A baby in Florida just died of a completely avoidable and nearly eradicated disease—whooping cough—because the infant’s parents chose not to vaccinate.
It’s the first death from the disease in 20 years, but it likely won’t be the last. This disease and others are coming back as a direct result of the recent trend against vaccination.
Many people are rightly horrified by parents’ decision not to vaccinate. The research clearly demonstrates that vaccines are about as safe as any drug and protect against deadly diseases. Not only that, but when parents choose not to vaccinate their own children, they put the lives of others’ children, especially those that are immunocompromised and/or cannot be vaccinated, at risk as well.
However, rather than just getting angry at these parents, it might behoove us to empathize with them and attack the real problems at work here.
I think three of the biggest problems hindering people’s ability to make good decisions regarding vaccinations are:
Regular people aren’t scientists
Did you know that recent studies in experimental animals and humans have shown that the mucosal immune system, which is characterized by secretory IgA (S-IgA) antibodies as the major humoral defence factor, contains specialized lymphoid tissues where antigens are encountered from the environment, are taken up and induce B- and T-cell responses? Do you even know what that means? Me neither. It’s the first sentence of an abstract (the summary) of a peer-reviewed paper on vaccines.
When this is how academic papers are written, it’s simply not reasonable to expect parents to be able to hit the source material to determine what’s what on the vaccine debate, or anything else really.
People must rely on journalists
Because regular people aren’t scientists, it’s imperative for scientific findings to be presented in a transparent, easy-to-understand way. Unfortunately, the scientific community does a terrible job with this. So, journalists have to step in and fill the gap. Unfortunately, journalists often don’t actually know much about what they cover. Perhaps in part because journalists tend to be “right-brained,” liberal arts types, the ones covering science tend to be especially ignorant about their subject matter.
The issue pervades all science reporting, but may be especially pronounced in health reporting.
A great article by the Columbia Journalism Review puts the problem succinctly:
In all areas of personal health, we see prominent media reports that directly oppose well-established knowledge in the field, or that make it sound as if scientifically unresolved questions have been resolved.
And this isn’t just the “journalists” at infowars.com. The story opens with a critique of a New York Times Magazine weight-loss article.
The CJR piece continues:
Even while following what are considered the guidelines of good science reporting, [health science journalists] still manage to write articles that grossly mislead the public, often in ways that can lead to poor health decisions with catastrophic consequences. Blame a combination of the special nature of health advice, serious challenges in medical research, and the failure of science journalism to scrutinize the research it covers.
What are people to do when they can’t look to the source material to check facts and they can’t trust the health reporting of journalists even in the most well-respected news outlets?
People are used to being lied to about health
Remember the 2005 USDA food pyramid that recommended you eat mostly grains? And then remember how it turns out that’s actually pretty bad for you? That’s one of the most benign ways the US government has misled its citizens on health best practices.
From forced, covert sterilizations to telling people they’re being treated for syphilis and then watching them die painfully, there’s a lot of deserved mistrust around the state, the medical establishment and public health.
While to my knowledge no vaccine is legally mandated, many are required for entrance into public school. Two of the first 10 results when I search for “vaccines” are government websites, including vaccine.gov. For people who tend to distrust government, this sets off alarm bells.
Feeling coerced into shooting something you don’t understand into your child is a scary proposition.
Furthermore, the main boogeyman of vaccine skeptics is autism, which is a pretty devastating, recently discovered, poorly understood, impossible to prevent diagnosis. While there is no credible link between vaccination and autism, and even if there were the benefits still outweigh the risk, it’s tough to blame people for being ignorant and scared on the subject of autism.
There is good reason to say that it’s “established” that vaccines are safe and prevent disease. But people also have good reason to ask, “by whom?” and “how?” Instead of answering them with anger and ridicule, we’d be better off answering them with information, studies (that we can explain), and a recognition that there’s still a lot none of us really knows about all of this, and that we’re all trying to get to the truth together.