The Hill

When I was in graduate school, I spent a semester as a teaching assistant in an introductory public health course. My duties consisted primarily of proctoring exams and leading discussion groups, but I also attended the class, mostly sitting in the back and working on my dissertation during lectures. One day, I heard the instructor, who was then heavily pregnant with her first child, begin her lecture by asking for a show of hands – who here was planning on vaccinating their children? My ears perked up immediately, as this has always been a pet subject of mine. She went on to say that she wasn’t sure, herself; shed been hearing a lot about their link to autism. Then, hand to god, she showed a YouTube video of Andrew Wakefield, proselytizing about the dangers of vaccinations. To a public health class of college freshman.

* * *

Vaccinations are the hill that I will die on, the line in the concrete, the one thing I refuse to even debate. The subject my familiars know not to bring up, not least because there is a sign that says as much in my kitchen. The thing I cannot listen to differing opinions about, because I don’t think it’s in the realm of opinion. I think it is black and white, right and wrong.

I probably shouldn’t write a word about it, but it’s a central tenant of my existence. There is a very VERY limited set of scenarios in which it is acceptable not to vaccinate. It includes people who have had serious reactions to specific vaccinations, and people who are immunodeficient in specific ways.

The efficacy of vaccinations is based on the principle of herd immunity – that, if a certain proportion of the population is immune to a communicable disease, the remainder of that population is extended some measure of immunity simply because the pathogen cannot find enough vulnerable bodies to infect.

So when someone chooses not to vaccinate their child for personal reasons, that choice can affect entire communities and populations. Herd immunity is compromised. The most vulnerable people – infants and children too young to be vaccinated, or those who are medically unable – suffer the greatest consequences, as these (preventable!) illnesses are much more serious, even deadly, for them. So – when someone chooses not to vaccinate, not only are they relying on herd immunity to cover their child’s ass, they are endangering everyone else’s kids too.

I cannot believe that this is still a topic of discussion. The autism bullshit has been so thoroughly debunked, even the media slowly (so goddamn slowly) seems to have cottoned on. And yet, there is a pertussis EPIDEMIC in my state. People (BABIES) have died. Totally preventable. Makes me sick.

And one of reasons it makes me so viscerally upset is that I know that, at least to some degree, the blame lies with the scientific community. Not just the quacks (Wakefield et al.), but the rest of us too. For failing to communicate effectively, failing to make bold statements. Scientists hate to make definitive statements – it’s not scientifically accurate to claim something is wholly true or false. Rather, we say that “evidence suggests” or “no significant elevation was observed” or something that sounds similarly evasive or inconclusive to the layman’s ear.

That basic misunderstanding between scientists and laypeople, mixed with a sensationalist media and a litigious society is a recipe for disaster. Or a pertussis epidemic, I guess.

Here are some infographics that help communicate some of the issues surrounding vaccinations:

And here is a fantastic book recommendation:
Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure, by Paul Offit (amazon).
Offit has another book out that I’m psyched to read, but I gotta finish Broken Harbour first. You know how it is.

This entry was posted in Grumpy Toxicologist, Science!, soapbox, The Hill. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to The Hill

  1. Jessica says:

    I am on this hill with you 100%.

    Also, vaccines can’t be 100% effective, so herd immunity not only protects those who can’t be vaccinated (and need protection the most), but also those few for whom the vaccine doesn’t end up being effective.

    Obviously YOU know this, but Twitter didn’t seem to.

  2. herewegoajen says:

    Do people not realize how bad these diseases are? I have had virtually every vaccine ever invented because we lived in Europe (where I don’t think the schedule is much different) and Indonesia (vastly different diseases and things that are much more rampant.) I saw children crippled by polio crawling begging through the streets. For the want of the drops that I spit back on the nurse as an infant. (And luckily I was born in a country where I was given a second dose and wasn’t at risk for polio.) Someone who worked for my parents that I saw on a daily basis contracted tuberculosis. I just think a lot of people in the US have forgotten that these diseases are real risks. Or even don’t realize just how many people die from even FLU every year. Ack, it just makes me so mad.

    I’m in the middle of writing an email to my relatives and close friends stating that I am about to start refusing entry into my house to anyone who hasn’t has a pertussis booster and a flu shot. It’s my hill to die on too and I don’t have to let you past my moat if you are going to put my family at risk.

  3. Pingback: The Hill, Part 2: HepB « Snoozical

  4. Hillary says:

    First off, I agree with you.
    But I just have to make a little disclaimer about “sensationalist media.” People throw that term around as if it’s just a given, and I get that. Some media are sensationalist. TV, especially, is always struggling for ratings.
    But the sensationalism everyone takes for granted is not malicious or even intentional in many cases. It’s more cluelessness and a lack of resources. Print media, especially, have taken a lot of budget hits in recent years, so dedicated health and science reporters are few and far between. Usually, you just have some random reporter thrown on a science story, trying to be an expert in five minutes or less. A reporter, mind you, who probably got into journalism because they liked to write and hated math.
    That reporter’s editor meanwhile, probably knows NOTHING other than the headline of the scientific paper they’re reporting on. S/he is managing multiple reporters and freelancers.
    Combine all of THAT with a science community that, as you point out, seems physically incapable of speaking in layman’s terms.
    The result is a sensationalist story.
    It’s bad.
    It’s wrong.
    It causes confusion
    But the blame is on both the journalists and the scientists.
    Sorry to be a bit defensive. But I was a health reporter and I’m always arguing for better coverage in my own newsroom, but it really is an uphill battle and sometimes the sources you’re fighting for aren’t giving a lot of help.

    • snoozical says:

      Hillary – you’re right. Absolutely. I’m certainly not a journalist, I have a strong scientific background, and trying to parse a lot of the studies is HARD. Figuring out relevance is even harder. I think a lot of the legitimate journalism is actually pretty great, all things considered. The stuff that really raises my hackles is the bullshit websites and blogs, Mercola (the WORST) and NVIC and others. They don’t even attempt fair coverage of the scientific literature as a whole, just pulling studies that support their stance. And they blow those studies WAY out of proportion, making enormous leaps from the scientific conclusions, and paying no heed to the actual relevance or strength of the studies. That’s the most insidious thing, in my opinion – when people google for information, this is the shit they get. I have no idea how to even begin to fix that.

  5. Lisa says:

    I love this.

    I have to tread lightly around my family, like I said on Twitter last week, because my nephew has been tentatively diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. Notwithstanding the fact that he’s shown symptoms his entire life, and notwithstanding the fact that his parents became concerned LONG before he got his MMR vaccine, my SIL still posts stuff on FB about the autism/vaccine connection (including an article where an Italian judge found there WAS a connection that made me so mad I literally had to walk away from my phone lest I post BULLSHIT).

    But idiots like my MIL, who never gets a flu shot because “it gives you the flu”? Eff them.

  6. KAS says:

    Amen sister!

  7. Swistle says:


  8. Manda says:

    Hello! This post is awesome and intelligent and I 100% agree with you and will stand on that hill and die with you and spread this post LIKE A VIRUS!!!! COMMENTS ARE AWESOME!!!

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