Monday, July 30, 2012

Vaccines are a good thing.

News of the recent whooping cough epidemic in Canada has me putting on my raging boots for another science rant. Anti-vaccination rhetoric is an unfortunate consequence of insufficient science literacy and, in some cases, religious dogma. It is difficult to touch the religious crowd with respect to their beliefs, but there are plenty of others out there who are anti-vax simply due to ignorance and misinformation.

Most of the furor over the possible autism-vaccines connection stems from a 1998 paper published by Andrew Wakefield et. al. in the medical journal The Lancet. The paper suggested at a causal link between the MMR vaccine and ''regressive autism" -- autism that develops over time in children that were seemingly neurotypical before -- in 12 young patients. The paper has been thoroughly debunked, and was completely retracted by Lancet in 2010. Wakefield himself has been found guilty by the British General Medical Council of "serious professional misconduct" and struck off the medical register, effectively banning him from ever practicing medicine in the UK again.

As scientists, we don't just stop there. We conduct independent investigations. And what have we found? The Institute of Medicine, over the years, has conducted several in depth reviews of the medical and scientific literature as it relates to all varieties of vaccines and adverse health outcomes. Though in rare cases, their studies have found side-effects of some vaccines in individuals, again, there is no suggestive link between vaccines and autism."But there are side effects!" Well, yes. Of course there are. Just like how some people are allergic to shellfish, and some people experience side effects from, well, any other medication on the market, and any other substance on the planet, some people have reacted poorly to vaccines.

It is truly disappointing to me that concepts of statistical risk and social responsibility, ideas that most people generally seem to understand, suddenly seem to vanish when the subject is vaccination. Some people actually don't know about herd immunity (though everybody should,) but even some who do know still cross their arms, cover their eyes, and insist that they have the "right" to decide what is best for their child. And of course, they do. But when all evidence points to vaccination being what is best, this line of logic indicates nothing other than ignorance, and even hubris, on the part of these parents.

So, what can the rest of us do to combat conspiracy theorists, protect ourselves and others, and raise awareness?
  1. Get vaccinated, obviously, and make sure your family is vaccinated too. As adults, do you know that some of your vaccinations lose their effectiveness over time? Have a blood draw and request a titer test be done to check for your immune status against diseases covered by the regular vaccine schedule. Consider the Tdap booster as an adult, which covers tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis (whooping cough.)
  2. Educate yourself about estimated herd immunity thresholds in your community, and talk about vaccinations in your social circle. Are your friends vaccinated? Are their friends vaccinated? Are their friends' and families' children vaccinated?
  3. And as long as you are going to be talking with other people, be armed with factual, science-based information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines both at the individual level, and at the community level. The links I provided above are a good start, but feel free to dive into primary sources if you are comfortable with scientific jargon. Avoid as sources websites that have an obvious agenda, and that present "evidence" in the form of links to other websites with a similar agenda. You can follow these arguments around in circles and find a lot of charismatic people saying persuasive things, but if they don't back their words up with peer-reviewed, medical evidence, be wary.
  4. If you care for anyone who is particularly at-risk for any of the vaccine-controlled diseases, make sure your home is a safe space for them by only having vaccinated guests. This is awkward and tricky, but it protects the health of your loved ones. And if enough people do this in practice, it can have the effect of exerting social pressure on those who aren't vaccinated for dubious reasons.
These things may be small, but misinformation often spreads between friends and acquaintances in meatspace (offline.) Parents are fanatical about their children, and sometimes a persuasive bad idea, left unchecked, can transform otherwise rational people. Make sure that doesn't happen to the people you know!



    Someone posted this link a long time ago on Facebook about the harmful things found in vaccines. One thing on the list was "micro-organisms". Really? How do you think vaccines work?

  2. well said lady- I dig your four points there. I think it's crazy that some parents now are falling into the weird trendy idea about not getting their damn kids vaccinated!! INSANITY!