Vaccine Panic – Don’t Blame The Mums!

In recent months, vaccine panic has arguably supplanted the eternal Evolution vs Creationism debate and global warming as the cause célèbre of the sceptical community. For those not au fait with the issue: there is a growing and increasingly vocal community of self-styled “anti-vaxxers” who have decided, in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence, that vaccination programmes are a danger to health and long-term wellbeing, particularly of children. Opposition to vaccination ranges from mild trepidation, to the belief that mass vaccination is a systematic attempt at specicide by the “New World Order” to reduce global population. I’m not kidding.

The issue came to the fore with the publication by the now notorious (or heroic, I suppose, depending on which side of the needle you fall) Dr Andrew Wakefield of a paper in The Lancet purporting to have identified a possible connection between autism, bowel disease, and the MMR vaccination. The paper itself was unremarkable and inconclusive, but Wakefield’s subsequent interactions with the press, in which he advised caution against the MMR vaccine ignited a national health scare during which uptake dropped to as little as 61% in some parts of the UK and saw measles return to the UK as an endemic disease. Wakefield’s study has now been discredited and renounced by the majority of his co-authors, and the evidence that vaccination causes neither autism nor any other long-term health problem in anything other than negligible numbers is vast and overwhelming. Yet the controversy continues to be perpetuated.

In the last few days Wired magazine has published an excellent article by journalist Amy Wallace which tackles some of the frothing irrationality surrounding vaccination and its spurious link to autism. The article has inflicted upon Wallace a not insignificant and often unpleasant or indignant e-mail response, which she is currently tackling on her twitter. What’s interesting is that a large amount, if not all, of the negative feedback is coming from parents. Either the parents of young children, or the parents of children with autism. The protests are poignant:

“The PARENT knows their child more than anyone in the world. The PARENTS, Ms. Wallace, NOT Mr. Offit.”

“I have a Son that needs Me – not another needle.”

“Me and mine are not a herd. Human beings are capable and entitled to decide for themselves what to put in our bodies.”

These are parents who feel the need to defend themselves from the accusations of irresponsibility in their decision not to vaccinate. And the implied irresponsibility is sharp: Wallace’s article points out that, as vaccination uptake drops and herd immunity slips away from communities, children are now dying from preventable diseases. Often the accusations are explicit. As Jenny McCarthy, mother of an autistic child, crusades against vaccinations in the US, so a website has appeared, the controversial but pertinent Jenny McCarthy Body Count, which counts the number of cases of and deaths from diseases which, until the recent panic, had become little more than curiosities and links them explicitly to McCarthy’s high profile campaign. It’s little surprise that such indictments provoke fierce defence.

But the blame doesn’t lie at the feet of the parents. It doesn’t lie at the feet of Jenny McCarthy. Parents, by and large, cannot conceive of taking any action which will cause their child to come to harm. Charged by all their instincts to protect their child, the choice between “X causes immediate harm” and “X causes no immediate and direct harm”, when X is something they don’t fully understand, is a no-brainer. The consequences of ignoring the first appear direct and causal, the consequences of ignoring the second are far less cut and dried to the majority who understandably have little knowledge of epidemiology and immunology. In the light of the mountain of evidence demonstrating the safety of vaccines, this is not a rational approach, but is it really fair to point the finger at parents who act irrationally in the interests of the wellbeing of their children? I don’t think it is.

The complaints from parents, vilified by these remote and unapproachable journalists and scientists, that they “only want to do the best for their children” are deeply understandable. This motivation cannot be credibly denied. It’s the press that’s to blame for the current debacle; the press who published with neither appreciation of the facts nor care for the consequences; the press who give a voice to the charismatically irrational. The press made this the issue that it is and, where the wellbeing of children is concerned, that’s a beast that’s hard to get back into the box.

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4 Responses to “Vaccine Panic – Don’t Blame The Mums!”

  1. Terrific, well done! I would add the medical establishment to the press. Their attitude is completely dismissive of genuine concerns. The medical establishment seems completely unaware of something which engineers take into account all the time, which is that people accept higher risk the more control they feel over a situation. The difference is orders of magnitude. You don’t sneer at people and try to make it their fault because they refuse a risk, you work to reduce the risk still further.

    • I’m not sure the risk from vaccination is large enough to be feasibly reduced further, but I agree that working on the perceived risk without appearing aloof is important, as is reducing the mystery of vaccination and immunology (although I’m not sure how easy this would be to do!) so that parents feel more in control.

  2. Sorry, should have said “we” rather than “you” in my last sentence. Accepted it’s hard to reduce vaccine risk still further, but there are crass mistakes that could and should have been avoided. The big one on MMR was refusal to make the vaccines available singly, so parents who could pay were going to France, then private clinics here had the single vaccine, but poorer parents had no option but to refuse all if they didn’t want the triple. The fact that those who could were paying for the single vaccine shows that parents do recognise the need for vaccination/immunisation. Because the med establishment isn’t listening to people, they keep on about autism, but the truth is people were already worried and couldn’t/can’t see the point of mumps vaccination that runs out just at the age mumps becomes really dangerous. I’ve trying to find time to find the stats on cases of mumps in young adults. I read there was a huge leap about ten years after the mumps vaccine was introduced because people didn’t realise they needed a booster.

  3. endlesspsych Says:

    Hmmmm… Who do the parents of immunocompromised children get to blame for their kids not being able to go to nursery/school/social outings?

    Another straw man to meet your straw man head on 😉

    Thing is if vaccination is a personal, individual choice then you have to assume that patents are autonomous and capable of making such decisions. Influenced, but crucially not controlled, by various different things… As such a portion of the blame has to lie with the parents lest you assume they are dumb agents incapable of agency.

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