Vaccination – why learn the hard way?

By Grant Jacobs 19/01/2013 25

People concerned about those who have fallen hard for anti-vaccine myths often ruminate that perhaps the only way they’ll learn is by people they care about falling seriously ill from vaccine-preventable illnesses.

The community-wide first-hand memory of epidemics of vaccine-preventable illnesses is now largely gone. But people could learn from the mistakes of a few, such as the Williams family.

Natalie Akoorie’s article puts it well,

Auckland couple Ian and Linda Williams thought they had made an informed decision against immunising their three children because of concerns over adverse reactions.

But they regretted their decision when middle child Alijah contracted the potentially fatal disease just before Christmas, and was put in an induced coma on life support at Starship hospital.

You don’t want this to happen to your family, eh?

In the article Ian Williams says,

“Believing myths about vaccines is not the same as getting the facts. And that is the core problem.”

In a nutshell.

Try the University of Auckland’s Immunisation Advisory Centre. It‘s what they’re there for.

If New Zealand parents need a forum to discussion vaccine on-line, I can suggest the New Zealand Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC) forum. I’ve introduced it in an earlier article.

(I’ve offered more reading on vaccination from my blog below. You’re welcome to chat or ask questions in the comments section at the bottom of the page.)

A few other vaccination-related articles on Code for life:

A vaccine discussion forum (open to all, run by people within New Zealand with expertise in immunology)

Sources for medical information for non-medics and non-scientists (a resource page)

Fact or fallacy, a survey of immunisation statements in the print media (the media unfortunately get things wrong, which can be confusing if you’re new to the topic)

The Panic Virus (a review of a book examining parents’ concerns about vaccines)

Thoughts on, and for, those trying to choose to vaccinate or not (Some thoughts on some aspects of parent trying to find sound information. Just as my article asks how trustworthy is the IAS, the research described in this article asks how trustworthy are articles in the media.)

Immunisation then and now (a peek a history)

Rubella, not a benign disease if experienced during early pregnancy (including rubella in New Zealand)


It has been brought to my attention that the Sunday Star-Times has article, by Marika Hill, We were hippies about it that starts with an account of Ian Williams’ son’s illness,

“Blood is dripping from his mouth and he is saying ‘save me daddy’,” Williams told the Sunday Star-Times.

I was holding the hand of my kid who had an arched back, the muscles could break his bones at any second, and his heart could stop.

Later the piece tilts at a local anti-vaccine group, the IAS. I had wondered if the IAS might be involved in encouraging the Williams not to vaccinate their child as the phrase ‘an informed decision’ used in the NZ Herald piece is the by-line of this group. It’s not explicitly said if the IAS had a role in either piece, so it remains an open question.

Hill writes ‘The society was not available to talk last week.’ Earlier last week they wrote a long email to me [received at Tuesday 1:40pm] and they have been active on their forums through the week.

I’ve previous looked at some of this group’s statements:

IAS talks about vaccination

Whooping cough, vaccines, cocooning and the IAS

Immunisation Awareness Society followers – what the new page rules show

25 Responses to “Vaccination – why learn the hard way?”

  • In addition to getting the information, I think there is another factor – understanding the statistics.

    It is hard for people, any of us, to grasp the meaning of probabilities for things that are very unlikely to happen. Otherwise no one would be paying their stupidity tax at the Lotto shop. The couple in your example appear to have equated the chance of getting tetanus as being about the same as the chance of having an adverse reaction, where in fact the chance of an adverse reaction is much, much lower.

    Maybe more effort needs to go into looking at the way probabilities are conveyed to people.

  • Possum,

    I agree. Statistical probabilities are not well understood in the general population.

    Statistics show that there is a greater chance of a child being injured or dying in a car accident whilst being driven to school (or the doctor) than there is of them getting a severe adverse reaction to a vaccine or the childs’ parents winning Lotto.

    There’s no secret, it’s all there in the statistics – a child is at greater risk being driven to the doctor for the vaccination than from the vaccination itself.

  • Education will make no difference to hardcore social defectors. They stopped polio in the 1950s by making vaccination compulsory. Often religious convictions and general mistrust of science. Some just cultural impenetrability.

  • FWIW, I feel that before “getting” information or looking at stats is simply checking that the source might be trusted at all. It’s part (well, most of) the reason arecent post looking at the IAS was to encourage their followers/readers (and would-be readers) to consider if the IAS are trustworthy, rather than look at their “science” [sic]. As I wrote there ‘Sometimes this is easier to deal with as you don’t need to grapple with the details of the science, but simply understand the group’s actions and aims.’ It seems to me many read on-line without really putting much thought into what source they are reading from.

    Put another way, understanding stats and better critical thinking are certainly valuable and teaching these would help people not fall for nonsense (or journalist write nonsense…) but a good bullshit radar helps too!

    I agree with Stuart M. that the few “core” people are going to say and do what they say and do regardless of whatever you offer them. They’re simply not looking at anything other than their convictions in ideological fashion. Trying to ‘convert’ these people* is, in my opinion, akin trying to convert a creationist – largely a waste of time unless, perhaps, they’re family or friends who you are prepared to invest enormous amounts of time into. (I have sympathy for those with friends or family “lost” to various wayward religions.)

    (* A tiny minority, too. My experience suggests the ‘core’ anti-vaccine people in any country are literally around a handful or so of people.)

  • Siouxsie – it is good they’re running it. I hope people here are (have been) reading the original – part of my intention was to encourage people to read it.

  • The Sunday Star-Times has another article on this, by Marika Hill: We were hippies about it.

    The piece starts with an account of Ian Williams’ child,

    “Blood is dripping from his mouth and he is saying ‘save me daddy’,” Williams told the Sunday Star-Times.

    I was holding the hand of my kid who had an arched back, the muscles could break his bones at any second, and his heart could stop.

    Alijah was hospitalis[e]d with tetanus late last year; something he should have been immunised against, something Williams and his wife Linda decided not to do.

    Later in the piece it directly tilts at the IAS. I had wondered if the IAS was involved, given that the word in the NZ Herald piece—‘an informed decision’ is the by-line of this group. (It’s not explicitly said in the piece. I’m curious why the society was not available to talk last week. Earlier last week they wrote a long email to me (something I’ve rarely had from them, received Tuesday 1:40pm) and they have been active on their forums through the week.)

    I’ve previous looked at some of this group’s statements on the blog:

    IAS talks about vaccination

    Whooping cough, vaccines, cocooning and the IAS

    Immunisation Awareness Society followers – what the new page rules show

    (I will add this as an update to the article above, later in the day.)

  • It’s a tragedy when people are led to believe they are making an “informed choice” but have in fact been manipulated into believing biased misinformation.

    Lets hope this boy recovers well and there will be no more victims of vaccine preventable diseases.

  • What peeves me is that the idea of informed consent for medical decision making is being co-opted by these people to misinform parents.

    In real life, this involves giving a diagnosis or putting the decision into the context of the patients overall condition, giving the nature and purpose of the treatment, giving alternatives available (if any), giving the risks and benefits of doing the treatment or procedure and the risks (and any benefits, if they exist) of not recieving the treatment.

    To their minds, this involves giving misleading information, minimising the impact of what are preventable diseases, and hyping both known and completely made up side-effects.

    The big epidemics of the past being forgotten, this can be seductive and parents can see little risk in taking the path of doing nothing, thinking they are avoiding what are in reality pretty minimal risks from vaccines and that they can count on avoiding the disease or if they do get it, it won’t be bad. They don’t see the cases of tetanus, they don’t see that tetanus spores are in our environment and pose a risk, they don’t note this vaccine accrues benefits only to the individual and that the toxoid is low risk compared with the costs of having the disease.

    That’s not being informed, let alone an informed decision, There should be a better way, I think parents need more information not only on such matters as vaccination, but on critical thinking and how to sift through and identify good information from bad. Would be something if worthwhile MOH or some other interested party produced a pamphlet or something to hand out stating that there is a lot of garbage out there about medicine and tips for identifying both legitimate information and pseudoscientific information and for understanding such things as statistical information.

  • The Herald article was EXCELLENT. I noticed on a friend’s FB feed that she’d posted one of those pieces from the IAS. I posted a comment & link to counter it. (We may not be friends much longer…)

  • Hi Alison :-)

    I thought the NZ Herald piece excellent too. Was the post on your friend’s feed one written by your friend, or a ‘sponsored post’ from the IAS? The IAS has taken to paying Facebook to advertise it’s material by pushing them into others’ Facebook streams via Facebook’s ‘sponsored post’ advertising feature.

    Your aside reminds me that I commented to someone else recently that Facebook’s scheme struck me as likely to bust up a few Facebook friends!

  • It was an IAS post that my friend had shared :(

    Don’t get me started on those stupid sponsored posts! Anti-aging, green coffee beans as a weight-loss tool… I really must post about it.

    The other ‘nasty’ that’s doing the FB rounds is an image purporting to be of a 12-week foetus – it’s actually a scaled-down near-newborn, but hey, if you’re going to fib, do it big.

  • Hemlock,

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I’ll add some thoughts when I’ve time to write as thoughtfully!

    How to ensure people recognise nonsense for what it is, is something some of us mull over. Teaching critical thinking has it’s place. Alison and I have both written about this in the past. (Search bioblog for ‘critical thinking’: This is perhaps best tackled at a high school level – admittedly many will have forgotten what they might have been taught at high school by the time they are parents!

    More later.

  • I didn’t realise until reading the article on that the IAS has lost their charitable status – about time!

  • Hi Darcy

    Sigh – well that’s true, but at least they can’t get funding from the tax payer any more… I just had a quick look at your series of posts about the IAS / vaccination and look forward to having a more thorough read. I sent in a complaint to the Charities Commission in late 2011. I’m pretty sure this was due to someone on RI highlighting the IAS, was that you?

  • Ah, that was probably Grant.

    I take/get credit, but I suspect if others hadn’t also sent in complaints it might not have happened so really a group effort.

  • “I’m pretty sure this was due to someone on RI highlighting the IAS, was that you?”

    That’ll likely be me spreading the word. I have to admit I can’t remember clearly now if I wrote to the Charities Commission too. (I’d have to search my files and I’ve other things to do…)

    Their Facebook page has been the scene of a fair number of complaints about them and their material since they took up trying to push their message via Facebook’s paid advertising scheme. Some of the IAS’ behaviour in the face of this hasn’t been the best. For example, by my count they’ve blocked at least three commenters who wrote polite comments pointing out basic mathematical errors in their articles. (They’ve just recently tactically admitted that was wrong: I’ve invited them to unblock a small number of these people as a gesture to putting right the wrong.)

  • Further to my “cultural impenetrability” remarks above, many if not most channels of communication when it comes to public education of a broadcasting style amount to preaching to the converted. A good example is water and firearm safety. Many of the people who go out in boats often do so impulsively when their judgement is already impaired from alcohol. Many people are just not used to reading scientifically informed pronouncements. Related I think to the phenomenon of confirmation bias is the generalised tendency that reinforces our pre-existing views of ourselves and our views of the world. Some way has to be found to utilise the channels they consider authorative.
    I think Grant is right. The most cost effective way is to include it in school syllabuses. In my experience intermediate age kids are highly receptive to science based information. Sadly it is not “knowledge all the way down”. At some level indoctrination is required as to what or who counts as “authorative”. The trick is to utilise “authorative” avenues and they vary significantly in multicultural societies.

  • @ Darcy (& Grant)

    However the Charities Commission arrived at the conclusion to revoke the IAS’ status, it’s people like you who put in the time to raise consciousness. All I did was bang out a quick email. Thank you, you should definitely take some credit. :-)

  • Stuart,

    Re, “I think Grant is right.” – credit where it’s due. It will have been Alison who suggested that it ought be in schools and I picked up from her 😉

    As for assisting the current crop (as it were), it’s a vexed thing. I don’t think there’s one solution – different people will need different things. Some people might be judging risk by a mix of accounts of harm and the tone of articles and totting that up, rather than checking the soundness of the sources seeing the “balance” through statistics, etc. After all, these are pretty “dry” ways of looking at something, especially for people emotionally tied to their decision (think new parents, etc). For these people, accounts like the Williams’ recently in the media over his child’s close all with tetanus may be useful as it’s a similar sort of account. I’d like to see more of these, followed with the drier material (or with that material presented as a ‘science sidebar’).

    Just loose thoughts.

  • Marika Hill, the author of the Sunday Star-Times piece, has written a follow-on piece since offering the views of one man’s complaints that there is no tetanus-only vaccine and that he cannot avoid the diphtheria component and thus the diphtheria component is “imposed” on them:

    While I’m writing: aside from a NZ Herald editorial piece (linked below), does anyone know if any letters to the editors arose from these pieces?

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