This post originally appeared on Sarah E. Brown’s blog, Queer Vegan Food, on Feb. 1, 2014. The post and additional commentary by Sarah can be found here.
Last week, Queer Vegan Food’s Facebook page posted, “Got a flu shot. Yay medicine. Just wish vaccines were all vegan…,” which expresses my complicated feelings about the ubiquitous use of animal products in this messed up world. Animal exploitation is so commonplace that animal (by) products are used in the production of everything from bicycle tires to glue. I agree with what Erik Marcus writes in The Vegan Guide, that we must do what we can to reduce harm (including harm to humans) wherever possible, and not obsess about attaining some impossible level of veganness in a flawed world. (Better to spend the energy feeding and educating nonvegans, I say.)
I had to get a flu shot for nursing school, and no vegan version was available to me. Because viruses like the flu need host cells to replicate, both the nasal flu mist and the shot are typically produced in chicken embryos, and have been for decades. This is a problem: for the chickens who would need to produce hundreds of millions of eggs for the vaccine doses, for people with severe egg allergies, for public health professionals concerned about vaccine shortages in the case of avian flu, for immunocompromised patients, and for the environment.
Clearly, we must develop egg-free and animal free alternatives. Some options being developed replicate the viruses inside plants (!) or in vitroanimal systems. The Picky Vegan, in a great post about her decision whether to get the flu vaccine as a vegan, writes that in vitro animal cell systems are still not vegan, but I would happily take a flu shot developed in vitro, because it would not have required the continued use and harm of a sentient being. I do think that the ideal, if scientifically possible and medically adequate, would be growing the vaccine in plant-based systems or consensually obtained human cells sustained on animal-free cell culture media.
The use of eggs in our flu shots is disturbing, and some folks have cited veganism as a “religious belief” that should exempt them from occupational requirements. Though my veganism guides my thinking and decision-making every day, I felt okay about getting the shot because the purpose was to protect vulnerable patients (though in my community-based dream nursing job, I wouldn’t need to get the shot anyway.) Some may disagree with me, but I interpret a refusal to get the vaccine for work as violating vegan principles of causing least harm, because by being unvaccinated health care workers could expose patients to infection and indirectly kill them.
The Picky Vegan mentioned taking a flu treatment, the antiviral Tamiflu, which, because it contains gelatin, is not vegan. However, if the difference between staying miserably, dangerously ill and getting well informs someone’s choice to take a medication, I would still affirm them identifying as vegan. As a public health type, I support preventing illness rather than treating it, even though vaccines aren’t 100% effective. Other vegans may forgo the vaccine and risk the non-vegan meds, rather than definitely take a non-vegan vaccine, which is their choice, though hopefully medical/scientific development will alleviate this problem.
We should absolutely develop human-based and in vitro alternatives to vivisection, which is better for animals but also for human health and safety. I think it’s up for individual people to decide where they fall in terms of medicines and vaccinations. We shouldn’t police one another’s choices because we don’t know one another’s medical needs and life experiences. As vegans, there are some good reasons for and against the flu vaccine. Some may decide their priority is preserving their and others’ heath, whereas other people may decide they aren’t at an occupational or health risk and go without. They should consult their healthcare providers and make that decision on their own consciences. I believe we all should do the best we can to reduce harm to all living beings, have grace for one another, and ride on!
[Editor’s note: For more great perspectives on the vegan vaccine debate, I recommend Choosing Raw’s post, Vaccinated and Vaccinated, Revisited,The Picky Vegan’s Vegan and the Flu Shot. Also, if you’re looking for a free and secure way to track and manage your vaccine information, I recommend using the app BeImmunized.]
Hana Low is a queer and genderqueer ethical vegan of color living in Denver, CO. Shortly after becoming vegan they became interested in feminist-vegetarian politics and the connections between veganism and other struggles of liberation. They believe that veganism should not only sustain non-human animals and the environment, but also the human workers who produce our food, and that embracing the rich variety of plant-based foods on our planet is integral to building a sustainable future and healing one another from generations of unhealthy eating. Hana supports anti-violence work in the human realm as a board member and volunteer for the Colorado Anti-Violence Program, which works to end violence against and within LGBTQ communities in Colorado. A nursing student at the University of Colorado, they aim to bring intersectional analysis and radical gender/sexuality inclusion into often conservative medical practice. After graduating, Hana hopes to support first-time families in child development as a nurse home visitor for the Nurse-Family Partnership. And, because happy folks make for healthier communities, they also enjoy making art (musical, visual, and verbal), dancin’ the night away, sharing delicious food in good company, and two-wheeled transport. Follow Hana on Twitter.