Friday, March 14, 2014

Some Thoughts on Vaccinations

In general over the past few years, and more frequently in recent weeks, I've seen plenty of articles in my Twitter and Facebook feeds about various facets of the anti-vaccination campaign and its consequences; it's proponents, detractors, and controversies. Now, considering that I took my lovely 9-week old boy to get his first round of vaccinations earlier this week at our GP's office, it's pretty damn obvious where I stand in regards to all this nonsense. But, without name-calling or vitriol, I want to spell out my position and the reasons behind it.

To start with a fairly inflammatory statement on purpose: if your kids aren't vaccinated, don't expect them to play with my boys. This has nothing to do with me crucifying your character based on one decision you make for your family. I'm a parent too: I get the very natural impulse to reduce risk for your children. You love them. You want the best for them. But here's the thing: the diseases we're vaccinating against are so much worse than the temporary discomfort of an injection, a slight post-immunisation fever, or the slim possibility of complications. We as a society have lost sight of just how awful diseases like mumps, measles, and rubella are precisely because we've been so effectively protected against them for so long by vaccines and the resultant herd immunity they give us.

If your kid is one of the few who is likely to suffer ill effects, by all means, take the advice of people who have been trained in this understanding of the world around us and skip the vaccines. But for those who are simply exercising their right to disagree & do their own poor research...I'm not exposing my kids to the risk of disease because you want to conscientiously object to science. Thanks. It's a bit like a seatbelt, in my opinion: you put it on every time and hope against hope that you never experience a car crash where you need to use it. Likewise, I vaccinate my sons and hope that their immunity is never tested by being exposed to someone who actually carries polio or rubella.

I'm not going to enumerate all of the science behind the vaccine debate: other people have done that far better than me - among them Dr. Steven Novella - and so I'd just pass their work along for reference.

So yes: a few of the articles I've linked to will resort to words like 'wing-nut' or 'nut job' or 'loon'. Despite their (to me) understandable, but unfortunate choice of words, I think the points still stand.

But why, you may be asking, aren't there any good sources on anti-vaccination? Why nothing from the Natural News or a health & wellness site? Well, for the simple reason that not all evidence is created equal. I'd like to refer to the brilliantly concise site Your Logical Fallacy Is... to pinpoint just some of the problems I often see with the anti-vax argument:

False Cause: otherwise known as "correlation doesn't equal causation", this conflates two independent phenomena. Just because the noticeable signs of autism coincide with the current vaccination schedule, it doesn't mean vaccines cause autism.

Straw Man: misrepresenting one person's argument to make it easier to argue against. This one tends to take the form of a misunderstanding of scientific principles.

Bandwagoning: or the appeal to popularity. In the anti-vaccination articles I've read, this tends to work in the opposite form. It's not your usual, Nancy Reagan style peer pressure scenario: "everyone's doing it, Dave...", but rather: "don't be sheeple! Follow the evidence! If all your friends pumped scary-sounding chemicals and viruses into their children, would you do it, too?" The popularity, or lack of it, for any given position is not a reliable indicator of its truthfulness or validity. The one place where this tends to hold some water, however, is in the consensus opinion of experts in a field. With the caveat that our understanding can always be improved or deepened, if a group of people with in-depth knowledge and extensive study of a subject come to an overwhelmingly similar conclusion, it's not bad practise to give some weight to their collective understanding of reality. (And for the record, 'in-depth knowledge and extensive study' does not mean 4 hours with Dr. Google.)

Genetic Fallacy: assuming something is good or bad depending on who said it. While this happens on both sides - discrediting a given article based on where it appeared (like the Natural News) - it often happens when anti-vaxxers decry any claims made by "science" or "the medical industry" as if these were monolithic entities who all speak with some sort of hive consciousness like a bad sci-fi movie. All claims need to be taken into consideration on the merit of what they say, not just who said them. That said, you should probably trust the word of a medical doctor above my own in a discussion about how the body reacts to vaccines, because biochemistry, immunology, and pharmacology aren't subjects I know anything about. I can armchair diagnose until the cows come home, but it's not my area of expertise. On the other hand, if you want an opinion on Regency fashion and neo-Classicism, you're better off talking to me than, say, the Surgeon General.

There are plenty of other logical fallacies evident on both sides of the debate, but in the end, I'll stick with the overwhelming body of evidence that vaccines do what they say they will and protect us from what were once devastating diseases. I will accept the fact that just because something sounds scary and convoluted and unpronounceable doesn't mean that it's's irresponsible of me to require the world to fit into my limited understanding. The better proposition by far is to expand my understanding to encompass the intricacies of the world around me.

To use a good-old-fashioned cliche, "no man is an island, entire of itself". Vaccination isn't just a choice you make for your own family like whether to shop organic or join little league or attend Mass. It's a public health issue, and while I'm far from advocating an Orwellian compulsory vaccination program, credible research and scientific reality shouldn't bend to misinformation, fearmongering, and indignant and misleading rhetoric about rights. Rights aren't the issue here: health and safety are.

As the old saying goes, "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions". And I have no doubt that most parents in the anti-vaccination movement have the best of intentions; but when we're dealing with the health of our children, intentions don't count nearly as much as results. And when the result is a resurgence of horrible and preventable diseases, we need to seriously consider where good intentions have led us. 

No comments:

Post a Comment