Thursday, November 05, 2009

I believe, I believe, I believe

iv hand

Amy Wallace writes a blunt but factually accurate piece in Wired about how parents’ unfounded fear of vaccination is putting us all at risk for epidemic, and there is a sh*tstorm of response.

No one is really surprised, although Wallace claims she wasn’t prepared for the intensity and bullying tactics of some of the vitriolic responders.

I have to admit, however, because of this piece and because of the positive response it has also gotten, I’m feeling a little less afraid to say what I’ve been thinking about the subject all along.

I am not on the fence about most vaccines. I believe in them. I believe they, above most other forms of medical advances during the last 100 years, have made the quality of our lives better. I believe they still have tremendous potential.

I know there is a lot I don’t know. I know that there is a lot scientists don’t know and there will always be established understandings that study will overturn.

But I also think that if you take what parents don’t know about science and medicine and heap it into a gigantic pile and put a match to it we could heat the planet.

It kind of makes my head spin when folks point to their fears, such as the very slight risk of getting Guillain-Barre Syndrome from a flu vaccine as reason not to vaccinate, especially since Guillain-Barre is most often the direct result of illnesses such as flu and bacterial infection and is rarely linked with vaccine.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people who SHOULD NOT BE VACCINATED for certain things. That’s not to say that there won’t be rare and serious side effects, even death.

But it makes me a little crazy when folks point to the government and call it a vast left/right/center (whatever) wing cesspit of conspiracy and throw up a wall of disbelief at study after study that concludes no link between immunizations and autism. They don't trust anyone but themselves. Yet they will put their children through a litany of unstudied and potentially dangerous procedures -- such as chelation therapy – based on speculation.

A flu shot, especially when they are scarce and when flu mutates so rapidly leaving even the immunized somewhat unprotected, seems like a small thing compared to all that.

I can understand skipping the shot.

There has also been some compelling work in epidemiology that suggests flu vaccine doesn't really work to protect the people we'd most like to protect.

We do, after all, have choice.

And while I believe in immunization, I also believe in choice. I am cautious of new products. I am wary of firms that are the sole patent holders, as is the case of the vaccine to prevent HPV and some cervical cancers. I feel fortunate to have time to see what happens with that particular vaccine before the decision is at hand.

The risk vs. reward still seems unclear, especially since regular pap screening is still the single best way to prevent cervical cancer.

But for other illness -- ones that show up without warning or ways of prevention such as polio -- I think vaccinating as much of the population as has been done for generations is really important.

I believe Wallace is right. We have a feeling of safety from these illnesses because of vaccine. Wild polio infection hasn't been seen in this country in 20 years because of widespread vaccination. Africa, Asia and other developing nations still see polio infections regularly. And when you think how global we've become as a society, my guess is the gaps in vaccination will allow these devastating illesses to come right back eventually, just as we're slowly seeing the return of whooping cough and measles.

I understand fear. I am not immune to it. But I also try to keep it in check; I try to realize those fears aren’t coming from a rational place. I also try to realize communication is one of the most difficult things we will ever do as a society. I misinterpret all the time. I also see so many misinterpretations that it makes me wonder if we even know what the people we trust are saying.

Dr. William Sears, for instance, is often referred to as being a doctor who doesn't accept the safety of vaccine. Yet from my reading of his work, I think that assessment is utterly wrong. He wants children to be vaccinated. He's a proponent of vaccination, but he realizes there is fear. He believes that if parents had better control of when and how their kids were vaccinated the medical community would see better compliance. A lot of what he talks about is intended to make parents feel safer, not that they will be safer.

I view what he touts as a kind of a “Love and Logic” for parents. Give parents choices - choices that won’t put anyone in jeopardy - and they will take the path you want them to take. Yet for some it seems to just give credence to their fears.

And those fears seem to be leading many of us to thoughtless behaviors. Our children come first. We know what’s best. Damn the torpedoes. And that saddens me no end.

It pains me to talk about "underlying conditions" as if those with underlying conditions deserved what they got … I’m safe. We feel safe because we are healthy. We think those who are unhealthy are so by choice or lifestyle. But really, we are healthy because we are lucky not because we’ve been responsible.

We have responsibility to those around us who aren’t so blessed, and we shirk it time and time again. We are willing to risk the health of those with the underlying conditions, needlessly, because of philosophical and unfounded fears.

Seriously, if I can prevent another mother from sitting by the side of a hospital bed while their child is tethered up to IV lines because of rotavirus, like I did, I am happy to do it.


christine said...


Kcoz said...

I'll tell you this... I have lived through more than one flu scare, (As I call them) I never got the shot and never got the flu.


Xdm said...

Jiminy crickets. I read the article but only cracked the comments. Did I click every link? Read every peer-reviewed article? No. Did I vaccinate my kids? Yes. Oh, I have asked my Drs every time about links, And they sigh. They recite "There is no link.." They have created a fact sheet with additional resources for parents who ask. The most relevant moment for me was the woman who stepped down from Autism Speaks because her mind had changed, finally, and she just couldn't stand behind the organization's position anymore. And she has an autistic daughter.

I'm pretty glad that I was born who I am, when I was. We are truly a better, safer society than we were a hundred years ago. I'm not burying my kids from the plague, eating fly covered meat in a tenement on the lower east side, I'm not wagon training. I feel pretty good about it. Thanks Science and technology!

Baccus Family said...


I'm very much on the same page as you. Do I think my husband and sons and I can handle H1N1? Sure! But what about our 5-month-old baby. Who even knows if she has "underlying conditions"? I'm trying to get all of us regular flu and H1N1 shots - especially since my sons' daycare has already seen 2 cases of H1N1.

I downloaded Dr. Sears Vaccine book to my kindle the day before my baby's 4-month appt and now I'm spreading her shots out a bit. I think it is prudent.

My mom sent me an email warning me that people died from the H1N1 vaccine in the 70s. I did my research and calculated your chance of getting G-B and of dying from the H1N1 vaccine. Then I did the odds of dying from the flu (using the 36,000 as the amount of people who die from the flu each year). Your odds are much better with the shot.

And the thing that really kills me is that the ones most susceptible to H1N1 are kids, which is the opposite of regular flu. It is our little ones at risk. Bring on the shots!

ParkerMama said...

Our whole family received the H1N1 simply because we know that if it got it, Parker couldn't survive it.

Does it offer perfect protection? Nope. But it helps knowing that I'm doing everything I can to protect my littlest guy.