Anti-Vaxxers, Can We Talk About the Scientific Facts?

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Image source: Thinkstock
Image source: Thinkstock

My father-in-law, an 81-year-old, is getting a measles vaccine booster. Even though he lives in a small, isolated town, he worries that he might come into contact with an unvaccinated child carrying the disease. And he remembers, from growing up during the Depression era, the toll that measles can take, especially on the very young and elderly.

His concern shows how great fears have gotten about the current measles outbreak in America.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control reported that there have been 121 documented cases of the measles in 17 states, 85% coming from the outbreak in California at Disneyland. As Forbes points out, that’s more cases than in the entire year of 2012, and it’s only February. The Mumps are back too. The diseases have returned because of a small yet passionate movement against vaccines, which has almost 2% of American parents opting out of immunizing their children for philosophic or religious reasons.

The truth is, the anti-vaxxing movement is based on lies. In 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a report linking vaccinations with autism in the medical journal The Lancet. He did not have statistics to support his findings, nor did he design a control group for his study; instead he drew his conclusions from anecdotes. He also collected almost $700,000 from lawyers who would benefit from suing vaccine makers. Not surprisingly, his findings were wrong.

In 2004, The Lancet apologized for Wakefield’s report. In no uncertain terms the journal said he “falsified facts” and “picked and chose data” to suit his case. But it was too late, the damage was done.

Jenny McCarthy, whose son Evan developed autism early in life, but who has no medical training whatsoever, began a public war against vaccines in the early aughts. Today, one in four parents think some vaccines cause autism in healthy children. There is even a children’s book — Melanie’s Marvelous Measles — whose author says she wrote it to “educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully.”

Well, to be clear: for every 1,000 children who contract the measles, two will not heal, they will die. The measles virus causes a nasty rash, fever, cough, runny nose, and red eyes. Pregnant women who come down with the measles are at risk for premature birth and low-weight babies. The virus spreads easily via the air, and people are most contagious before they even realize they’re infected.

Between 1999 and 2012, a host of studies in different countries that examined almost 15 million children found no link between autism and vaccinations. And yet still the myth persists! Even big-name politicians are propagating it, with Rand Paul and Chris Christie giving credence to anti-vaxxers fears. These are also politicians who deny climate change, despite the fact that the scientific community on the whole states climate change is happening and that human beings have played a large part in it. There is a strong anti-scientific strain in our culture, a misplaced belief in making decisions based on “our guts” as opposed to what our eyes see. No matter your politics, there is a cowboy, macho American appeal to saying, “I’m going with my gut on this one!” And yet, in many cases, such as anti-vaxxing and climate change denying, our emotions are based on beliefs, and beliefs are not facts.

As Michelle Horton points out here on Babble, the fine points are often lost in the vitriol. Like her, my wife and I chose a pediatrician who spaced out my son’s vaccines, because that seemed a healthier decision to us than loading him up with a lot of drugs all at once. I certainly don’t like getting pumped full of medications! We did not, however, skip any of his vaccines. Not only because we care about his health, but because that is the civic-minded thing to do. An unvaccinated child puts others at risk, even adults, whose immunity may have weakened over the course of their life. This was eloquently described on NPR by Marin County father Carl Krawitt, whose son, Rhett, is recovering from leukemia and has a weakened immune system due to chemotherapy treatments. Other parents at his son’s school were angry when Krawitt asked them to immunize their children in order to protect his son. Yet it’s hard to imagine them acting the same if his son had a severe peanut allergy and he asked them to not bring peanut butter cupcakes in for the class.

Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, told DAME Magazine that part of this problem stems from people not having seen these illnesses and what they can do to kids. They “seem kind of notional,” he said, and so we can magically think that they won’t affect our kids, or if they do, they probably won’t be so bad.

Mnookin has spoken with parents who have lost children to vaccine-preventable diseases, and they would do anything to have their children back. Think of those parents, and the many countless others over the course of human history who have lost kids to diseases that we can now prevent. Can you imagine them turning their nose to vaccines? Think even of my father-in-law, shocked that a disease which caused widespread fear during his childhood and then seemed eradicated, is now back in the national spotlight. That frightens him, and me, as it should any parent.

We need to protect the weakest members in our society — the little kids, the elderly, the pregnant mothers. We need to stop talking about the myths driving the anti-vaxing movement, and start talking about the science that disproves them. We all have choices, yes. But like drunk driving, to choose not to vaccinate your kid doesn’t just endanger your child, it endangers other people’s children too, and that’s not right.

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