Every Tuesday, I spend my afternoon volunteering at Georgetown University’s Teaching Hospital. Most of the work I do is in pediatric oncology and hematology, though I also spend time in the transplant unit and working for the hospital’s child life program, which ensure sthat the hospital’s younger patients have the most comfortable hospital stay possible.

As you can imagine, my hours at the hospital are the most important hours of my week. They give me faith in the physicians who have dedicated their lives to caring for sick kids, and, most importantly, they fill me with admiration for the courage, humor, and resilience of children. In order to protect the privacy of the hospital and its patients, I don’t blog about my volunteer work, but I can tell you that it’s the part of my post-bacc experience that reminds me why I’m pursuing a career in health care.

It’s a fairly universal policy that hospital employees and volunteers have to get flu shots. Yesterday, I got mine. As you may know, the flu shot isn’t vegan; it’s incubated in chicken eggs. This wasn’t the first time I had to make a tough choice about vaccination, but it was the most thought provoking, and I’m here today to collect some of your feedback on a complicated topic.

I didn’t intend for this to be an epic post, but I realized as I was writing that there’s no simple way to talk about vaccinations on a raw-ish vegan blog! There is a lot of heated debate about the dangers of vaccines in holistic and raw health circles, so I should begin by saying that, from a health standpoint, I’m in favor of vaccinations. I know that many of my readers will want to draw and quarter me for this (!), but I believe that the evidence is squarely on the side of vaccines. I also concede that they carry risks, and I basically support the freedom of parents who choose to vaccinate selectively–though I’d also point out that the success of vaccines depends in part upon the majority opting in (this is called the herd effect).

From an ethical standpoint, my attitude toward vaccines becomes infinitely more complicated. The point of vaccination is to preserve life. Why, then, must we use chicken eggs and gelatin to do it? Saving human lives by damaging or taking animal lives is a zero sum game, and I think it’s high time for us to explore vaccinations that are developed without animal parts or products.


Right now, however, vegan vaccines are not readily available. Until a better alternative exists, we vegans have to make choices about vaccination that are troubling and imperfect. I’m opposed to vaccinations that are developed through cruelty to animals. I also believe that a world without vaccination—one in which childhood illnesses would become lethal once again, and diseases would turn into pandemics more readily—would be bleak one for humans and animals alike. As a friend pointed out to me yesterday, this would be a world in which medicines were constantly being developed to cope with sicknesses, and animals would die in that process, too. (To say nothing of the human animals we’d lose to meningitis polio, smallpox, and the like.) Vaccination forces us to pit a vision of this world against the realities of vaccination as it exists today.

I received most of my vaccinations before I became vegan, so this isn’t a set of issues I’ve had to confront much (I’m also lucky in that I don’t depend on any non-vegan medications to be healthy). In the last decade, I’ve gotten the meningitis vaccine, the HPV vaccine, and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The former two were in my early twenties, and the latter in June, before I began hospital work. Because I wasn’t yet a vegan at the time I got the meningitis and HPV vaccines, they were easy choices for me. As I enter the health care profession, however, I’m facing a lifetime of mandatory vaccinations. As a vegan, these will present me with moral dissonance. How do I weigh my vegan ethics against the fact that vaccinations are mandatory for hospital workers?

When faced with these sorts of conundrums, I often remember the words of Vegan Society founder Donald Watson:

“. . . “veganism” denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practical — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose . . .””

I know I’ve bored you all to death with this quote, but it’s an important one to remember. What does possible and practical mean? I know that there are hundreds of things that I can practically do every single day to protect animals: first and foremost, I can avoid all animal food products. I can choose to buy shampoo, toothpaste, and other toiletries that aren’t tested on animals. I can avoid purchasing leather, wool, and fur. I can check food labels carefully for gelatin, casein, and other animal food derivatives. I can support organizations that protect and champion animal rights, and I can set an example in my own life by sharing a compassionate message with readers and friends.

Vaccination is more complicated, because it’s not only a matter of suspending either convenience or pleasure (both of which I’m happy to do). If I forgo vaccination, I run the risk of either getting seriously ill myself, or (way more important) putting others at risk. If I became sick, I might be treated with medicines that contain animal derivatives. If I made other people sick, they might become reliant on those same medicines. Is this a practical choice?

To put it in less morbid terms, let’s remember the car example, which I stole from Sayward: imagine everyone started boycotting cars because most (nearly all) car tires contain animal byproducts. Well, we’d be taking a stance against animal exploitation, but we also might run the risk of not being able to go to our jobs, take our kids to school, or travel for work. And let’s suppose that our line of work helps us to save animal lives: isn’t it better to keep doing it than to avoid tires? These scenarios are exaggerated for effect, but they illustrate a reality, which is that all vegans are occasionally forced to weigh the pressures of an imperfect world against a a rigid moral stance.

When it comes to flu vaccines, I’m resolved for now to opt out unless I’m professionally bound to opt in. This will be a reality for me nearly every year as a hospital employee. If I should choose to have children later on, I will immunize them, because the “herd effect” is salient primarily in school aged children. Might these views change over time? Sure. But that’s where I stand today, faced with conflicted feelings and imperfect options.

While I’m at peace with the choice to get the vaccine this year, I did note that the hospital mandate about the flu shot seemed to carry some contradictions. There’s a good reason for GUH’s flu shot policy: as a volunteer in pediatric oncology, I come into contact with children who have impaired immune systems. No matter how many times I disinfect and wash my hands, or put on gloves, masks, and gowns, I’m still a risk to those kids if I carry around an aggressive virus. In protecting me from some strains of influenza, the flu vaccine also protects the kids I work with from contracting a virus that would probably spare me, but might very well prove fatal to them.

What I find interesting about the flu vaccination requirement, however, is that it allows for two exemptions: 1) severe egg allergy, and 2) religious exemption. For the former, you need a doctor’s note; for the latter, a note from a rabbi, priest, or other religious guide. I couldn’t claim an allergy, but I did point out to my nurse practitioner that veganism is comparable to religion, insofar as it gives my life moral structure. Was there any chance, I asked, that it might count as exemption on those grounds?

When I mentioned this idea, my nurse practitioner replied that veganism is dietary, not religious. I disagree. Veganism is unlike religion in many ways, but the two share similarities: both are world views that animate ethical choices, consumer habits, diet, and lifestyle. Both make claims about how people ought to live their lives. Religion is considered to be an acceptable ground for vaccine exemption. Should other sets of organized and unified beliefs about right and wrong—even if they’re secular—be honored, too?

It’s an interesting question to ponder. To raise a parallel, at one point in time, the grounds for conscientious objection in the United States were exclusively religious, but the courts overruled that monopoly in United States v. Seeger and Welsh v. United States. They declared “In the United States, there are two main criteria for classification as a conscientious objector. First, the objector must be opposed to war in any form…Second, the objection must be sincere…That he must show that this opposition is based upon religious training and belief was no longer a criterion after cases broadened it to include non-religious moral belief.”

Veganism is nothing if not “non-religious moral belief.” (Interestingly enough, vegans have been granted conscientious objector status.) Today, the grounds for conscientious objection are “freedom of thought, conscience, or religion.” Should hospitals expand their own policies about exemption from vaccines to include freedom of thought and conscience as well as religion?

Objecting to wartime service and objecting to a vaccine are two very different things. One might argue that opting out of a vaccine but choosing to work in a critical care unit at a hospital anyway means directly endangering the lives of patients. Conscientious objectors never put fellow soldiers directly at risk; they simply choose not to serve. But let’s also remember that hospitals do allow for flu vaccine exemptions on religious grounds. If the stakes are life-and-death—if refusing vaccination as a hospital worker means that you are directly endangering the lives of patients—should any exemptions exist at all? And if they do, shouldn’t they be governed by moral belief, rather than religious affiliation? I’m ultimately tempted to say that the flue shot should either be mandated universally, or the exemptions ought to include non-religious moral belief. But not an in between.

George Bernard Shaw—one of my favorite dramatists—was anti-vivisection, anti-war, and anti-vaccination. And he was also a vegetarian. Donald Watson, our eloquent coiner of the word “vegan,” was a conscientious objector. If nothing else, remembering these figures in history reminds me that the complex choices I sometimes encounter as a vegan–how to navigate a non-vegan world in a way that is responsible to animals and to others–have been pondered before, and are being pondered constantly by others with the same concerns.

Alright, people. Long post—sorry. Thank you for listening as I open up; there is no group of people I’d rather be candid with than you! I’d love to hear how you all feel about vaccinations and vegan ethics. Until vegan vaccines exist, how do we handle the vaccines we have? What about medications? Many prescription and OTC drugs are not vegan. Yet they are vital to people suffering from physiological and mental illness. How do you feel about them? Do we reject them, or do we put them in the context of “we all do our best?” When comes to vaccines, do you think that veganism should be observed as a grounds for exemption if religion is?

Finally, I want to point out that GUTH’s flu vaccine policy is not unique. It’s universal in hospitals and clinics, and GUTH handles it far more delicately, I’m sure, than many institutions do. In spite of how hard the choice was, I was also grateful to my nurse practitioner for her patience in answering questions, giving me literature to read, and trying to make sure that I was comfortable with my choice. I wasn’t, but her kindness did not go unnoticed.


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  1. Hi Doc

    I guess you will be the only to see this.

    I feel so sad in the pit of my stomach when I find medical professionals such as your self who have got this “vaccination” thing so wrong.

    “Influenza: marketing vaccine by marketing disease: British Medical Journal “Across the country, mandatory influenza vaccination policies have cropped up, particularly in healthcare facilities,1 precisely because not everyone wants the vaccination, and compulsion appears the only way to achieve high vaccination rates.2 Closer examination of influenza vaccine policies shows that although proponents employ the rhetoric of science, the studies underlying the policy are often of low quality, and do not substantiate officials’ claims. The vaccine might be less beneficial and less safe than has been claimed, and the threat of influenza appears overstated.” British Medical Journal

    I have lasyed out all the evidence you need to get on the right side of the “flu shot. Please at least explore it.

    Thanks Lou Monter

    The bottom line on the “Seasonal Flu” is you do NOT want protection from ONLY the seasonal flu. You want protection from ALL VIRAL infection. There is perhaps protection from four viruses in the “flu shot”. There are hundreds, at least, of viruses which can cause the “Seasonal Flu” like illness (ILI), which is nothing but a viral infection.

    Vitamins D and C, in ADEQUATE AMOUNTS will protect you from ALL VIRAL INFECTIONS. NO “flu shot” is needed to completely avoid all serious viral infection. IMO the vitamins D and C may offer you at least some protection from viral pandemic viruses.

    It is just this simple and difficult.

  2. Just a couple or inaccuracies per science and the insert information from the immunizations themselves, most of the vaccines contain either animal or human DNA. Most importantly, though, this theory of herd immunity is completely inaccurate. Most immunizations are designed to prepare your body to be more ready to fight off these diseases, but they absolutely do not stop you from being a carrier. You are just a carrier who doesn’t know it because you don’t get the full blown symptoms. From a hospital perspective this seems more dangerous to me. Also, as stated above, if you look at the charts showing prevalence of these diseases they have across the board dropped a huge amount before any vaccinations were introduced. That being said, I am not necessarily anti vaccine. It is every person’s choice what is right for their family. If you are immunocompromised it may make sense to get immunized (at least if your body can handle the vaccines), but there are lots of other complications including allergies, diabetes, autism (by way of encephalitis- which is why the claim is that it is not linked) that are specifically listed by the drug companies themselves that people need to be aware of. As with any medication, there is very little scientific evidence that they are safe or effective despite claims by the medical community (many of the studies compare new vaccines to old versions so all they need to do is prove that they are not more detrimental to humans, not necessarily safe in general given the gross cross of government and vaccines in the original approval process for many vaccines. Also there was only one that I can remember which used an actual placebo in testing vaccine safety). If you really want the big, unclear picture check out www dot vaccinedecision dot com . It isn’t nearly as clear as most people would like to believe, and not just from an ethics perspective.

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  7. It is a very interesting post!! I stumbled across this post looking for a recipe and discovered so much more.
    As a health care professional in Australia, I am offered a “flu shot” every year. As I had a significant reaction to the injection a few years ago I cannot be immunized. I must then look after the interests of myself and my patients, during the flu season, I am lucky, if necessary I can work in another department that does not involve caring for people with suppressed immune systems. Unfortunately for me my passion is immunology and hematology.

    As a mother I forgot to immunize my second child for chicken pox, as a result my very healthy boy (who had only ever been to the doctors for immunizations) developed a life threatening illness with chicken pox that lead him to have a stroke and a prolonged hospitalization. I was made to feel negligent as a parent by some of the hospital staff, although my own guilt probably enhanced my sensitivity to their comments.

    If I could turn back time, yes I would have had him immunized, however we were very lucky that he made a full recovery.

    I am very new to being a vegan, a decision I made for health and digestive reasons. I would choose a non-animal derived medication over an animal derived one if available, but in the absence of an effective option I would choose the latter.
    Thank you for a great blog, I am very excited to become a part of it.

  8. I am vegan. I am a health care worker. I work for Communicable Disease Control. I chose to wear a maks during the flu season instead of getting the flu vaccine.

  9. It’s a tough choice. Vegans should remember that abundant studies corroborate that a plant based diet super charges the immune system. Why assault the body with killed or live virus unless u really have no choice? My biggest difficulty as a vegan is having to purchase meat to feed certain pets who are obligate carnivores. I buy “happy” meat ….knowing full well there is nothing happy when it comes to slaughter & the transport 2 that hell hole.

  10. I personally saw a vaccine death, so that was part of the reason I decided to not vaccinate when I had my son. I did a lot of research and found out Polio was mostly treated with homeopathic medicines then the polio vaccine. All you hear though is preaching of the vaccines when they where only introduced when polio was already vanishing by the time it came out. I personally believe it was sanitation, transportation of food, sewage systems, and education. I recently went vegan about 2 1/2 weeks ago. We plan to go to a Naturopath for any health issues that arise. Most of their treatments is based through diet, some homeopathic remedies and such. Most are animal cruelty free, but I would double check if you ever decide to go that route.

  11. There was a time that I only took medications kicking and screaming and protesting…and then I was diagnosed with kidney failure. After that, I made the decision to trust my doctors and I took what they advised. After my transplant, my doctor insisted on a flu shot – this year was my second one. I prefer not to get it but I had a cold last month that lasted over 3 weeks – my immune system is non-existent; I think the flu would really do a number on me.

    Yes, it does sound like I’m defending myself, LOL!

  12. As an oncology patient myself, one with an immune system barely hovering above zero most days, I respect and appreciate your decision to get the vaccine! I would absolutely not want to be cared for by a person who did not take proper precautions, whether it be based off of vegan or religious beliefs. I respect that a person can choose to do whatever they want to their bodies, but I refuse to let those choices harm my own body in any way. Also, it’s worth mentioning that those of us with weakened immune systems can’t be around those vaccinated with a live vaccine, as I can’t fight off even the smallest amount of a virus. I believe there are two kind of flu shots, but the more common was is inactive.

    • Susan,

      You are indeed correct! The live virus was offered to me, but I believe it has trace amounts of egg, and more importantly, my logic was precisely like yours: if I’m to spend my time caring for immunosupressed patients, I absolutely cannot risk carrying the virus.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. It was refreshing to hear from a patient herself. The courage of the kids I work with never ceases to astound me, and I feel exactly the same way about you.


  13. Until a vegan-friendly vacceine becomes available (if ever) I have to think that results like this far outweight con’s of using animals:

    It’s too bad the horrific experiments of one scientist ( tainted so many minds because the truth to the matter is (no matter if your vegan or not), they save lives. Billions of lives.

  14. Is veganism a religion? I would say no. It is indeed a world view that animates ethical choices, consumer habits, diet, and lifestyle. But a true religion has another aspect also – faith. The very word “religion” comes from “religare” – which means to connect back, to reestablish one’s connection with God. While veganism is a very ethical and responsible way of living, it is in no way a spiritual practice, i.e. religion.

    That said, I agree with the other points in you article and am quite thankful for having the opportunity to read it.

  15. It is interesting that under the Australian vaccine program to pay parents to vaccinate their children, you still get paid if you get an exemption. Also, if you fail to show up to vote, you simply submit in writing a reason why you were not able to vote or pay $20.

  16. Like MizShrew, I don’t understand why there is any religious exemption allowed for carers of patients at high risk.

    I live near Canberra, where there have been several whooping cough outbreaks over the last few years. When my sister had a baby earlier this year, she asked all of the people who would be in frequent contact with him to get vaccinations. (I hadn’t been aware of the local outbreaks when my two kids were born, otherwise I would probably have already had it). So, I had the vaccine… over Winter my partner DID get whooping cough, but as the kids and I are immunised we avoided catching it from him. He was very sick for more than 3 weeks, and has taken nearly a full month following that to feel back to normal. In this case, I am glad I took the vaccine.

    I’m a primary school teacher and flu shots are offered for free every year. These I decline. If I worked in a hospital, I’d get them. Part of the reason I decline the flu shots is that I still believe there are other versions of the flu I can still catch, whether I’ve had the current vaccine or not. Is that right?

    For those of you who are interested in the Australian vaccine story, part of the reason coverage is so good is that the government offers a financial incentive to have your child fully vaccinated. It’s $258 in two separate payments, $129 to have required vaccinations between 18-24 months old, and $129 to have required vaccinations between 4 and 5 years old.
    “Maternity Immunisation Allowance (MIA) is a non-income tested payment to encourage parents to fully immunise children in their care. From 1 January 2009, Maternity Immunisation Allowance is generally paid as two separate amounts. The first payment will be made if your child is immunised between 18 and 24 months. The second payment will be made if your child is immunised between four and five years of age.”

    Immunisation certificates must be presented to childcare centres, preschools and schools when you enrol your child. If your child has not been vaccinated, they are listed so you can be notified as soon as an outbreak occurs so that you can keep your child home from school, and away from risk.

    The rubella vaccination programs have been very effective in reducing the incidence of rubella-related congenital hearing impairments. I had the rubella shot when I was in year 8 (about 13 years old). They’ve been phased out now as MMR vaccines have been introduced to the childhood immunisation schedule.
    “In 1989, Australia extended the vaccination schedule by commencing to provide a combined measles–mumps–rubella (m–m–r) vaccine to all 12-month-old boys as well as girls, with a booster at four years (Burgess, 1991). The teenage schoolgirl program was then phased out.”

    School based immunisation programmes offer a schedule of vaccinations, usually at high school. They’re not compulsory, but available, free and encouraged. Here is a link to the schedule for New South Wales, one of Australia’s states:

    Voting is compulsory 🙂

  17. Fascinating discussion. My mom is in a skilled nursing facility and all visitors have been requested to get the flu vaccine because so many of the elderly patients are immune compromised AND many have dementia, making it harder to care for them and more traumatizing to them if they get sick. I feel like it’s not for me to decide what level of risk an elderly confused patient should accept, so I get the flu shot. I also know a woman who was among the last wave of kids who got polio, and seeing her disability (which is increasing as she ages) shows me that we do not want a disease like polio to cycle back.

    What I wonder is why they allow the religious exception — if hospitals accept that healthcare professionals who do not get vaccinated post a risk to certain patients (and I get that there’s debate there, but clearly the hospital policies are written in support of this view) then how does one person’s religious beliefs trump the health and safety of the patients? Seems like if a vegan must get the shot, then a person with religious issues should also either get the shot OR refrain from the work that requires it of others.

    Based on the argument the hospital makes, seems like the only exception should be for an allergy to the vaccine itself. Or, choosing not to get the vaccine but then not being allowed high-risk patient contact during flu season. I’m not saying that’s the best choice either, just that if they take the stance they do, then the religious exemption makes no sense.

  18. I’m about to get my flu shot today for work at CNMC, googled it because I suspected it wasn’t vegan, and you were the first result and only a couple miles away! Here, they require it of everyone, and the only alternative (including those allergic to eggs) is to wear a surgical mask at work at all times from now until they declare flu season over. I don’t know how much protection that affords (do you?), but I think it serves more as a threat than a viable option – working with kids, all it would do is terrify them!

  19. Gena, thank you for such a great post and thank you to everyone for their thoughtful comments. I certainly disagree with some of my fellow commentators but I thank you for your input. I have been truly fortunate that my child has been extremely healthy since day 1. He rarely gets sick but he got very ill with the flu during the epidemic two years and was briefly hospitalized due to complications. While I choose alternative medicine for us whenever possible, that experience reaffirmed for me at least that vaccinating him (I followed the schedule since infancy) was the appropriate decision because seeing even what the flu can do scared the living daylights out of me.

    As for “herd immunity” in relation to the diseases that can be prevented through vaccination, sorry, that is one thing I completely disagree on. While I fully support parents who opt to not vaccinate their kids, I completely believe that the health of the majority is more important than the choice of the individual parent to not vaccinate their children. In general, we do not live in isolation from others; our choices, be what they may, affect others in one way or another.

    Gena, you are going to be an awesome doctor, so proud of you!

  20. This is a very interesting post, Gena! I am currently pursuing my MPH at George Mason (right across the river from you!) and even before I was enrolled in the program, I had given some serious thought to vaccines after learning the basics of epidemiology. It’s great that some of the other commenters have brought up the idea of “herd immunity.” If you don’t want to vaccinate, you would be wise to make sure you live in an area where the rest of the population is vaccinated (the rule-of-thumb threshold is about 80% for most diseases).

    Vaccines have allowed us to eliminate small pox around the world and all but eliminate polio in this country. The last polio outbreak essentially boiled down to the Nigerian government outlawing the vaccine, which resulted in it spreading to more than 20 countries around the world, including Minnesota – where the children who got sick were unvaccinated children from an Amish community. While the risks of vaccines may seem quite serious, the fact is that the diseases they prevent, are generally much more so. It’s likely that most of the commenters here have never lived during a time where polio was present in the US. While there are approximately 200 asymptomatic cases (meaning you get a little sick or not sick at all, but not with the classic clinical signs) to ever 1 diagnosed case, those diagnosed cases may result in paralysis or death.

    Vaccines, regardless of how they are made or what they contain, ultimately save many, many, many lives. They are, in fact, one of the few medical treatments that is regarded by the medical community as 100% effective (yes, I know some vaccine effectiveness wanes and you have to get boosters). I’m starting to ramble on here, but basically what I am trying to say is that people living in the first world are fortunate to have generally never experienced the truly awful diseases that are vaccine preventable.

    I love animals and people equally, and I want every animal and person to have a long happy life. This is why vaccines for both humans and people are essential. There are some short-term dangers of vaccines that are quite rare, but basically vaccines are just speeding up the body’s natural process of developing immunity. Unfortunately, at this point there is just no other way of developing and testing the vaccines. I think getting the recommended vaccines is the ethical thing for you to do, especially considering you are working with such a high-risk population.

    Thank you for such a debate-provoking post! Bravo, as always 🙂

  21. great post! I feel very ignorant because I had no idea what vaccines were made of, and I am still shocked! I think you bring up many good points. I’ve avoided vaccines mainly because I don’t feel that putting a disease into my body is a good choice. That said, some are necessary. I wish that someone had told me about the HPV vaccination while I was still young enough to get it.

  22. my my my…so many heated comments.

    its hard working in the world of health care when you are conflicted on a personal level.

    its a controversial topic that ive avoided discussing on the blog as well in the real world. like you, i received all my vaccines prior to becoming vegan, so theres little point in discussing them. but the flu shot continually rears its ugly head year after year.

    because we have transplant patients (and other immunocompromised ones) on our floor, its irresponsible for me to think of only myself. that said, my body, my beliefs…

  23. also i hate how everyone rags on doctors for recommending vaccines. or for telling people that vegan diets are unhealthy. how about they have fun spending that much of their life dedicated toward education. think of how much they have to fit in. they are just going by what they learned in school, what most of the research says, and yeah, probably what has been lobbied to be in the curriculum. but you mean to tell me you went to school for your bachelors or masters or whatever and went above and beyond or straight up tried to find information completely opposite of what all of your professors were telling you? i’d highly doubt it. if someone doesn’t go into school with the knowledge beforehand or somehow stumbles upon it, they aren’t going to come out of med school saying vegan diets are awesome or vaccines are bad for you. they have enough work to do studying and being tested on what they are actually learning in class. nevermind an entire curriculum more worth of alternative medicine or ideas from very small groups of people that are not necessarily studied or if they are studied aren’t double-blind & tested by multiple groups of scientists.

    take it easy on health care professionals and know they are usually just doing what they learned. i hate some of the things they tell us in nursing school because i personally feel there are better ways to help people in some situations- but i don’t think everyone in my class is going to come out of school thinking that way. they are having a hard enough time getting the grades they need to continue on in the program! they’re not worried about things outside of it like you guys are!

  24. i have to get the flu vaccine soon as well. i’m a nursing student and it is hospital policy. we didn’t have to last year, but they implemented it this year for students. i’m also torn about- i really would rather not get it. i’ve always noticed that everyone i know gets sick right after they get vaccinated! but in clinical i’m caring for patients that are really sick. yeah, i might not get sick from it, but if i have the flu and my body is fighting it off i might never know i have it but i could give it to one of my patients and make them even more sick or kill them!!

    its a tough decision for when you have kids too. i don’t know what i’d do yet. maybe a delayed vaccination schedule? and ones without mercury or aluminum in them. it stinks they aren’t vegan- i really wish that wasn’t an issue as well.

    but i completely agree- pediatric floors on most hospitals have basically been closed. there are no longer children dying or getting seriously ill all the time. its great to have that protection. not to mention how many of us got vaccines? i can’t find any problems that anyone i know has in common that could possibly be contributed to vaccines. and the autism one was busted. i’d feel so terrible if i didn’t vaccinate my child and they came down with something and got really sick and died because of that. or if my child got rubella and was around a pregnant woman and made her child deaf.

    lots to think about. who knows what is right. it will be tough to figure out to do once i have kids! but for now i’m going to have to get the flu vaccine for work at least.

  25. This was very interesting to read! I’m glad you shared your thoughts on it.
    “I think it’s high time for us to explore vaccinations that are developed without animal parts or products.” I think so to, it’s necessary. But like you mentioned, it’s not like that now. I am not vegan (I’m vegetarian), but I do try to not use products which have animal by-products. The quote you mention every so often IS practical. I would always choose to vaccinate, I ‘believe’ in the positive function of it. I know that it may have caused harm to animals but I also think vaccination is necessary for trying to keep people healthy and alive. I know that whenever I’ll have a kid, I will opt to vaccinate it, to keep her/him healthy as possible.

  26. “As well consult a butcher on the value of vegetarianism as a doctor on the worth of vaccination.” —George Bernard Shaw

    Of course there are exceptions. Many enlightened doctors have spoken out against vaccinations.

    “Complexity of Finding Technical Answers.

    Due to the complexity of causative factors in infectious diseases, the startling world-view contrast in the theses which attempt to explain them, and the difficulty in designing “gold standard” experiments due to the inevitable (ethically based) conflicts of interest that follow, it is rather difficult to determine answers to pertinent questions on vaccine efficacy and safety, once the issues of controversy and dissent are taken into account. Perhaps due to the dominating consensus of a ‘field in closure’ (this is perhaps one of many reasons), there is also a scarcity of research resources directed towards asking difficult, challenging, fundamental questions regarding vaccines. Hence there is considerable scope for uncertainty, in such a supposedly certain area.

    To this already complex arena are added the difficulties posed by such things as the conflicts of interest of researchers, influence in the scientific domain of financially vested interests, biased / unfair selectivity in the journal publication of medical research, biases in medical education, skewing of the demographics of decisionmakers themselves involved in public health policy, mass media filtering, a potentially distorted public understanding of the relevant science, and a myriad of other additional complicating factors. From all of this complexity, at least, follows a verification of one assertion of vaccine dissidents, that the efficacy or safety of vaccines is all too often assumed without real trial, and that the ‘real world’ with human subjects becomes the ultimate ‘test bed’ for vaccines. This ‘test bed’ as a measure of vaccines is itself highly flawed for many reasons, not the least being that the data collection/analysis of vaccination failure rates and adverse effect rates in the ‘test bed’ are woefully inadequate, on a global scale.

    Disparate World-Views.

    Most of the promulgations involving vaccines as efficacious and safe hold as implicit the reductionistic western orthodox model of disease and the fundamental tenets of germ theory, which themselves tend to come into question by some vaccine dissidents. To these dissidents, relatively few research writings directly address the validity of the basic premises upon which the vast scientific effort of immunisation and vaccination is built. It certainly makes for an interesting line of questioning regarding the issues at stake.

    Until these fundamental disagreements are explicated and evaluated, little progress towards a greater understanding of human disease (and what we are actually doing when we vaccinate) can occur. As it stands at present, the two different world views see each other in an incommensurable light. This is obviously a situation which does not lend itself to easy solutions.

    Why Study Vaccine Dissent?

    … the controversy regarding vaccination offers an incredibly interesting insight to the sociological mechanisms that generally underpin medical scientific knowledge. Vaccine dissent serves as yet another example of a medical controversy that delineates serious anomalies, that challenge the present foundational paradigmatic basis of that medicine variously termed western, orthodox, establishment, reductionistic or allopathic.”

  27. As a Family Medicine resident and vegan, I struggle with decision to get vaccinated against the flu every year. And every year I get the vaccine, to protect my patients, my family, and myself (with the schedules that residents keep, even the healthiest young resident can contract a severe form of the flu when immunosuppressed secondary to high levels of stress and a lack of sleep). As a vegan, I plan to raise my children on a plant-based diet, but I will also ensure they are fully vaccinated.
    The Institute of Medicine just recently released a comprehensive review of evidence on vaccines and adverse events. Vaccines reviewed include hepatitis A, hepatitis B, HPV, influenza, MMR, meningococcal disease, tetanus, and varicella (chickenpox). This review found no tangible, credible evidence to suggest MMR causes autism. Causal links were found between seven vaccines and 14 adverse events, many of which are readily apparent, easily identified, or self-limited, transient conditions. For example, varicella vaccine may cause chickenpox, MMR may cause a febrile seizure or transient joint pains, hypersensitivity and anaphylaxis may occur with any vaccine produced using eggs (such as influenza), and any vaccine, regardless of antigen, may cause syncope (fainting) and muscle soreness. Importantly, the report rejected associations between both MMR and diptheria/tetanus/pertussis and type 1 diabetes, and between inactivated influenza and both Bells palsy and asthma exacerbation. The full report can be found at
    In my professional opinion, the benefits of vaccination greatly outweigh the risks. In my personal opinion, the benefits of vaccination and *some* medications outweigh my moral values, especially where my [future] children are involved. For those of you on the fence or against vaccination, is important to find a physician you trust and respect to help you in the decision making process.

  28. Great post, Gena! For me, veganism is all about making choices and finding alternatives. If there is no (good) vegan alternative, this sometimes means we have to make a non-vegan choice. I totally understand that you took the non-vegan vaccination because it’s obligatory if you work at a hospital. I would probably do the same in your situation. I really love your blog btw!

  29. Gena, this was very thought-provoking and written so articulately. I hope that you feel no guilt whatsoever. You always seem to do your very best and you are a wonderful and inspiring vegan. You ALWAYS go “as far as is plausible and practical.” At the end of the day, you are doing something wonderful by helping sick children, and if that means you have to have a non-vegan vaccine, then so be it. By refusing it, you would only be hurting the children who would not otherwise have such a great volunteer by their side.

  30. Mercury in flu shots: Dose response. The amount of mercury in each dose amount is very very small. Unless you are mainlining flu shots daily for years on end, I wouldn’t be concerned. You are probably exposed to more toxins in the air you breathe daily.

  31. Hi Gena, I’m a physician (I actually live and work in the DC area, and my husband is a peds heme/onc physician in this area, though not at Georgetown). Your post, as usual, was well thought out and brought up a lot of interesting points. I don’t want to debate about vaccines, though I strongly agree with the other physician who posted above who believes not vaccinating children is irresponsible. I was just curious about how you are planning to deal with giving treatments that you are morally opposed to when you become a physician. I ask this because my sister actually dropped out of an Ivy League medical school because she was morally objected to a lot of the medications and treatments that physicians must use. She had been a long-term vegetarian at the time. Ultimately she went back to school and became a registered dietician. After reading this post, and seeing that you did not want to be vaccinated, and that you’re not sure if you would vaccinate your children — I was just wondering how you will feel administering medications to patients that may have animal products in them. As you know, animal products are used quite frequently in medications and in medical devices/implants (i.e., porcine heart valves come from pigs). Would you feel comfortable administering these, or referring patients for these implants? Will you be able to put your own personal views aside? My sister wasn’t able to do that, unfortunately, and she left medical school.

    You mentioned that you asked the nurse if veganism would allow you to “opt out” of the influenza vaccine. Because you’re working with critically ill children (the peds heme/onc ward has the sickest kids in the hospital), I am surprised you would consider opting out even if you were allowed. Were you just asking out of intellectual curiosity, or would you have actually opted out if given the opportunity?

    • Hey Rebecca,

      It’s great to connect with a DC physician! Thanks for commenting.

      I asked mostly out of intellectual curiosity (and if I must be honest, because I wanted to blog about this!). I momentarily wanted to opt out completely (and even considered exploring the religion question), until I realized, naturally, that my patients are immunosupressed (in the case of the transplant kids, very immunosupressed). So I would have ultimately gotten it, and will get all other vaccines I need, but I did want to explore the question of whether veganism should be given the same status as religion in terms of moral objection. Frankly, after writing this post, I feel supportive of mandatory vaccination in hospitals, but I don’t support the religious exemption if it’s to be singular.

      As for everything else: speaking of “more good than harm,” I think I can do more good for veganism if I do pursue a career inside the medical field than if I decide not to. I’ve already come to terms with the fact that this will very likely mean using a lot of medications I’m opposed to. Will I like it? Certainly not. But do I think it would be better to simply write this blog and make recipes and not pursue a career in health care? No. Because I believe I can help more people and also use my credentials positively for veganism by making the choice to follow this path. And perhaps a higher concentration of veg*n health care professionals might somehow create a demand for more non-animal medicines. (Wishful thinking, maybe, but hey.)

      Hope that makes sense. If I don’t get into med school, the RD option is my Plan B. So, I’ll have more than one level of solidarity with your sister if that happens!


  32. For those who think that I and many others are irresponsible, I feel just as strongly against what you advocate. In this case, which one of us is irresponsible? Who is right and who is wrong? What about those who fall somewhere in between with many different views? Are some of them right and some of them wrong? The freedom to choose is vital. It is a threat to our freedom in general to suggest otherwise.

  33. Interesting post, thanks for a relatively balanced treatment of an issue that many people find complex and confusing. However, as a physician, I honestly believe it is irresponsible for parents not to give basic childhood vaccines. I think our society has lost sight of how absolutely amazing vaccination is, and how critical herd immunity is to all of us. There are plenty of other medical interventions I question, and there are a few vaccines, such as HPV, that I see as essentially optional in the United States.

    I would urge parents considering not vaccinating to go to third world countries and see stuff like polio first hand. I would point to recent outbreaks in the United States of diseases such as measles in the population at large as opposed to isolated communities (although it is worth checking out how deadly diseases like measles have been in Christian Science schools, for example).

    Unfortunately, in the US, parental choice is NOT the only threat to herd immunity — disparity in health care and lack of access to basic health care services is a much bigger threat. Vaccination rates are dangerously low in some underprivileged populations, despite outreach efforts. To me, this health care disparity makes it especially irresponsible for those of us who have access to this most basic and effective of health care interventions to refuse to vaccinate our children.

  34. Amazing post, Gena. Thanks for being so bravely honest with us. I absolutely believe you made the right choice. I think we should always keep in mind the “practical” aspect of the definition of vegan. We can’t ignore that we don’t live in a vegan world and that we are going to be forced to make both decisions and compromises that allow us to live sanely in this world.

    I know this wasn’t the point of your post but I find the relationship between religion and veganism very interesting. Personally, I do not like to align the two with one another. Yes, they are both moral codes and world views, however one is usually overseen by some governing body or text. I think one of the best aspects of veganism is that the guidelines come from within. We must all make our own decisions about what is truly practical and not conveniently practical. While we can certainly gain insight from other vegans, ultimately the “rules” are based on our own interpretation. I realize others would completely disagree with me – perhaps an interesting focus for the future!

    PS – NY misses you 🙂

  35. Vaccinations are such a complicated issue – for vegans and non-vegans alike – so I think few on either side of the fence are entirely comfortable with the concept. Whatever the reason for discomfort (moral/ethical objections, concerns about autism, allergies, etc), I think at the end of the day the real question is this: Where is the greatest negative impact of your decision potentially going to be realized? Where are you potentially causing the most harm? I can’t answer that for anyone except myself, because the answer depends on what matters most to a given person. For me, the most harm is absolutely and without question the potential that I might pass a virus to someone whose immune system can’t handle it like mine can. My decision affects not only me, but every single person I come into contact with. It’s not perfect, but I’m comfortable with that decision.

    Medications are a little more personal. For the most part, they will affect only the person taking them….and that is a personal decision. As for medications treating communicable diseases…my answer is the same as above. It’s not about the singular person: how is your decision affecting those you come into contact with? I understand that life is life – human, animal, etc, and that by taking medications you may feel as though you’re qualifying one type of animal life as more important than another. To your point, Gena, practicality and “doing the best you can” must be taken into consideration.

    Logically, yes, veganism and religion should absolutely be in the same category as far as grounds for exemption from vaccines. I thought your comment about veganism providing “moral structure” for your life summed up the similarities between veganism and religion perfectly. I would imagine that the argument from some super religious folks would be that it’s not just a question of right or wrong, but a question of their soul’s fate. In my opinion, though, it’s not a question about whether both religion AND veganism should be considered grounds for exemption. It’s whether EITHER should be considered grounds for exemption. I have no children of my own, but I do have aging parents, nieces and nephews, and several friends with compromised immune systems. If a loved one of mine contracted the flu virus and became seriously ill – or worse – courtesy of a healthcare provider who had been exempted from vaccination, I’m pretty certain the grounds on which that exemption had been granted would be of no consequence to me. That healthcare provider would have put my loved one in harm’s way, period. It’s irresponsible. Is that an easy, flawless conclusion to draw? Nope. Am I sure? Yes. Absolutely.

  36. I’m vegan, but I wouldn’t want a vegan vaccine. Every dollar spent in developing and moving a vaccine that already exists (albeit in non-vegan form) through approval processes is a dollar that cannot be spent in research and development for other vaccines, drugs, etc. that may treat and prevent diseases with no currently known cure. For me, I feel it’s important to do my part as a vegan in an omnivorous world, but given this ethical dilemma I’d land on the other side.

  37. So well-articulated, Gena. I had no idea that vaccinations were not vegan, and you shed light on a subject that I really didn’t pay much attention to. I have been against vaccinations for some time now but you made me think twice on their benefits and I really appreciate you doing that. And that quote…regardless of how many times you’ve used it…hits me every time. It’s so true. You’re such a talented, gifted individual, my dear!

  38. Thank you for pointing out something I previously knew little about. You actually now have me thinking, are vaccinations kosher and if so, why? (I happened to know many peeps who keep strictly kosher.)

    Personally, I am pro vaccination for the big things. A world without them would surely be worse than the suffering that exists now because of them. But I really question the validity of the flu vaccination for people who are not at risk of dying from the flu? I smell big pharma at work and that song, “Money, Money, Money” is ringing in my ears. How about spending the marketing $ that are encouraging everyone and their grandmother to get the flu vaccine on marketing the power of vegetables and fruits to keep you healthy from all disease, not just the flu?

    I know that the world doesn’t work like that, but I would welcome a post with your thoughts on this!

  39. This is a wonderful post, Gena!

    I like to be “natural” when I can be — choosing natural products not tested on animals, etc. But vaccinations have done so much to slash the child mortality rate. I get so angry when people go nuts with fear mongering about vaccines. Yeah…there will be a few complications, some incredibly serious. But statistically speaking it’s incredibly low. I usually don’t get the flu shot but that’s just because I’ve gotten the flu after I was vaccinated so it soured me. But I certainly would if I was working with children.

    It’s awesome you’re getting field experience!

      • I looked at the study, and it would be unwise to conclude there is a causal relationship between the number of vaccines administered before one year of age and the infant mortality rates. Actually, there seemed to be a pretty major mistake in the canadian numbers, since they counted some vaccines that are only given to older children (ex: hep B). I’d like to see more research showing similar results, if you know of any. Besides, this kind of research cannot predict how many kids would die of infectious diseases if we stopped vaccinating against some of them…

  40. I swear these thought-provoking posts always come at the perfect time for me. I’m a vegan of several years and feel, like you, that my “diet” is actually just one of the many ethical practices I follow in my cruelty free lifestyle. Veganism is much much more than eating tofu scrambles and having to pass (somewhat awkwardly) on the community birthday cake. I am very thankful to have avoided any vaccinations since high school (7-ish years ago) but just today I had my ethics tested. I have ADD/ADHD and take medication for it on a daily basis. My psych had to switch my meds to a brand that comes in gel capsule form (a cost/insurance issue) and my immediate thought was the possibility of animal-derived gelatin. Not taking medication is not an option for me, but I need to do some research before I commit and fill the prescription. Is there is a reliable online resource for vegan/non-vegan medications? Thanks again for a wonderful post, Gena!

  41. One more thing I wanted to respond to: I think it’s so interesting that you brought up the ‘vegan ~ religion’ comparison. It’s often brought up as a criticism of veganism, that its adherents are like members of a fundamentalist cult. I think it’s perfect that you turn that around and offer it as a positive attribute.

    To my impression, Veganism has a majority of the characteristics of a religious system: it’s definitely a strong moral code and encourages coming together and reinforcing articles of faith; it’s definitely strengthened by people coming together for celebration and affirmation, and as a system, it can be the guiding light for a person’s life. That’s a big part of why I feel so awkward using the word ‘Vegan’ (either capital or lowercase “V”) when talking about diet–I feel that to some degree, diet is only a fraction of the picture.

  42. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences with a subject so delicate and controversial, both because of the ambivalence of the evidence (which you point out) and because of the depth of opinions it arouses, and the risks versus benefits unclarity, and because of the importance of the matter at stake.

    I’m very skeptical of vaccines in general and am especially skeptical of ‘enforced’ vaccinations, because in my experience, they’ve often come across as manipulations of my behavior and body based mostly on strong-arm tactics. That said, in your position, I think I’d have done the same thing, and I, too, am grateful that we’re not perennially in prey to smallpox and polio.

    It’s definitely one of the more important ‘not black and white’ situations. I admire your thoughtfulness on the topic and hope that writing your thoughts and having this discussion is helpful to you too.

  43. Very interesting post, Gena. My daughter is 3 years old and entirely unvaccinated, vegan, never been sick other than a mild cold. The number of vaccines recommended is ridiculous in my opinion. They wanted to give her a Hep B vaccine the day she was born in the hospital, which I opted out of!
    Is it true you are studying to be a pediatrician?
    My daughter’s pediatrician only recommended the DTP vaccine. Her arguments for it weren’t too convincing.
    I can totally understand and admire your decision being that you work with immunity impaired children.
    However, given your medical knowledge thus far, would you vaccinate your own baby if he/she was perfectly strong and healthy? or recommend it to others?
    The pediatricians tell you that your baby will get a fever the night after it is administered the vaccine and to give it tylenol. (I have never given my daughter tylenol or any other medications). It just seemed so so wrong to give my baby something that would immediately make her sick…

    • I’m studying to be a physician, Jamie (I’m a post-bacc now). Though I’m more in favor of vaccination than you are, I do agree that selective vaccination can be a great option for parents who share your skepticism. Hooray for your daughter’s good health.

  44. Wow, such a hot button issue and I commend you for your post and honesty, Gena. I got the flu shot recently and didn’t even think about the animal issue (was ignorant about how vaccines were made) until I learned about it in my Microbio class this semester. As a future public health professional, I feel obligated to promote vaccines based upon the evidence that they save lives. But, it is obviously at the expense of animal lives and that is not to say that I value one over the other. It’s one of those very sensitive, walking the line choices that we have to make for ourselves. But, I fully support the idea of allowing people to refuse vaccinations on grounds of veganism. That seems absolutely fair.

  45. That’s awesome about volunteering, what a great experience. Very intersting post on vaccinations and I tend to agree with your view points since my mother and sister are nurses. I agree that they’re not vegan, but wish we had more leverage to express desire for vegan versions besides just not getting them.

  46. Great post. What we should also remember is that a major contributor to deadly influenza pandemics, and other infectious diseases, is factory farming! So, the no-brainer, ethically-uncontentious part of being vegan – not eating animal products – a choice that we make meal after meal, day after day, is not only reducing animal suffering, but can reduce the human health burden of communicable disease. Yet another reason to persuade as many omnivores as possible to do the ethically straightforward thing and stop eating animal products.

  47. What a thoughtful post! Thank you for sharing the information. I have worked in a several hospitals over the past 4 years. Each one gave employees the option to decline. I have not had the flu shot in 14 years. I have not had the flu since that last flu shot 14 years ago. I choose to decline but I am fastidious about hand hygiene, diet and exercise. It has worked for me. This is the first year that I will not have direct patient contact. I think about what I will do when the shot does become mandatory as I know it will at some point. Like you, I will continue to educate myself to continue to make an informed decision. That being said, I am fully vaccinated against everything else (MMR, dTap, etc.) so it’s definitely not a white and black issue for me either.

  48. I think that no matter how flat a pancake, it always has two sides, as Dr. Phil would say. We live in a world that is not black and white, and sometimes I feel that veganism can be very much like a religion, in that it advocates a “right way” and a “wrong way.” I personally feel that there is a time and a place for everything. We are lucky not to be plagued by polio. If the vaccination had not ever been made, the world would be a much different place for us. I was lucky enough never to NEED a vaccination, I was always exempt from them growing up, and that is because I live in a world where medical advancement has made me safe. And that was through the creation of the vaccine. This is a really hot topic, but what I think it comes down to, and what I believe most of the issues like this one come down to, is we have to make choices based on the circumstance. You are wise to get the vaccination and not endanger the children you work with. Clearly if there were any other way to ensure this, you would do it, but as it stands in our imperfect world, there was no other way. I truly feel we need to get away from black and white thinking, and realize that each and every situation is one where we have to think for ourselves and make a choice based on what is going on at the time. And I do agree with you, that veganism is much like a religion and should receive the same amount of respect.

  49. I’ve read this post and the comments a couple of times, and I still don’t feel like I have anything to add that hasn’t been said so eloquently by someone else. This is something I’ve never even considered. I’m a vegetarian (not vegan) and I know I won’t have children, so I don’t have those factors to weigh in my decision as to vaccinate or not.

    But selfishly, from my own perspective, I choose not to get the flu shot or ingest any sort of unnecessary drug (unless the situation absolutely require it, of course.) Looking past the fact that everyone at work who gets the shot gets sick, I have a trust issue when it comes to putting anything into my body that could be of a questionable nature. Yes, it’s part of my slighly disordered mindset at times, but I prefer to keep things “pure,” not scientific. If I know something contains an ingredient that I question even an iota, it’s a no-go. However, I never even considered something like vaccines or someone in your position.

    For me, my first thought does go back to “when possible and practical.” If I were in your position and I knew that my decision was about much more than my own health–that being the health of people with compromised systems already–I would do it in a heartbeat. If it was just about me, my decision would be different.

    • Thanks Abby!!

      We agree, essentially. Like you, and perhaps because of my history, I have a discomfort that borders on stringency about putting “unnatural” things in my body. That said, the flu shot really does strike me as unnecessary within our age demographic, and I would not have opted in were it not for the safety of others. Had vegan ethics not been involved, this might have been a good experience for me in a way, because it challenged me to put my own possessiveness of my body aside for the sake of other people.


      • Hey Gena,

        I like what you said about the “stringency” about putting unnatural things in your body. I’ve felt like that a lot before, especially at the height of my ED. I’m trying to be more mindful now about it, because even if it’s not in the form of orthorexia/restriction, I can still be overly stringent about other areas of my life, which is very much related to my ED thoughts and behaviors. While I make a great effort to be healthy, I also recognize that sure, we can be the most “pure” as possible, but we are all going to die anyway just like the carnivores and the processed food-eaters. Just a thought to keep in perspective 🙂

  50. I work for a large teaching hospital in the midwest. For many years the flu shot was mandatory (barring allergy) for all hospital employees, but in the past two years they have relaxed this somewhat — the shot is no longer mandatory, but you must actively decline the shot; that is, you have to show up at the location where they are being administered and have your badge swiped into the system to acknowledge that you are declining the shot.

  51. I work for a large hospital system in VA. Yearly flu vaccines are optional; but we must wear respirators during flu season if electing not to be vaccinated. That said…I happen to agree with your position 🙂

  52. Wow, Gena, this is so incredible and shares desperately needed information and perspectives. My heart skipped a beat when I saw the title of this post, and I truly appreciate the depth and sensitivity that you bring to these complicated issues. When I chose to accept a position working for a vegan holistic health center, I began to struggle with the fact that the owners and chief medical staff at the center are explicitly anti-vaccination. I have listened to countless lectures here stating that vaccines kill, and that companies who develop vaccines are out to take our money and destroy our young. Extreme? Yes. Accepted as normal by many, many holistic health-oriented folks? Sadly, yes. I have kept pretty quiet about my views to all but a select few, but I did make an agreement with the medical staff here that I myself would never promote anti-vaccination positions to either guests or volunteers. I would say “I’d rather not discuss it at work,” but never actually tow the anti-vaccination line. At my workplace, staff are strongly discouraged from vaccinating their children and themselves for “spiritual reasons,” and we issue letters from the chief physician that give parents the opportunity to prevent their children from getting vaccination on “spiritual” grounds. I am one of the only vaccinated people at my workplace (sometimes it comes up at the water cooler or over amazing raw lunches and I’m always the lone one, or at least the lone one who isn’t afraid to admit it) I have been strongly encouraged to purchase expensive “anti-vaccination homeopathic antidotes” that will “reverse the negative effects of my vaccinations.” I finally stopped talking about the fact that I’ve been vaccinated, believe in vaccinations, and think it’s wrong not to promote a more expansive view of the costs and benefits of vaccines. I have heard from my physician father that babies now end up at hospitals for diseases they’re still too young to be vaccinated for, and that if populations were vaccinated as recommended by the AMA, these same kids would likely not have landed in the hospital or grave. Just as “traditional” doctors are often feared unnecessarily in the holistic health world (traditional doctors are neither all amazing nor all horrible), I think vaccinations get a bad reputation based on the popularity of some of the conspiracy theories circulating that their sole purpose is to destroy the population and make money (I cringe as I type these words, but honey, let me tell you I hear these reasons put out there here frequently). As a vegan, I will admit that I try my best to avoid unnecessary animal products in supplements and medicine I take. Gelatin caps for my DHA supplement? Unnecessary, so I go for a plant-based product. For other things not available in plant-source only form yet (emphasis on the word YET!) Like you, I try to see the bigger picture and do the best I can. In September, there was a bioethics conference in Philadelphia that focused on some of these issues: I found out about it from my dad who teaches at Upenn medical school.

    I am thrilled to read the great discussion happening already! Thank you again, Gena.

  53. Thank you, It is so nice to finally read a well-reasoned opinion on vaccines based on personal medical experience and facts.

  54. Gena you are so eloquent and will be such a good doctor. So balanced and practical. Bravo.

    There are a few major health related things that separate the developed from the developing world. Universal access to vaccines is one of those things.

    When I was pregnant, I was the first in line for a flu shot. If you think the flu is dangerous for non-pregnant women, I can tell you that it becomes a much more serious illness when a woman is pregnant. I should add that I’m also a MD.

    • Tina,

      I may simply be exhausted from Organic Chem, but hearing that an MD thinks I’ll be a decent doctor is enough to make me cry with appreciation.


  55. Wow! I did not know that the flu vaccination was not vegan. I chose not to get the vaccine at work this past week and it was something I just felt like I didn’t need, even though I normally get it every year.
    “all vegans are occasionally forced to weigh the pressures of an imperfect world against a a strict moral stance.”
    I though this was excellent to add in your post, at some point or another we are all faced with these hard decisions, but we can only do our best and be happy with what we were able to accomplish at the end of the day.
    Great post!

  56. This is a very thoughtful post. Although I became a vegan primarily for health reasons, I would love to see medical science advance in a way that included fewer animal-based “solutions” to health problems. That said, I also cannot forget that much of the valuable research that brought to light how detrimental animal products are for humans was originally based on experiments performed on animals. It would have been better, of course, if we somehow could have simply intuited that plant based diets were better just by having a better understanding of other cultures, but sadly that was not the case. It’s a conundrum.

    In the case of getting vaccines, though–and I would ask a religious person this as well–the question is this: how do you decide it’s more important to put your own beliefs and ethical comfort ahead of someone else’s life or health? We’ve already seen outbreaks of diseases that are preventable–and in fact some that were thought to be eradicated–by vaccines start to reappear because people were afraid the vaccines were causing autism. I’m not saying I have the answer! I’m simply asking the question.

  57. A very well written and thought-provoking post. As a mother of two very young children, I really tortured myself with the question of vaccination. After much research, I decided that for our family it was for the best to go with vaccinations, at least in part. Vaccines that have been around for years don’t worry me as much as the newer ones that have been developed only recently. On those I prefer to take a wait-and-see approach. Being only vegetarian, albeit one who rarely eats or cooks with eggs, I didn’t have that side of the ethical equation to deal with, and I guess I am happy for that.

  58. I’ve been vegan for 17 years and never ever would I reject scientifically based medicine and/or vaccine if I’d need it. Seriously, this is about very real threats against our and our kids’ health, and right now there are no vegan alternatives. For me, it’s not a very hard choice to make.

    (Sorry for the sloppy English btw. It’s not my native tongue).

  59. I’m still working toward veganism, but for me the vaccine question is more related to the formaldehyde and preservatives than the egg incubation (although that does gross me out). I have to get it as well since I’m an RN in the Neonatal ICU. While I did choose the preservative-free vaccine, I’m still a little unsettled about the fact that the virus is inactivated by formaldehyde which is a known carcinogen…

    • Nail polish and other cosmetics, even some food items, are actually much more likely to actually have formaldehyde in them than vaccines are. A pretty minuscule quantity is used to inactivate the vaccine, then removed. Just saying that concern is probably unnecessary.

      • That makes me feel better. I avoid nail polish and cosmetics, as well as most processed foods so I would like to think I steer clear of it most of the time. Out of curiosity, how do they remove the formaldehyde from the vaccine?

  60. Although I totally believe that vaccines have done so much good and have eradicated many terrible illness, I am pro-choice when it comes to vaccination.

    I agree that veganism should be considered at the level of religion when it comes to abstaining from the vaccine. I think religious and moral objections outside of religion should be considered equal. Both include making lifestyle choices that reflect strong moral beliefs.

    On another note, when it comes to many vaccines, and drugs I feel that often times pharmaceutical companies care more about making a profit than some serious potential side affects that a percentage of users will get. I am all for drugs and vaccines when they are truly needed, but as we all know, often times a heart condition, for example, can be prevented and/or improved with healthy (possibly vegan!) diet. Pharmaceutical companies of course would rather you focus on what the drugs can do and feel as though they are “better” than prevention, and health improvement through lifestyle. They are a business after all. For this reason, sadly, I am wary of medical professionals pushing drugs or vaccines instead of diet and lifestyle. I feel it is because it is more profitable and find this very frustrating. Unfortunately as we know, there are many biases in the medical community against the power of diet/veganism and lifestyle over drugs (whenever possible) approach.

    I am not one to freak out and become a conspiracy theorist because of course, drugs and vaccinations can be lifesaving. But I think we should look at these things on a case to case basis and find all the information we can about disease and drugs, and weigh the benefits and risks for ourselves. What I do not appreciate is a doctor pressuring someone into thinking a health though diet and lifestyle is inferior to taking drugs, or feeling like the doctor has not been honest, or is not educated about risks of the drug or vaccine.

  61. There are some people on here referring to the theory of her immunity. I think we need to be cautious about arguing this because it has never been scientifically proven. I have posted a link above that challenges the official story of vaccine safety and effectiveness. To say that vaccines are safe and effective in giving immunity to anyone cannot be claimed with any scientific validity. There has never been a longterm double blind placebo controlled study proving the safety and effectiveness of any vaccine.
    Plus, if this herd immunity theory has any validity, why are there so many outbreaks of diseases that are vaccinated against in vaccinated populations (examples in link above)?
    Also, many of the diseases we vaccinate against have their origins in the animals that we confine and exploit for our pleasures. As long as this continues it is not clear that we will ever eradicate these diseases. As a matter of fact , the root word in vaccine is vaca meaning cow, as in getting rid of a disease caused by a cow.

  62. Gena what a fabulous post…thank you for discussing this topic and for laying out your reasoning, rationale, and thoughts so wonderfully.

    As a mother, vaccines are a subject that are always on my mind. What to do, how many, if any, to get. When to get them, on ‘scheudule’, never, delayed, etc. Which ones to get, which ones are not necessary, etc.

    Most women spend hundreds of hours reading about their pending birth when pregnant which is great; but I also suggest reading up on vaccines. It’s such a huge, big, complicated topic.

    “Should hospitals expand their own policies about exemption from vaccines to include freedom of thought and conscience as well as religion?” <– YES!!

    And parents in all states should have those right for their kids, too. In some states, it's VERY hard to opt out of vaccines, for both adults/workplace or children. Some states make it easier but not in all places and states.

    Whether people agree with vaccines or not; I think that giving people CHOICES is the only way to go.

    Great post and I am going to read some of the comments b/c I know you will get lots on this post!

    • Thanks a million, Averie — I know you’ve address alternate vaccination schedules on your blog, so I’m fascinated to hear your thoughts.

    • I totally agree with you. And I think it could improve vaccination rates to allow parents in all states to get an conscientious exemption, becuase that would give us more options. Right now many states allow only medical or religious exemptions, forcing an all or none choice. Wouldn’t it be better to avoid just the MMR if that’s of concern (for instance because it was developed using aborted fetal tissue), but still be able to get the DTAP?

  63. My opinion on the matter isn’t really vegan v. non-vegan. I follow a plant-based diet, but am not as strict in other aspects of life. I do remember a blog by a woman I follow (, who had this to say about vaccination. I happen to agree:

    “If you’ve decided that the risks are too great to vaccinate your child then you are counting on the rest of us who are willing to take those risks to decrease the chances that your child will be exposed to these diseases. You are counting on us. Maybe what I don’t understand (in reference to my statement in the video) is the act of and willingness to give up that control. The choice to refuse vaccinations just seems to me to be a first world luxury.”

    Because I came to this country at age 11, I had to be vaccinated for everything twice (once as a child, then again when I arrived in the US). I didn’t have a choice in that matter. We should be very grateful that we even have that choice here. One can see what lack of vaccinations does to children in third-world countries.

    • I wholeheartedly agree! It seems very selfish to me that parents are willing to let other people’s children take the (actually nonexistent, but perceived) risk of getting vaccinated so that their own child can enjoy the luxury of not dying from whooping cough. It’s always great to get a perspective from someone who didn’t grow up with the American blinders that most of us wear, to remind us of the position of privilege from which we speak!

  64. Great post! Vaccines are SO tough and I’m battling the vaccine decision right now because I’m pregnant. My midwife doesn’t believe in vaccines at all….I think some are needed…it’s a hard decision to make. Which ones do I choose to give my baby, which ones do I absolutely oppose?? I’m with you in the gray area because I don’t think it’s a black and white topic.

  65. I want to highlight the herd immunity point made by Jenny. Unfortunately, this is not an issue where personal or moral preferences have a place. Vaccinations ONLY work effectively to prevent the spread of disease epidemics when the vast majority of the population receives them. Your decision to not vaccinate your child (or yourself) puts everyone else at risk – and in particular the very young, elderly, allergic, or disabled, who may not be able to receive a vaccination for a legitimate reason. So as an ethical vegan, which I am, although I object to the methods of vaccine production and development, I do not have the right to make a decision that endangers others. Period. What you and I can do is push for legislation and research funding that would reduce the dependency on animal testing in the medical field, so that we can someday have access to medical care that doesn’t require exploiting animals.

    In addition – and this is really, REALLY important – there actually isn’t any credible evidence of any long-term negative effects of vaccines. None whatsoever. Thimerosal (the mercury derivative everyone is so worried about) causes local redness and swelling, but that’s it; it’s not even in most vaccinations, and it’s not in any child vaccine. There is NO link between vaccines and autism or any other kind of mental retardation. So please, let’s not perpetuate pseudoscience myths for the sake of “balance” or respecting individual opinions. This is an incredibly important issue, because there’s a very real threat of a lot of people becoming ill or even dying if people continue to forego necessary vaccines. Get your vaccinations, and get your children vaccinated. It’s a bigger issue than your personal ethics.

    • I disagree. You DO have the right to make a decision that may put others at risk, especially if the alternative is to transfer risk to yourself or your children. I will not sacrifice my health or that of my kids for “the greater good”. I say who are you to imply that we should? What you and a couple of other commenters seem to ignore is that research and studies that conclusively show how dangerous vaccines can be are not needed. We parents have enough proof in the pudding when we see first hand what these vaccines do to our kids. We also know that such studies may never come because there is too much money being funneled into hiding said evidence.

      My oldest child (now 11) had a reaction after one of his vaccinations. He started seizing for 30 minutes and then stopped breathing. He was in ICU for many days and the result was mild brain damage. He later ended up with epilepsy and a host of other issues. It was confirmed by his pediatric neurologist that the vaccine caused his event and we were told never to vaccinate him again. It frankly infuriates me when people who have no idea what the Sam Hill they are talking about spout off about how there are no risks. My son made one hefty sacrifice for the herd and we will make no more.. ever.

      Also be sure to read the vaccine inserts. The drug companies themselves outline all the risks associated with each shot and DEATH is listed among most of them. Even the drug companies know there are risks but somehow the people here know better? Whatever.

      • Thank you, Tiffany, for your response! I am anti-vaccine for the reasons you specified. I have seen firsthand what the negative side effects are (I could write a book about all the people I have seen harmed by vaccines) and just a mild amount of research can show someone how vaccines have had nothing to do with eradicating disease. Polio, for instance, was on a downward trend even before the vaccine was introduced. And, like you said, the drug companies even understand the risks and write them out for everyone to read. Sure, most people might not have a reaction, but are you willing to sacrifice your life for the 1% chance you might die? My friends kids’ get the flu every single time after the flu shot. My other friend just gave her son the gardasil vaccine last week and he was sicker than a dog immediately after getting it. Blind support for vaccines scares me more than any of the diseases they allegedly prevent.

      • Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell which people will have a reaction like the one your child had. According to your logic, it would be OK for all parents to decide not to vaccinate because their child *might* have the same reaction. Nothing is 100% risk free, including vaccinations, so it is inevitable that with a whole country of vaccinations a few children will have adverse reactions. Someone has to be the unlucky one. I’m sorry that it had to be your child. People often ask, “Why me?” but really, “Why not me?”. It has to happen to someone. Continuing vaccinations and enjoying a country free of many diseases outweighs negative reactions in a tiny percentage of the population. If your child had not been in that tiny percentage, you would probably agree. I can understand how it would be hard to remember this when your child happened to be one of the unlucky ones. I hope this didn’t come across as cruel as that was not my intention.

        I feel neither religion nor veganism should exempt someone from vaccinations. Although many Americans are obsessed with the impossible notion of complete freedom of choice, sometimes a country is better off when some things are made mandatory. For example, voting is mandatory for everyone over 18 in Australia. It’s great for the country because everyone’s voice is heard. Vaccinations are also mandatory – girls in a certain grade level cannot move up to the next grade without receiving the HPV vaccination. Australia has also been able to completely eradicate rabies through a stringent rabies vaccination program.

        I feel neither religion nor veganism should exempt someone from vaccinations. Although many Americans are obsessed with the impossible notion of complete freedom of choice, sometimes a country is better off when some things are made mandatory. For example, voting is mandatory for everyone over 18 in Australia. It’s great for the country because everyone’s voice is heard. Vaccinations are also mandatory – girls in a certain grade level cannot move up to the next grade without receiving the HPV vaccination. Australia has also been able to completely eradicate rabies through a stringent rabies vaccination program.

        • Oops, sorry for the identical paragraphs! Also, someone told me about rabies having been eradicated here in Australia but I just researched it and it appears rabies may never have even existed in Australia.

          • Sharon:
            I took your comment to heart and thought a lot about it. You caused me to change my view slightly – perhaps mandatory vaccination is not necessary when we still have such high immunization rates and in fact it may only further alienate people who are distrustful of the motives of health care professionals (I am often one of those people). Also, I can see how odd it seems for someone to tell you that you must do something to your body when your body is your own. However, I still feel mandatory vaccination would be appropriate if immunization rates dropped a lot further and serious disease rates increased dramatically.
            Here in Australia, if you do not vote, you are fined and then followed up until you vote. It is truly mandatory. As for the HPV vaccine, I was told a few years ago by my niece that all the girls in her class received the HPV vaccine before moving onto secondary school, but the vaccination may just be heavily promoted instead of mandatory. Australians have a slightly different view of freedom than many Americans and I think it can be enlightening to view an issue from the perspective of another culture. More things may be mandatory in Australia, but I don’t think Australians view themselves as “less free” than Americans. Most actually embrace the things that are mandatory (such as universal health care and voting) once they become used to them and see the value in them. They understand better than many Americans that total freedom is impossible anyway, and you would be hard pressed to find an Australian who believes that just because some things are mandatory they are therefore going down a slippery slope and pretty soon everything will be mandatory and they will have no freedoms left. Americans often think they are much freer than they are. People are still free to do many things in Australia that people are not allowed to do in America because of the threat of a lawsuit. One small example is playground equipment that children are no longer free to play on in America that you can still find in Australia. People in the US don’t really have the freedom to do whatever they want, and sometimes not having the freedom to do something benefits society – not being allowed to murder someone is one extreme example. People in the US are used to education being mandatory for children up to a certain age so they don’t see it as an infringement upon their freedoms. I think it is possible for a country to have some things be mandatory (such as vaccinations, if the situation demanded it) and yet still be able to draw the line between which freedoms can be taken away and which ones can’t and not fall down a slippery slope that leaves us all slaves with no freedom.

        • Great comment, Fiona, and I absolutely agree with you on all points.

          I don’t understand why this concept is so hard to get across. You don’t get to make a choice here because your opting out means that thousands – perhaps millions of other people might get a disease that could have otherwise been virtually eradicated. It’s that simple. And for the last time – there is no link between vaccines and autism. You’ve been hoodwinked if you believe that.

          • Tiffany, I hope you know that there are many people who support you and feel your pain. I have been studying true health for many years, and in the past several years, a growing number of medical professionals and others are speaking out against medical tyranny – it is encouraging – hopeful for change.

            Fiona and Lisa, your reasoning is why we (Americans) have to be vigilant in order to preserve our freedoms (each new generation needs to be reminded of what can happen if we do not). You actually believe that someone (the government?) should take away my right to NOT inject a foreign substance into my body or my child’s body – how, by force? Because you think that vaccinations are the answer? Who decides this is true? You? Or, someone in a powerful position that you believe to have all the answers? I do not think you really understand the consequences and what is likely to come next (for everyone). To Americans who know our history and hold our freedoms dear, this is the most dangerous of all threats.

            I do not care if you are pro vaccine, anti vaccine, or anywhere in between – this is more than the issue of vaccination. It will eventually affect all of us on various issues. There will be no limit on which individual freedoms can be taken away in the name of the greater good.

            Fiona, I am curious – what happens to you if you do not vote or refuse vaccination in Australia? HPV – are you sure about this one?

          • Thank you Fiona! I agree that we think we are much freer than we are. That is why I am concerned that we may be heading down a slippery slope if this continues to escalate. In my lifetime, I have seen changes that I would not have imagined in my wildest dreams – reminds me of the old Twilight Zone episodes. We both live in a free society (with basic natural rights) – that is why there are exemptions in both of our countries to such a basic natural right of what we choose to inject into our body (see below for what I found about Australia’s vaccination policy and voting). Many families here choose to homeschool or even unschool, venture outside of allopathic medicine for many health issues, and are generally more self sufficient (and healthier) – there are still choices when it comes to the most basic natural rights within the basic natural laws (yes, one of these laws is not murdering)!

            How we got to this point of so many believing that vaccinations are the answer and are not to be questioned is complicated – studying the history and the beliefs of allopathic medicine as well as other modalities helps to understand the bigger picture. The meaning of health and how to achieve it is interpreted completely different when looking at it from different views. Our current monopolized allopathic system does not focus on my definition of health – in many ways, it actually hinders health – but, so many blindly trust this institution to have our best interest at heart. That said, it is clearly obvious that allopathic medicine does help those who truly need it, and it is a great choice to have (especially in emergency situations).

            We need more choice. We need more doctors to step outside the standard of care that has taken over and offer help to those who are searching out a caring doctor who can guide them – our system has made this very hard to do. It is very frustrating to me. I think we may be somewhat on the same page about this!

            Best of health to you Fiona in Australia!

            “Vaccination is not compulsory in Australia. The Maternity Immunisation Allowance and Child Care Benefit are parent incentive payments that are paid where a child is up-to-date with his/her immunisations or the parent has obtained an appropriate medical or philosophical exemption.”

            What happens if I do not vote? Initially the Australian Electoral Commission will write to all apparent non-voters requesting that they either provide a reason for their failure to vote or pay a $20 penalty. If, within 21 days, the apparent non-voter fails to reply, cannot provide a valid and sufficient reason or declines to pay the penalty, then prosecution proceedings may be instigated. If the matter is dealt with in court and the person is found guilty, he or she may be fined up to $50 plus court costs.

  66. Wow. This is very thought-provoking, Gena. You did a great job articulating your feelings and reasonings, and as Dori said, that is why I love this blog!

    I guess if I were in this situation I would put myself in the “practical” vegan group, because in the end, we are trying to avoid fatal consequences with the children and elderly, not just ourselves. And you do SO much already as a vegan-not that you shouldn’t do more-but sometimes, we have to give up control from time to time. Unfortunately, I have a hunch that there won’t be vegan vaccines in the very near future. Instead of campaigning for that, though, I think it’s more effective to continue to educate the public about a plant-based diet because I think that would have better, more influential results.

  67. Awesome post. Been debating all of this as my man and i may try for a pregnancy soon. I’ll just say, as to flu, I never got the vaccine and was pretty resolute about it. Last January I got the flu. The true flu, not something I called a flu. It was the most debilitating sickness of my entire adult life to date (I’m 32). Came down with it on Jan.2 and didn’t feel like me again until mid-February. I’m very very healthy, workout, high raw vegan diet, etc and I could barely function for 6 weeks. I am getting the shot this year. Would be a much harder decision if I were already pregnant, but I’m not and I feel like this is the right choice. Thanks for a gray article.

  68. Some interesting ideas, Gena. I had my first flu shot last year, my regular doctor was on maternity leave, and the fill-in doctor intimidated me into getting it. I don’t want to get it again, but at the same time, I work in a large office building, where all sorts of contagious bugs float around I’m sure. I’m still thinking about it…I also really like your comparison of veganism and religion. When I first started eating a plant-based diet, I was talking to my friend about my new food choices, and I’ll never forget his reaction: he said it sounded like I had found my religion. And it’s true, sometimes I do feel religious about the way I eat! Sometimes it’s nice to believe in something!

  69. I think your plea for an exception on grounds of your veganism was soundly reasoned, so I’m sorry you had to have what I’m sure was an unnecessary flu shot. And while I’m not a vegan, I’ve always understood veganism to on philosophical grounds, something guiding all of one’s moral and ethical choices, not simply what one eats. But it’s obvious from so many other discussions here that most people do not share this understanding, and you yourself began this journey as a dietary vegan. And for every book making the ethical case (i.e. Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation) there are ten China Studies, for every Sharron Gannon, there are ten Bill Clintons, and so on, all of which perpetuates the idea that veganism is a diet, making it harder for you to come along and make your case. Even though it’s pretty clear you take your veganism more seriously than many people take their religion.
    PS: I am also a great fan of Shaw, who, you probably know, was no fan of doctors (the professions, he said, are all “conspiracies against the laity”).

  70. this is a tough one for sure, Gena. i think i would have tried to get a note from my doctor, perhaps would give someone a note had they a chance to explain themselves (but i feel doubtful, especially after the response from the NP), but i wouldn’t have known up until your post today that there’s an “out” for the flu vaccine for those allergic to eggs.

    my spouse and i went vegan for ethical reasons – we don’t consume non-human animals or their products and we only purchase cruelty-free, vegan products as well. but to be honest, there were always 2 exceptions – birth control pills and contact lenses. my spouse and i have recently discussed finding a new cruelty-free method for birth control and he’s decided get a vasectomy. as for my contact lenses, i just recently switched to glasses and my spouse had laser eye surgery.

    i believe dan is required to have a flu shot as well (he’s a career firefighter) and he is required to wear the leather boots the county issues their fire fighters as well. we have to do what we can and there are some situations that are unfortunately out of our control. in your case, it makes sense to make the decision to have the vaccine so you can continue your volunteer work and bring health and happiness to many more people, but what’s frustrating is that the vaccine only covers a few scant strands of the virus and when it all boils down – it’s just all about drug companies and money. they test on non-human animals & exploit them, and spend a great deal of money doing so – because they will in turn make a great deal of money. they claim it’s in “the public’s best interest”, but i personally believe the money would be better spent on educating people on caring for themselves & preventative care such as eating nutritious, plant-based foods to keep them healthy, programs that would promote health and wellness not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. what really gets me is that money is the driving force behind so much animal exploitation in this world – it’s saddening, but i hold hope in my heart that some day people fill their own hearts with more compassion for non-human animals and find ways to make changes so that things don’t have to be how they are now – so that human animals and non-human animals can all lead long, healthy, happy lives.

  71. As a microbiologist, on a daily basis I struggle with science and medical decisions that go against my vegetarian/vegan ethics. For example, laboratory supplies I regularly use are derived from animal products (bovine protein, antibodies produced in rabbits/mice, sheep’s blood, gelatin, among many, many others). Gena, you bring up the topic of vegan choice for or against vaccination, but even the majority of vegan “friendly” medications are developed using practices that are essentially, non-vegan.

    I obviously fall into the “possible and practical” veganism camp. Medical treatments are certainly a dilemma that all vegan/vegetarians face, one that I believe many are not fully educated on. In the end, it is important for individuals to draw their own ethical line, but I also think it is important for us to have open eyes while doing so. Things we may perceive to be vegan friendly may not be at all.

    • Diana, this is also something that I have also been pondering. I work in chemistry, but I have some small knowledge of what goes on in microbiology labs and it highlights how hard it is to be “totally” vegan. I wonder how many other procedures or health tests involve non-vegan products at some point? Is it any less vegan to have a flu shot than have say a urine test done in which a pathology lab needs to use fetal bovine serum to undertake the test?

    • Diana, I found this comment simultaneously fascinating and also really disheartening. I agree, though: even as a student, I’m constantly realizing that virtually all lab work is contingent upon gelatins, casein, and the like. I do hope that we can siphon off a fraction of our research funds to explore non-animal solutions.

  72. I am forwarding the link to this post to one of the coordinators of our flu vaccine policy. I work in a hospital in the midwest and as an employee I am required to have the flue vaccine. Our policy does not allow an exemption for veganism. I want her to read your views and the comments which will follow. Thanks.

  73. Should hospitals expand their own policies about exemption from vaccines to include freedom of thought and conscience as well as religion?


    Ah, Dr. Gena, always such wonderful food for thought here at Choosing Raw. Love it. Love you.

    I’ve shared this article with so many folks, including docs, so I’ll share it with you too (and perhaps, you’ll share it with your nurse practitioner) —> The Truth about the Flu Shot by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an outspoken advocate for free choice in healthcare, including the right to refuse vaccination.

  74. Gena, this is such an awesome post and something I have been thinking about a lot lately – I’m almost 6 months pregnant (I turned down the flu shot my doctor’s office offered) and very torn about how / when to vaccinate my child. There is so much research on both sides but ultimately you want to do what is best for your child. I have to think that the reason we don’t see more cases of menengitis, polio, etc in kids is because the vast majority are vaccinated… can you imagine how you would feel as a parent if your kid got one of those devestating diseases you hadn’t vaccinated against? But what if you did vaccinate and then your kid was autistic? Definitely a big decision to make… but I love how eloquently (as always!) you supply info and your opinion <3

    • Thanks Kat! I’d chime in and say that if you did choose to vaccinate and your child was autistic, the evidence to suggest that the autism was the fault of your vaccination is actually very, very slim.

  75. As several have said- thanks so much for approaching this with such a calm tone and reasoned attitude. I’m vegan, and also fully support vaccination in most situations (knowing that there are certainly risks but believing that the benefits far outweigh them); however, I also understand a parent’s right to question their child’s care and make decisions regarding vaccination. I thought this earlier comment really summed up the situation nicely:

    “Most of us were born into a world without polio, measles, and widespread haemophilus; a world where flu can be treated with ventilators and anti-viral medications in those who it is most virulent in; a world where we have the luxury to even debate these choices because “herd immunity” is so high.”

    Truly, we need to keep in mind how lucky we are to have the opportunity to make these decisions.

  76. I really appreciate your article.

    I am a vegan and a nurse practitioner, but I’ve not been mandated to get the vaccine because I happen to be allergic to eggs, so I figured that I’d slip by on that technicality indefinitely. Then two things happened last year:

    I got the flu, and it was awful. I actually thought I was dying when I had the chills the first night, and being sick with the flu also opened me up to other infections- I had a 2 week case of strep throat right after. I was basically sick for a whole month, used up all my sick time for that year plus some of my vacation time and was miserable.

    And… just a few weeks before I got sick, that American Academy of Allergists and Immunologists came out with a new paper on flu vaccines and egg allergies, with guidelines for safely managing administration (basically have done over two sessions with observation in an office that can administer epinephrin if necessary).

    I’m definitely leaning towards getting one this year.

    • I, too, got the flu last year. I do not work in healthcare but I am a mother to a small child. I opted out of flu shots for all of us, but after that experience (I also felt like I was dying! The flu is truly awful.) I am reconsidering. This year I am pregnant, so I feel on one hand that I should get it to protect our newborn baby during flu season, but I also feel like getting it while pregnant is risky, though recommended. Tough decisions!

      I think it was a good reminder for me of the severity of these illnesses, though, and why it is important for people to continue vaccinating for the benefit of the herd. I think people think the flu is just another type of cold virus, but it can be MUCH worse. My own father passed away from the flu (he was a COPD patient) just a week before I got it as well. Scary stuff.

  77. Hi Gena,
    Your writing is brilliant, you should consider a book someday – I would not be surprised if it happens once you are a doctor and you become a household name for your well thought out and balanced opinions on all things health and vegan!
    Anyway, as a new mom I really struggled with the vaccinations – not because of the vegan issue, but because of everything else – not trusting the industry, not knowing what these drugs are.
    In the end, we gave her the major vaccines that have been around for 30 years, but none of the newer ones.
    As a vegan who’s mainly concerned with factory farming, I don’t oppose the use of animal testing for drugs that will help eradicate widespread, harmful diseases. (But of course am against animal testing for beauty products, etc.)

  78. You informed me about a lot that I did not know, both about the vaccines and about conscientious objectors. I have a lot to think about before I can offer any kind of proper answer to your questions. I have generally been anti-vaccine when it is elective, and I have refrained from taking the flu shot for many years. I did not know it wasn’t vegan and that vaccines were not vegan. I’ve been vegan for 3 years, I feel like I should have known something like this, and I just learned about bleaching sugar recently. I donno why I didn’t know this stuff before. Anyway, thanks for the information. I am really intrigued by this post and all that it brings up. I am going to reread it and actually use it as a discussion for some of my good friends here because we like to do that sort of thing to better understand the world around us and human choices. So thanks for your amazing insights.

  79. If a premise of being an animal rights vegan is identifying and countering speciesism (so there’s no moral differences between a human or a cat or a chicken or what have you) imagine that there’s a class of people who are being raped, caged, and products from their bodies are being used to incubate vaccines for the rest of humanity. This class of people doesn’t benefit from the vaccines so it’s just us getting a free pass on disease at their expense while all the nasty things happen to them (the factory farmed life).

    I wouldn’t want that vaccine. So what’s the difference if it’s a bird and not a human hurt in the process?

    Great writing, analysis and website!

    • Thanks for your comment, Petya; certainly I admire the moral purity of your position. I’d disagree that vaccines only benefit humans, though, and would love to hear your thoughts on vaccination for pets, such as hepatitis or rabies. Also, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on medications, such as antidepressants, antibiotics, birth control pills, cosmetic pills, and/or antiretroviral drugs that aren’t vegan?

  80. Gena, I think this the perfect example of “when possible and practical” If a vegan vaccine doesn’t exist, and you need the vaccine, bet the vaccine. And then do everything in your power as a future doctor to help us get vegan vaccines! 🙂

  81. I have to say that I agree with your views on vaccines 100%, and for moral reasons I never get the flu vaccine. I also agree with you on the fact that veganism is not a dietary choice but a lifestyle choice, just as a religion is, and that those of us who choose to abstain from animal products for moral reasons should be included in exemptions. I believe as strongly in the vegan lifestyle as many religious people I know believe in their higher powers and ideals. In a way, my veganism is a religion. According to Wikipedia, “religion is a collection of cultural systems, belief systems, and worldviews that establishes symbols that relate humanity to spirituality and, sometimes, to moral values.” I think that absolutely applies.

    However, the question of whether any exemptions should exist at all when the situation, such as in a hospital, could mean life or death is unclear in my mind. I’m really not sure where I stand on the issue! But I’m leaning toward that there shouldn’t be exceptions. If someone of a forbidding religion wants to serve at the hospital, I think it should probably be up to them to choose whether their religious stringencies will prevent them from doing so, and similarly with veganism.

  82. First of all, I felt like your post was written to me. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I work in a medical environment, but not directly with patients. Since going Vegan 4 years ago, I have opted out of getting the flu shot. They are highly encouraged (as I have to work in clinics a lot) to most of us, and required by anyone directly in patient care.

    Well, now my job has changed slightly and I will be dealing with more ‘in-clinic’ work as well as working with many doctors and nurses. My thought process began here, and I’ve been torn about my decision.

    I’m not totally comfortable with the idea either, but I do believe for the health of myself and others (including my own children) that this year I should probably get one.

    Thank you for sharing this post, and I really love how kind all of the responses have been on this very controversial topic.

  83. Longtime reader, first-time commenter. I found this post to be very thought-provoking. I have a mild egg allergy – to raw eggs only. My doctor and I have discussed it at length, and have determined that the flu shot is more beneficial to me up until I could potentially have a severe reaction to it. I have asthma, and even with the immune system of a twenty-five year old, getting the flu could be extremely detrimental to my health. Colds and sinus infections already affect my lung function, no matter how hard I work to keep it that way. Until there is a better way (flumist is not available to me) for me to receive a flu vaccine or to prevent an asthma flare-up in the case of flu or cold, I will continue to receive annual flu shots.

  84. This is a very important post. I have been confronted by this same issue – whether or not to vaccinate – recently, too, (upon entering graduate school). I like that you took the question back to Watson. It seems like the “elastic clause” of the vegan constitution and I believe that this, in particular, is one area where each individual truly must decide for her/himself. I agree with you and with others that there really does not exist a “right” way to handle this issue, and it is so frustrating that something like creating cruelty-free (cruelty to animals, and cruelty to humans, that is, through the use of dangerous chemicals) is so low on the priority list for many. This is something that children are *required* to go through, and for good reason. Shouldn’t we be doing everything we can to make sure they are safe and healthy?
    One thing that I have been considering as I decide whether to vaccinate against the flu this season is: to what length would I be willing to go to protect other people if I came down with a flu or similar dangerous, fast-spreading illness? Would I be willing to quarantine myself, wear a protective face mask, etc.? Because if one is at all concerned with the health and well-being of others and chooses not to vaccinate, that is the “price” to pay. Just another way of considering the question!

  85. What a fantastic post, Gina. I am a pediatric resident and I applaud your ability to be so balanced in your reasoning. The vaccine debate gets a lot of people very heated (even before bringing in the veganism issue), but what bothers me is when people lack the medical or historical background to understand that the diseases we are discussing are lethal, especially in children – including the flu! Most of us were born into a world without polio, measles, and widespread haemophilus; a world where flu can be treated with ventilators and anti-viral medications in those who it is most virulent in; a world where we have the luxury to even debate these choices because “herd immunity” is so high. Thank you for understanding that there is good reason your hospital requires your vaccination to protect the immune-compromised children you work with. I wish the choice had been easier for you, which will hopefully someday be the case when vegan, non-egg based vaccines are developed. But thanks again for presenting a more reasoned argument than most I hear from the anti-vaccine crowd, which seem to discount their benefits totally. Just last week I took care of a 3 year-old in the pediatric ICU with meningitis who was not fully vaccinated as her parents were “spacing” them out. Her patents changed their approach after that experience.

    • This is a good point about “herd immunity.” Not all vaccines “take.” You are therefore better off being unvaccinated in a vaccinated herd than vaccinated in an unvaccinated herd. Vegan parents have the luxury of not vaccinating their kids only because the majority is vaccinated.

      • Exactly. It’s very arrogant to think that anything else but this is going on. When herd immunity drops to a certain point, people will be forced to start reevaluating, because the reality of being unvaccinated will (and has already) bring back fun things like whooping cough. Babies can die from that, and it’s completely unnecessary.

    • Jenny – very well said. I’m a medical student (not quite a resident yet, although I am hoping to go into pediatrics!) and I completely agree. People think vaccines are “dangerous” because of a infinitesimally small proportion of kids who have had “adverse reactions” to them. The scientific validity of these claims, like the autism-MMR link, has been completely discredited, and the researcher involved has been basically exiled from the scientific community. The media has blown this topic completely out of proportion, portraying it as though it is a legitimate debate with solid evidence on either side. It’s not. There has been NO evidence suggesting that vaccines are unsafe in any way. None. And there is SO much evidence supporting vaccines – in fact, they’re probably the only intervention that is 100% tested in multiple randomized control trials before being put into practice. People may see them as unnecessary, but that is because they have forgotten the horrific (and yes, fatal) diseases that they protect us from. If we stop vaccinating, herd immunity will wane, and we will once again have to deal with measles, polio, and other completely preventable diseases.
      I understand the sentiment of “well, I’m a healthy young adult, so I don’t need vaccines.” I must confess that, as I don’t love needles, I’ve entertained the thought as well. But the point of a vaccine in your case, Gena, would not be so much to protect you, but to protect the children, elderly, and immunosuppressed patients who you come into contact with during your time at the hospital. Your immune system may well be strong enough to fight off a virus without to much as a sniffle, but you could still pass a potentially deadly infection on to someone else. I realize that the lack of a vegan option is far from ideal, but you made a very good point about practical veganism. As a vegan, you may not love the idea of getting a vaccine that was inoculated in chicken eggs, but as a future healthcare professional, there are many other factors to consider.

      • Katie,

        I know it. That’s why I said, a flu that might only temporarily incapacitate me might kill a sick child. I’ve already accepted that making tough decisions like this will be part of my life in health care, and that I’ll be keeping patient’s health in mind as I do it.


      • Katie,
        While I agree with you and Jenny on the importance of the early childhood vaccination program, it is naive to assert that vaccinations are more rigorously tested than other interventions. Many are not; read the product inserts. The hepatitis B vaccine Recombivax’s pre-licensure trial included 147 infants and children; Fluzone had 31. Of course, once released, the “study group” includes millions and is obviously large enough to catch extremely rare adverse events; but that is only after FDA approval.

        In 2003, the Cochrane Collaboration stated, “the design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre-and post-marketing, are largely inadequate.” Now, they still recommend MMR, and I think that its a good idea, but do not fool yourself that we have great data.

        Recently (2010 and 2012) it released similar scathing evaluations of the flu vaccine’s effectiveness and the quality of the data, “The review showed that reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies. ”;jsessionid=E083DBDB0824FA5CB574EF86A9C3427B.d01t01

        My point here is that vaccine safety and efficacy is not as cut and dry as your professors may make it out to seem. And while we do want our patients to vaccinate their children, a bit more humility and willingness to hear out (the often scared) parents (or adult patients) often goes much further in assuaging that fear than does out-of-hand assertion of safety and efficacy.

    • Jenny,

      I simply do not have words to tell you how much this comment means to me, especially since you’re a pediatrician (soon!) to be. Balanced, passionate, and articulate.


  86. I’m not a vegan. I don’t get the flu shot mainly because my dad seems to have a very bad reaction to it. Given that I seem to have all of his allergies, I’d just rather not tempt fate (whether I’m right or just paranoid).

    I feel like I understand why it’s a hospital mandate (I mean, you just don’t know who’s walking through the door), but I can definitely see your dilemma, nevermind that there’s no guarantee the shot will protect you against this year’s flu strains anyway. There are so many little pieces to think about on this subject, and I think you are right about the idea that veganism is comparable to religion…it guides your moral compass, which is what guides your personal answer to “possible and practical”. I really think there is no “right” answer to this, until the ubiquitous “they” come up with a way to make vaccines vegan. There’s gotta be a way, right?

  87. Per usual, this is such a thoughtful and eloquently written post. I feel for you in having to weigh this decision but I agree that you ultimately made the right choice.

    I really liked everything you said about vaccinations in general too. Personally, I want respect people’s right to make their own decisions for their family but ultimately I respect the rights of immuno-compromised children more; they should not have to withdraw from public education because a classmate’s parent has a (scientifically unsupported) fear of autism.

  88. Powerful words. First, if anything thinks the choice of getting the vaccine is the same as going out and eating an egg, they are wrong. There are plenty of other options for that, as you’ve put wisely. Most of the people who try to nit-pick about where there are animal products are not the vegans who feel guilty, they are nonvegans trying to point out some kind of inconsistency and play gotcha with us.

    I agree that there needs to be more vaccines and medicines made without animal products. I am luckily able to get one medicine that I take which is compounded (made specially since it’s a rare dosage) with vegecaps instead of gelatin caps. If only all medicines could have that option! I’ve noticed some medicines have small amounts of lactose. I find it hard to believe that’s the only possible filler that could be used. It causes a lot of grief for people with allergies too. So overall, the hidden ingredients of all medications both over the counter and behind need to be exposed and there should be much more consideration for those with allergies and ethical opposition to animal products.

    I have heard of parents who do not want their children to get vaccines (many due to a sibling’s reaction and getting autism) getting a religious exemption for being against them, not just for animal rights reasons but for being opposed to them. It should remain an option, but I agree, if society as a whole opposed them, it would mean a step backwards.

    Surely science has come a long way, far enough to find alternatives to animal testing and products in these vaccines. I wish more researchers cared like you do.

  89. Thanks for such an interesting post! It’s a difficult topic, for sure, but an important one. I also refrain from getting unnecessary vaccines (such as the flu vaccine) because of my healthy lifestyle and opposition to the use of animal products, but I still take medicines often. I take birth control every day, and the occasional Advil/Aspirin. It’s unfortunate that these products are tested on animals and that most contain animal byproducts, but at this time there are no alternatives. Until alternatives are created, I think it’s understandable that vegans continue to use these products, while at the same time pushing universities and drug companies to move away from vivisection and toward all-natural, animal-free cures.

  90. This is such a beautifully written post. As Michelle commented above, I wasn’t even aware that some vaccines were not vegan, so thank you so much for sharing and highlighting that information. I think I would have made the same choice as you have done. Some times you have to weigh up which option is the best out of two imperfect choices. I have to say, even with the vegan issue aside, making decisions with regards to children when I have them is going to be so tough.

  91. Very thought provoking. I work at a hospital on the West coast and also get a mandatory flu shot every year. I’ve also worked at a hospital that allowed employees to skip the vaccination, but those employees would be removed from patient care between October – March. I get my flu shot to protect my patients. I am looking forward to the day when there’s a vegan option. Would I get a flu shot if I didn’t work with the immune-compromised? Probably not. But for now, getting the vaccine is the most responsible option in my particular situation.

    This post struck a chord with me because of a recent experience that made me think about “vegan as religion”. It’s been the topic of several conversations the past few days. There are grey areas. We are faced with easy *and* difficult decisions, the choice will not be the same for each individual. I would like vegan humans to show the same compassion towards each other that we show our animal friends. Thanks for a great post.

    • Veganism is based on facts not in some entity we never saw and ‘believe in’, therefore you can never compare veganism with a religion. Veganism is a choice of living with compassion for others and ourselves. About vaccines, each one take their own decisions, it’s not easy for a vegan that doesn’t want to put suffering and exploitation into their body. I guess a healthy immune system can do the job. Since we became vegans my 5 years old son never got ill again, not even a cold.

  92. You reasoning, as always, is so sound and logical. This is why I love your blog and why I am happy to have you as a friend.

  93. I’m not a vegan, but I feel for you in having to make this choice. I am against the flu shot because it is preserved with mercury, a known nuerotoxin. As a pregnant woman, this is especially concerning for me. I’m not sure what I would do if I was in a situation like yours.

    • Methyl mercury is a known neurotoxin… but vaccines make use of ethyl mercury, which is simply an antibiotic.

  94. Really interesting. As a new parent I’m up against a LOT of vaccine choices and for now have decided to delay them all…indefinitely. My pediatrician is extremely cool. He is also of the opinion based on his research that most vaccines don’t work, including the flu shot in children. Since there’s so much debate on either side, I simply go with my gut.

    As for you and any hospital workers, etc….looks like there is no choice. It’s like a dress code. You either abide or quit. But that doesn’t stop you from learning all you can and sharing some inside knowledge! I didn’t know that vaccines weren’t vegan until this post!

    • I’d be very cautious of a doctor who said that vaccines don’t work. If vaccines didn’t work, then major illnesses like parvo and small pox would still be killing thousands of people a year. They’re not… so vaccines work.

      • It doesn’t follow that because we don’t have those diseases that vaccines work. Public health records around the country, in Canada, and in England all show a decline in these diseases (and other diseases for which there were no vaccines), to 90%+, prior to mass vaccination.
        Public sanitation, improvements on hygiene, clean water, access to nutritious food, de-crowding of living quarters, etc. all contributed greatly to tue decline in diseases and death.
        I don’t know of I would say, like your doctor, that vaccines don’t work (although there is evidence to support the claim) I would just say that there is no scientific proof to support he claim that they are safe for any given individual or are effective in giving immunity.

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