [preventive measures] as an alternative, because it's essentially an unproven alternative.

There is some data suggesting it has been effective in different cases, historically and in modern usage. However, I don't think it's sufficient for the types of conditions that they are talking about here. It might have been proved efficacious in different types of conditions, but that doesn't mean it's going to be decent enough for polio, or measles, mumps or rubella or the like.

So, something like a cold, you could treat that homeopathically, but you definitely wouldn't recommend it for TB?

Yes. You also have to look at the background of the child, which is essentially one of the biggest criticisms of when anyone who makes this decision – of GPs and homeopaths and anyone else advocating against vaccination – they are not making a holistic decision.

Because essentially what it requires is to look at the child individually, or the person individually, and say, well, do they need a chickenpox vaccine because if they were to get chickenpox, they would inevitably die, or should we give them the chickenpox vaccine because we just don't want them to have scarring on their face? Or are we just giving it because we're giving it?

And no matter what kind of therapeutic intervention it is, our message to our members and to practitioners is that it needs to be carefully considered. Whether it's appropriate for that individual. And then take into account the social background and the nature of the disease that they are trying to prevent in the first place.

So you are quite right, with things like the common cold, influenza and even chickenpox, in more affluent societies it may be easier to keep a handle on and get quick therapeutic interventions to the point where you may think it might even strengthen the child were they to get the disease.

But in something like polio or more serious diseases, I think it's an incredibly huge risk not to undertake vaccination. However, there may still be instances that mitigate against it. In some instances where vaccination in a immuno-compromised child, in an HIV child, may not be necessarily advocated.

I think practitioners essentially are opening themselves up on an individual liability level if they are saying "don't go for this vaccination, I can treat you with this and it will prevent it". Because when it doesn't, they are going to be in a huge amount of hurt. There's no company to turn around and blame – it's going to be the practitioner. They are going to be held, even criminally liable, I suppose, at the end of the day.  

A big issue is the collision of social strata as well. When you choose not to vaccinate your child and you send them off to school, it doesn't necessarily mean they are going into the same situation they are at home. They may encounter another child who has been exposed to the disease and is a carrier of it, and they will be exposed to it.

The parents almost live in a false sense of security as it were. Polio happens to be around the corner, sitting in Botswana and other African countries. And you never know when it's going to break out. I think in a lot of ways people have become a little bit complacent about these diseases.

It requires a lot more attention than just no. 1, just saying yes to all vaccinations. And no. 2, saying no to all of them. There has got to be a balance between the two, where people actually know what it is they are doing and what the purposes are.

If somebody was concerned about their choices, could they contact you or the association?

Sure, they are welcome to. At the end of the day, we also get a lot of patients who may come through and say "I don't want any vaccinations and that is my decision". And the thing that I've tried to raise before, is what does the homeopath then do? Because the homeopath can then service them with what they have available, but they are not advocating that the patient stay away from vaccinations. They are just providing them with the service the patient is demanding.

Just as an example, once a patient said to me, what was my opinion? And I essentially said she needs to also consider her social responsibility of getting her child vaccinated, because her child may become a carrier for another child who didn't have access to vaccinations in the first place and may actually be responsible for someone else's death.

And the parent turned around to me and said, "I don't care about anyone else, I care about the safety of my own child." And it really does blow you back, in terms of what it is that people find to be important for them. Most people are looking at their own child in their own situation and not considering the whole lot.

So you're almost vaccinating for the greater good?

Well, essentially. That's essentially the message coming from the Department of Health. So, you are trying to get everyone vaccinated and that's how you eliminate disease. That's what they were able to do with smallpox.

The other big issue is the lack of information out there. And credible information. I think a lot of people are relying on practitioners who have opinions rather than facts. You don't want to be too accepting of what people tell you but at the same time you don't want to go completely against it.

For your individual child, it may be better to space out the vaccines and wait a little bit longer until the child's immune system has developed. There are a number of different approaches, it doesn't always have to land up being the extremist, "don't take it and go the homeoprophylactic route", which I think is the most extreme, dangerous route.

It's just as dangerous as saying we are going to give you every single vaccine under the sun in one shot. There has to be some kind of middle road that parents have to consider, which is however optimal for their child’s health.

There seem to be 3 main reasons why people are not having vaccinations. And one of them is a conspiracy theory about the drug companies.

Yes, that's very easy.

Do you have a point of view on that one?

With any corporation, wherever they sit, whether they are in natural medicine or conventional medicine, or anywhere else, their object is to make money. It doesn't necessarily mean they have a conspiracy to do it. But they have manufactured something and therefore it is in their interests to promote it.

I don't think it's anything more insidious than that. I don't think there is any other deeper, darker secret. Like mind control, or anything like that – that's come up before. Or to make people sicker, so that they can make more money in later years. I think it's more a case of they have a particular product and they are going to promote it for that use, because it's been proven to be efficacious for that.

It's the same as with natural medicine – pharmaceutical companies will do exactly the same. If they have got a good product they believe to be useful they are going to promote the hell out of it to get it sold, but it doesn't mean they necessarily want to do anything over and above make money. But obviously it still has to be done responsibly.

The other one that crops up a lot is people assume that if you live a healthy life and you eat right and take care of yourself, then you can rely on the body's natural defences to protect you.

You can, to a large extent, do that. But not when you are placed in a position where you get bombarded with a disease that's resistant to everything and there is no known treatment for it.

That message is kind of getting misconstrued with modern lifestyle diseases, like diabetes, hypertension, hypoglycaemia, obesity – versus infectious diseases, which are always a present threat.

In terms of the upper social strata, we are not necessarily exposed to communicable diseases all the time. But they are definitely there. And wherever you go, you are mixing with people from diverse backgrounds, particularly in South Africa. So it holds true for a whole bunch of diseases or conditions, but not necessarily for infectious diseases.

Things like colds and flus – where your immune system can go against it, yes, but in terms of other conditions, if you are ripe for the taking, you are going to get taken, regardless of your health levels. I think HIV has proved that.

I think vaccinations is becoming an incredibly difficult thing to deal with from an education perspective, and trying to get people to do it. And I don't think the old way of telling people just to do it is going to work for the middle class and upwards. Because people are very sceptical about it.

The third reason was, what's in the vaccinations – will they make you ill?

It's quite difficult, because again there is mixed information.

In terms of, I think, thimerosal was the biggest issue they had with it, as a kind of preservative. That was a number of years back. And then they said they made a lot of their vaccines thimerosal free, but then all of a sudden there were a whole lot of vaccines that still had thimerosal in it anyway.

And that I think related particularly to the MMR vaccine with autism, and they were blaming thimerosal as one of the potential factors responsible for autism that was starting to appear.

Now MMR and the autism link – that was all thrown out years ago and the doctor has been disbarred, but the taint lingers...

It still does, yes. I think in a way because of the fact that autism still hasn't been cleared – I don't think it's necessarily useful at the moment to try and say, well there's no link and nothing's happening. You have still got parents on the ground who say, well, my child became autistic after they had the measles vaccine. It may be purely incidental but that's essentially what's creating the hoo-ha.

Then, of course, you have people going on Oprah and saying, oh it's vaccines that made my child autistic. And it's an incredibly difficult one to try and squash, or try and prove. It's almost as if both sides are at a bit of an impasse here because the doctor was, like you say, disbarred, it was retracted and the information has been publicised but it still very much lingers.

But I think there is a certain degree of valid concern in terms of safety of vaccines, in as much as it's like any other medicine. And particularly as you may be dealing with pathogens here, as well. I think the public also deserve to know a little bit more about what's in their vaccine and what it is they are taking. Because I don't think that's altogether well explained.

If you compare going for any other medication, they'll tell you what the active ingredient is, what it does, what the side effects are – I don't think necessarily everything in the vaccine gets explained to the patient when they are given it.

Do you think if it was explained more, if there was more openness about what's in vaccinations, more people would have them?

I actually don't know if it would have a negative effect or a positive effect, but in a way at least it follows the same lines of informed consent. That the patient knows what it is they are getting at the end of the day, because that might be another aspect that's fuelling the fire of anti-vaccine sentiment – is to say we don't know what it is we are getting, therefore it is a conspiracy theory.

And I think in the absence of enough information, I think there is going to continue to be this anti-vaccination lobby. Because there isn't enough information to get hold of it and say, well what are these guys doing? I think it is a bit of a mess.

But health practitioners, as far as they are concerned, what they need to do is try and guide their patients as best as possible on an individual basis. Which is what homeopaths claim to do anyway – is to try and look at their patients as individuals and try and treat them on an individual basis.

And say what it is that's necessary for them in their instance, bearing in mind all the other factors in terms of requirements of the Department of Health, our own health system and what their background is.

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