Thursday, November 5, 2009

I believe, I believe, I believe

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.


Blogger Carl said...

I'm with you, Siobhan -- though I think the rush to mandate vaccines is partly responsible for the backlash. On some of the new ones we could definitely wait a few years and get some more results before mandating them for school attendance.

As someone who works in the sciences and whose children are likely to go into science, I find it phenomenally scary that most of the populace would prefer to listen to a movie star's wife's opinions than the preponderance of science. I'm saddened that my children will be spending their lives in a dark age ruled by superstition and fear, not science and reason.

On the other hand, it's only the fantastic success of vaccines at wiping out terrible, deadly diseases such as polio and smallpox that have made it possible for us to worry about the tiny risk of side effects.

November 7, 2009 at 11:26 AM 

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