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.