The Wall Street Journal has published another of the growing number of reports showing how some parents’ refusal to vaccinate their children is endangering us all by reviving deadly diseases like measles.
Measles is making a terrifying comeback in the U.S., with some 600 cases reported this year, more than in any year in the past two decades. There are two reasons: the ease of international travel, and an increasing number of people refusing vaccinations, usually on behalf of their children…
These refusals have directly resulted in an increase in the incidence of almost forgotten diseases like whooping cough and measles. After the introduction of the whooping cough vaccine in the 1940s, cases dwindled to about 1,000 cases annually. Yet the CDC reported nearly 77,000 cases of whooping cough in 2012 and 2013.
My parents did not vaccinate most of their children, and when the topic comes up they beset me for having chosen to give mine all the routine shots, including chicken pox (but never the flu—my practitioner says flu shots increase transmission of the disease). I became pretty pro-vaccine after reading “Deadly Choices,” by Paul Offit, which summarizes the available evidence and shows, quite definitively, that vaccines are not a giant conspiracy to increase autism.
There are some small risks of increased seizures to some vaccines, but parents have to weigh that against the slightly larger (and increasing) risks of getting the actual diseases vaccines prevent. My husband and I decided the risk of the disease was worse. The increase in older childbearing seems to be the largest cause of the autism increase, along with our increasingly better and broader diagnoses. Certainly, there is no medical evidence vaccines are the culprit. The evidence does show some tiny but real other risks, which is why we have a National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, but there has been absolutely no link shown between vaccines and autism. Even the recent study suggesting a link between autism and vaccines developed using tissue from aborted babies is nowhere near conclusive, and the Catholic Church and evangelicals have continued to encourage parents to use those vaccines when there are no alternatives (which, unfortunately, there are not, although some are being developed). The most common side effect—and, again, side effects are more rare than disease transmission—is an allergic reaction.
Give Your Kids Vaccines: It’s Ethical and Rational
We have a family friend whose daughter was airlifted to the hospital after a vaccine-induced seizure, so when this topic comes up around her I try to go light, but my basic position is that, yes, that can happen, but, again, compare that possibility against the bigger one of your child getting super-polio or whooping cough. I’ll take the vaccines, thanks. Our friend’s daughter’s ordeal was traumatic, but she lived. Another thing parents do not take into account is that they do all sorts of things with their children that have far greater risks of injury and death than vaccinations. Take driving the kids around in a car. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for children ages 2-14. Yet there are no campaigns to “Stop driving your kids to death!” or anything even remotely related. Despite our increasing culture of parent alarmism and ineffective hyperprotection, no one questions automobiles and their clear and present -danger to human life. If the vaccine-frightened truly care so much about the real but tiny risk of vaccine side-effects, consistency demands that they also stop driving cars, sending their children to school, hiring babysitters, and all other activities with higher risks.
I also think parents have an ethical duty to vaccinate to provide the herd immunity people too weak for vaccinations desperately need. If an elderly person or child with leukemia gets measles, it’s deadly.
When the topic comes up among my mommy friends, I provide the information that helped change my mind and try to tread carefully, but ultimately advocate for vaccination. One of our friends doesn’t do the hepatitis B shots because she lives in a rural area and her child will not be attending daycare and will probably homeschool. Hep B is a group sort of disease, and typically not deadly with treatment. Fine. I’m way more pushy about shots like MMR, whooping cough, polio, and other deadly possible contagions. I always think that if my baby were to get a disease like this before his scheduled vaccination for it because of ill-informed people, I would be horrifically angry at them. You can be as stupid as you want with yourself, but if your stupidity threatens my child’s life, I will hunt you down. (Of course, this is hyperbole, but I do feel this way inside.)
I also view it as horrifically irresponsible for celebrities to get on the anti-vaccine train. The anti-vaccine movement is essentially based on fear, not evidence. Every parent should read the evidence before making a decision that is more likely to hurt his child and others rather than protect lives.
The Vaccine Controversy Is Really About Something Else
Despite my support for vaccines, I don’t agree with the WSJ author’s insinuation that it’s time to tighten vaccination mandates. What almost no one talks about regarding the vaccine controversy are the fears that feed it, many of which I think are actually plausible. On the grassroots Right and Left festers a deep cynicism about the ruling authorities and their willingness to tell the rest of us the truth and act in our best interests. Just talk to a lefty mom about how government enables big business to mine and sell her kids’ online behavior. Of course, officials always say and feel they are doing what’s best, but they do so in a way that robs the rest of us of the opportunity to participate in and thus own such decisions.
Most people I know who are anti-vaccine (and I seem to know an inordinate amount, given their statistical insignificance) fall into two camps. There are the anti-authority types, and the obsessive mom types. The moms tend to be more herd creatures driven by emotion, and the anti-authority types seem to be anti-herd creatures driven by emotion. In neither case can rational argument and preponderance of facts win the discussion entirely, because their decisions against vaccines are not based on evidence. They are based on fear. The women worry what their friends will think, and the individualists worry someone’s out to control them. For both there’s an element of self-congratulation for having found the “real truth” that so many people are blind to.
Perhaps the key instinct for both groups, though, is a feeling of cynical distrust, that the “official line” is almost guaranteed to be wrong. Remember, trust in government is near historical lows, and for a far longer time than previous lows. Those are just averages. Among certain sectors of our country, it’s normal to discuss your hideaway for when everything really goes to hell or how powerful corporations conspire against the common man’s best interests. The more intimately involved governments and businesses get in people’s personal lives, the more scared-rabbit reactions like denying vaccines we’re going to see.
Our Own Government Suspects Us, and We Know It
Let me give an example. A local TV station recently revealed that my state is warehousing the DNA of 2 million children without parents’ consent. In response, officials said they were thinking about what to do with their blood contraband. The proper response would be to destroy the blood spot cards carrying those kids’ DNA, because they did not have legal consent to store them. Duh. That this wasn’t obvious is worrisome. Following through on legal agreements is always a good way to increase confidence. Collecting and storing baby DNA is a widespread government practice now. Parents rightly worry about future commercial and government profiling, but nobody asked them. Governments just started mandating, and moms and dads are typically just a wee bit busy when baby comes out to ask where that blood spot is going. Turns out, you may never know, and you may have no choice in the matter. This is insulting, and the more parents hear about things like this the more their distrust of the authorities increases. It evinces a huge lack of trust in parents’ ability to care for their own children, and parents reasonably respond in kind by gripping their children and their role as gatekeepers more tightly.
A vaccination mandate would only stoke such worries. Deregulating parenting and child raising is a far better idea, because it shows that lawmakers and our public servants trust us to care for our children, just as they trust us to elect and oversee our government. Extending trust is the best way to receive it. If we truly believe in self-government and individual responsibility, we must act on those ideas and assume, not that parents are stupid, scared idiots, but that they are reasonable, capable adults who can and will make informed, rational choices. Assuming the worst is the best way to create it. Our government too often assumes the worst about parents. It’s no surprise so many reciprocate.
Rather than mandates, let’s start a conversation. Distribute Offit’s book, and smaller, digestible chunks of similar discussions inside pamphlets. This would be best carried out by local nonprofits and community organizations instead of the federal government, because parents trust these entities a great deal more. Even best would be information from social networks and trusted friends. Although I was convinced before my first child was born that vaccines were the wise decision, we did start our kids’ shots at six weeks old instead of birth, and take no more than three at one time. I know the studies don’t find this necessary, but we are just squeamish about inflicting such tiny kids with such big diseases.
Rather than reacting to us, and putting notes in our files or making demands backed up with mandates, our pediatricians were nonchalant about that decision and willing to discuss and accommodate it, as long as our children received all their shots somewhat along the typical schedule. Our first pediatrician said, “You know, the schedule is just to make it convenient for parents and doctors and to arrange all the shots in their right order, but it’s not crucial that kids get them in precisely that way.” Such responses probably provided emotional cement for what was until then an intellectual decision. Our doctors did not discount our fears, but supported and acknowledged them, and held our hands and our babies as we all injected the poor toots with needles. This is the sort of thing the federal government cannot do. It cannot hold hands and discussions. It can just demand. Demands don’t produce confidence. They spark anger, defensiveness, and fear. Parents instead need acknowledgement and trust. And they will live up to that trust. It’s time for government to let go, and let dad.