Science, Fear, and Vaccines

One thing that’s been in the news again lately is the talk about the anti-vaccine crowd (mostly thanks to ABC’s The View hiring the worst anti-vaccinator of them all, Jenny McCarthy). This is a common point of frustration for me in my practice. The science is very clear: there is no link between vaccines and autism. Vaccines are one of the best public health innovations in human history (just behind hand washing). People (myself included) have the luxury of benefiting from previous advances. Do you think FDR wished he could have had a polio vaccine? Can you imagine what it would be like if a everyone knew a family that lost a child to pertussis, meningitis, polio or the measles? This day in age, that acceptance of common childhood mortality is unthinkable. We have warnings about kids in grocery carts falling out (even when properly buckled in). That’s the level of safety we’ve achieved.

The important thing I tell myself when dealing with an anti-vaccinating parent: they want what’s best for their child. We all do. Nobody wants to willingly risk their child’s life. They don’t refuse vaccines because they want to endanger the community. They are scared. One (maybe two) articulate celebrities got their attention and then hundreds of websites, blogs and pseudo-science reinforced that fear.

A lot of these parents suffer from a lack of understanding about the basics of the scientific method. They hear “published” author and they think – well, this guy wrote a book, so he’s published. They commonly don’t understand that to get something published in an academic journal, there is a rigorous peer review process where various experts in the field, second guess and criticize every fact stated.

I often explain the scientific journal process and then point to then real evidence out there that points to vaccine safety. I review the crimes of Dr. Andrew Wakefield (THIS is the best summary I’ve found). Then I ask, why they think I’m in favor of vaccines? Do they think I get a financial kick back for it? While I’m in the military, most know that’s not true. I had one say it was a military conspiracy. Then I showed her several publications from the American Academy of Pediatrics supporting vaccines and asked her to show me where it showed a link with the US Navy. Then I did the same thing with CDC publications. Do they think, I just don’t know any better? After 4 years of college, 4 years of medical school, and 3 years of practice, an anonymous blog really knows secret information I don’t?

People that refuse vaccines don’t do so on the basis of science – that’s obvious, because there is no science to support that platform. They are scared. They are driven by emotion. There are very emotional points to be made in favor of vaccines. I point out to parents that I’ve actually stood at the bedside of a baby dying of pertussis. I tell them about the conversation I had with a 12 year old boy who was dying from a complication from measles (SSPE for my medical friends). I say that I’m a parent in this community too. I have a baby less then 12 months old. I tell them that their refusal to vaccinate their child, puts my son’s health and life at risk.

More often than not, when you get to the root of the opinion in a non-judgmental way, you can get a parent to re-consider. We’re both parents. We both want what’s best for our kids.

Now I have had parents complain about my vaccine stance as well. I’m OK with that. You can get mad at me for criticizing your smoking, I’m still going to do it. You can get mad at me for being thoughtfully critical of your anti-vaccine views. I’m still going to do that too. It’s part of our responsibility together in the community to do what’s safest for our children.

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