I’ve long been gunshy about inviting discussion on the health impact of vaccines. It’s become such a polarizing issue—you’re either all in on vaccines as the be-all and end-all of public health, including for getting past Covid, or you are anti-vax, riding on every pronouncement by Robert Kennedy Jr. and scouring the Internet for videos of teenagers supposedly dropping dead from Covid shots.

My own sense has long been that the reality lies somewhere in between—that vaccines overall are protective for the vast majority of people, but that there are exceptions that assert themselves in the form of serious reactions to vaccination—not just Covid, but other vaccines as well.

Moreover, it seems to be very difficult for many people to accept the reality that, when it comes to Covid, there’s just been a lot that scientists, doctors, and public health officials don’t fully understand because it emerged so suddenly as a new disease. As a Harvard researcher I know who spends considerable time on the Covid vaccines told me recently, “The Covid virus is incredibly complex,” especially as it continually mutates.

(From Moderna, product research images)

Which brings me to a few studies concerning vaccinations that have been brought to my attention recently. I found them intriguing, even compelling, because they seemed well reasoned and calm—in other words, they didn’t take an all-or-none approach as they begin to shed light on the risks and benefits of vaccination.

The first study, by a pediatrician of his practice, compared his billings for various illnesses for vaccinated and unvaccinated children, and concluded: “The data indicate that unvaccinated children in the practice are not unhealthier than the vaccinated and indeed the overall results may indicate that the unvaccinated pediatric patients in this practice are healthier overall than the vaccinated.”

Now, what the author didn’t say was whether the data might have been skewed because parents of unvaccinated children may be more reluctant to bring their children into the doctor’s office for a possible strep throat or ear infection because they want to avoid antibiotics that physicians tend to prescribe for childhood infections. But the study seems to give ammunition to both sides—pro vaxxers can point to the indications that vaccinated kids in the practice aren’t showing alarming signs of autism or learning disabilities, and anti-vaxxers can take comfort that their kids may actually be healthier than vaccinated children overall.

Intriguing as the study might have been, it wound up stirring controversy—by the end of last year, it had been retracted from the journal in which it was published because “concerns were brought to the attention of the editorial office regarding the validity of the conclusions….”

The second study, published in Nature, examined “the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis” of people receiving Covid vaccines in France., It found substantial risk “for myocarditis following mRNA-1273 vaccination in persons aged 18 to 24 years,” along with lower risk but still a “substantial burden” for other age groups.

The study concluded that it “provides strong evidence of an increased risk of myocarditis and of pericarditis in the week following vaccination against Covid-19 with mRNA vaccines in both males and females, in particular after the second dose of the mRNA-1273 vaccine. Future studies based on an extended period of observation will allow to investigate the risk related to the booster dose of the vaccines and monitoring the long-term consequences of these post vaccination acute inflammations.” In other words, additional study is required to assess whether possibly different dosages might get the desired immunity responses, without the myocarditis risk.

And there’s a third study summarized in The Wall Street Journal, which shows the latest covid booster reduces the severity of the disease for those who get it. “In a 1,323-person study published this month in the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, subjects who received a booster had the least severe Covid-19 symptoms and they abated more quickly over time, compared with both people who only received an initial series or were unvaccinated.”

Is it possible for people to accept the possibility that vaccination results might be nuanced, rather than all-or-none for one side or the other? Is it possible that for large and important segments of the population, they provide important protection from serious highly communicable disease, such as in a pandemic, but that a notable minority are at risk for bad reactions? I doubt it. We live in such a polarized cultural environment where nearly all of life has become political fodder. And the situation has been worsened with the introduction of vaccine mandates in places like California.

I can’t wait for the time in the hopefully not-too-distant future where people on all sides of this matter will be able to sit peacefully with each other, and arrive at realistic policy guidelines.