It's Time for a Frank Discussion on Vaccinating: Don't Be a Jerk

3 years ago

Editor's Note: August is National Immunization Awareness Month, which coincides with the start of school; a time when many people think about vaccinations that are required by their district. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working this month to ensure that every child receives protection from life-threatening illnesses. Stacy, our editor-in-chief, penned this response to the anti-vaccination campaign last spring, and it's relevant this month too. --Mel

At the same time that Jenny McCarthy is learning that people are attracted to people who vaccinate their children, Kristin Cavallari is being hailed as the next Jenny McCarthy for her public statements on how vaccines cause autism. Meanwhile, back here on planet Earth—where opinions never turn into facts, no matter how fervently we believe, no matter how personal the loss or the triumph—the growing number of parents who have chosen not to vaccinate their children is in part responsible for a resurgence in diseases long laid almost to rest. We've got a measles outbreak in New York City and one in Canada, and a growing outbreak of mumps on the campus of Ohio State University. It's time to stop being polite and ask the hard question: Why are anti-vaxxers still risking the health of other children based on disproved pseudo-science to "save" their own children from the so-called horrors of autism?

Image: Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr Creative Commons

The truth is that there are almost no medical discoveries that have as much proof behind them as vaccines. This fact can be stated over and over and over again, the hundreds of studies can be cited, we can point out that vaccines are tested for 10 to 15 years before they are released until we are blue in the face. Scientific American summed up how best to "convince" unconvinced parents about the safety of vaccines thusly:

The key facts parents need to know, though, are that vaccines prevent potentially fatal diseases, that vaccines have a high degree of safety, and that their safety is constantly evaluated and reevaluated in a system operating independently from the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines.

In a country where the dollar and profit reign supreme, that last bit is a major accomplishment and achievement for any government, but perhaps especially America's. But we can't celebrate that massive achievement any longer, because the fact is that the anti-vaccination camp has been able to use fear-mongering to plant enough doubt that they have caused intelligent, caring parents to stop vaccinating. When you stop vaccinating, you lose herd immunity. When you lose herd immunity, you put other people—the too young, the pregnant, the immunocompromised—at risk. When you put other people at risk, making your own decisions about which odds will favor your family, you're not a brave parent protecting your child. You are a jerk. You're legally allowed to be a jerk based on religious, medical, or personal belief statements according to the state in which you live, but you're still a jerk.

Looking at the interactive map of vaccine preventable outbreaks since 2008 paints a colorful and scary picture of what the anti-vaccination camp has done to harm forward motion in helping protect the most vulnerable people in our population, because it's not those parents who will get the mumps or measles or pertussis. It is the old, the infirm, the sick, and the very, very young. In other words, someone else's precious child. And you know what? I do not think it is okay for you to decide that your child is worth more than some other person's child, no matter how much the personal math would make that true for you.

Is the problem rooted in our terrific good fortune, as a people who have largely escaped the regular scourges and plagues that decimate populations in much of the rest of the world? Does no one remember AIDS? (Oh, wait, in our hyper-moral country, we decided those who got AIDS deserved it for their lifestyle "choices.") Have we lost just enough connection to the history of the devastation of measles and mumps that we think of them as benign illnesses, somehow less real than autism? Do you know that even previously healthy children who contract the measles have a 1 in 20 chance of then developing pneumonia? Did you know that 1 in 1,000 children will develop swelling of the brain which can result in convulsions, further putting their health at risk? Did you know children can die from measles? Did you know that mumps can result in deafness? Do you care? Do you realize that it's likely to be your own damn kid?

Yes, I understand that there are potential reactions to vaccines, which vary from vaccine to vaccine, but the risk of a vaccine causing serious harm or death, is, as the CDC says, "extremely small." Yes, I understand that it is hard to trust companies that make chemicals and drugs in our world right now. The Atlantic just published today a huge article on the effects of the poisons that have been in our environment for decades and the problems with regulating them; tellingly, vaccines are not mentioned.

My own son has "neurological differences." My son has his own struggles and challenges which may or may not have been caused by the environment, by toxins, by genetics, by bad luck, by evolutionary change, by who knows what? And I will not let my desire to have an answer to how he is who he is keep me from being a fully aware and responsible member of society. And I don't think any of the anti-vaxxers has the right to make that call, either. Just: NO.

We're not trying to eradicate teen acne. We're not trying to disregard that the explosion in the number of children who are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders is terrifying, and that the lack of answers is unsatisfying, at best. We're trying to save lives. We are living with the science that we know now, and it really doesn't matter how many science journals we read hoping for new discoveries, how many opportunistic doctors step forward with easy answers, how loud the chorus of fear becomes, or what celebrities say on Twitter: The fact is that vaccination is the best way we know now to keep our world healthy.

Credit: pahowho.

The problem isn't inside the vaccines. The problem is with people spreading misinformation, spreading fear, finding connections and conspiracies that cannot be proven to exist, no matter how many inconvenient facts they try to brush aside. It's time to stop being jerks. It's time to be responsible citizens. It's time to change the map above into something less colorful, less scary.

It's time for all of us to stand up and say: Don't be an ass. Get your child vaccinated. Save him—and all the children and old people and sick people with whom he will come in contact—from known diseases. And kiss your baby when you put him to bed every night, and pray—for luck, for good health, for fortune to smile on your baby—like the rest of us do.

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