Well Being

The Rallying of the Green

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A couple of years while teaching this poem to an English Literature 101 class at a mid-sized university in New Jersey (it's not where I teach now), I asked my class what “green” signifies. While we live in New Jersey, I grew up in California (think Berkeley not Los Angeles) and — having started to recycle in the 4th grade, lived through a couple of droughts and a gas shortage, and developed a preference for whole grains in elementary school — “green” to me means nature, plants, leaves, grass, stuff that grows in the ground naturally.

So I was honestly crestfallen when several students answered my question about “the meaning of green” with one word:

Money. At the mention of nature — trees etc. — they shrugged. (I sighed.)

So you'd perhaps think that I'd feel some relief towards the notion of “greening our vaccines,” the name of the rally today, June 4th, in Washington, D.C., with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, described as a “celeb couple” leading the rally “to raise awareness about autism”—I thought this was a rally about vaccines?

I'm not too clear about what “green vaccines” are but—-based on phrases like “how green is my dream kitchen” and (more generally) “how to go green,” “green thinking” and, too, the greening of the automobile — it would seem that “green vaccines” would be something like “environmentally safe vaccines.” As in non-toxic, non-mercury/thimerosal/non-anything-dangerous containing vaccines of the sort touted by those who call themselves not “antivaxxers” but “pro-vaccine-safety”-ists.

But this “green vaccine thing” is but another instance of rebranding, as in the various different names that Evidence of Harm author David Kirby regularly engages in, to find new biological ways of describing “autism.” Orac has taken a good look about the green- and natural-ness of vaccines (and been called an “idiot” in the very first comment). He also offers a small gallery of signs (“Vaccines = Autism EvidenceofHarm.org“), as well as a selection of signs from the “Power of Truth” rally three years ago.

Starting from Orac's look at both signage and slogans (and semantics), a few more thoughts on the rallying of the green:

Somwhere in the not too distant past, those who were the “antivaxxers” or “anti-vaccine advocates” started to chararacterize themselves as “pro-vaccine-safety advocates.” As Mike Stanton notes, the organizers of the Green Our Vaccines rally sound like their old anti-vaccine selves. But “pro” has positive overtones: Better to be for something and who can object to making things—vaccines—safe? (In the abortion debate, it's “pro-choice” and “pro-life”—-who wants to be “anti-life” or “anti-choice”?)

Regarding the “green” theme, very prominently displayed on the logo for the rally. The associations of green—aside from my “nature” one and the “money” response of my former students—also include, of course, green stop lights which mean “go.” The notion of green vaccines suggests that those who espouse these are moving forward and being progressive and pro-active. Certainly “green our vaccines” has a much friendlier ring to it than “mercury poisoning” (suggestive of being poisoned by something burning and volatile); the phrase also suggests that, just as we are greening kitchens, cleaning products, clothing, cars, out very way so thinking, etc., so is there a movement to do so for vaccines.

I'm not sure today's rally is going to bring more clarity to all of this. I've been reading a book, Do Vaccines Cause That?: A Guide For Evaluating Vaccine Safety Concerns by Martin Myers, M.D and Diego Pineda, M.S. that has been helpful in providing some basic clarifications about the science and history behind vaccines and about what is in vaccines. One example is the definitions of “side effect” and “adverse effect” (p. 25). These are key terms in discussions about vaccines and autism; proponents of the hypothesis that vaccines or something in vaccines can be linked to autism hone in on such unintended effects as one of the dangers of vaccines. (This article contains one such story.) However, as Dr. Myers and Pineda write:

Side effect (or Side reaction) are symptoms and signs that occur either locally—such as pain or redness at the injection site—or in other parts of the body—such as headache or fever—because of a particular immunization or dose of a drug. A mild measles-like rash after measles vaccine is fairly common, for example. Serious, life-threatening allergic reactions can be side effects of vaccines, but occur very rarely.
An adverse event is something quite different from a side effect. A side effect is “caused by” the vaccine, whereas an adverse event is something that occurred at about the time. a vaccine was given, but which could have been caused by the vaccine or could have just occurred at that time by coincidence. Although fever is a side effect of many vaccines, not all occurrences of fever after vaccines are caused by the vaccine. This book discusses how scientists determine whether an adverse event is actually a side effect—that is, caused by the vaccine. Thus, when an adverse event occurs after vaccination, it needs to be determined whether the adverse event was caused by the vaccine or whether it was just coincidental—that is, it was going to happen anyway. (p. 25-6)

An “adverse effect” from a vaccine is not something that is “undesirable” or “contrary to expectations”; the term has a specific meaning, as noted above. Do Vaccines Cause That? is a “user-friendly guide” for parents concerned about vaccine safety and it would seem to be a book that a “vaccine greener” might wish to consult. There are numerous other definitions of green and it's hard to say what a rally about vaccine safety—vaccine awareness, if you will—has to do with the schools, services, and supports that autistic children and autistic individuals need to succeed.

Autism is not about vaccines, it's about people.