Parents Who Fear Vaccines Are Not Crazy

Vaccine side effects and autism
Our longstanding fear of vaccines

Parents who are suspicious of vaccines are not nuts, says professor Michael Willrich in his op-ed Friday in The New York Times.

Yes, the current round of fear and apprehension towards vaccines was born from bad science and possibly even deception, mixed with the power of the Internet to feed misinformation and spread anxiety.

Remember that earlier this month Andrew Wakefield, the scientist who claimed a link between autism and the MMR vaccine (whose paper was already retracted and medical license pulled) was accused of not just sup-par research, but deliberate fraud.

So we know the science behind vaccines and developmental delays never existed. Yet still, many parents worry, delay, and opt-out altogether. Doctors and even other parents get annoyed and write them off as crazy and irrational.

But actually, the fear of vaccines is not new, and it comes from a valid place:

Willrich writes that the public had mixed feelings about immunizations from the start. People saw mandatory vaccines as a violation of liberty, minority groups were wary of the intentions of an all-white medical profession, and there were no safety regulations in place. In fact,

Public confidence in vaccines collapsed in the fall of 1901 when newspapers linked the deaths of nine schoolchildren in Camden, N.J., to a commercial vaccine allegedly tainted with tetanus. In St. Louis, 13 more schoolchildren died of tetanus after treatment with the diphtheria antitoxin. It was decades before many Americans were willing to submit to public vaccination campaigns again.

The year after that, the first safety regulations went into effect. And public health officials in the 20th century went on campaigns around the country, talking to people about their fears, presenting the data, and telling them about the horrors of diseases like smallpox. We know that through the 19th and 20th century vaccines went on to be massively successful at combating infectious disease.

Now, even with extensive safety regulations, parents are still skeptical. And Willrich’s point is that we should address it the way we did in earlier times — not by rolling our eyes in frustration, but by relentlessly presenting the facts.

This makes good sense to me. It’s not Andrew Wakefield’s fault that immunization rates have dropped. He only played into our already complicated relationship with vaccines. The only thing to do from here is to keep listening and talking respectfully to parents, armed with data. Because even though Wakefield is down for the count, someone else is surely waiting in the wings to take his place.

Image: flickr