Two articles from Stuff have sparked a long-drawn out battle over vaccines. The Facebook pages have drawn an huge number of comments, many posting ill-formed opinions. Yeah, it’s happening again. The Stuff articles themselves are mostly fine. The vaccine battles in the comments… not.
Yesterday was the 150th birthday of Nobel laureate Marie Curie.* She once wrote, “Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”
I have huge sympathy for people being confused or misled, but I can’t say how much I wish people would first try understand rather than repeat false claims or launch insults at people. It’s a trait common with people opposing all sorts of things, GMOs, water fluoridation, and so on.
We could spent literally weeks breaking down the claims made in these two Facebook pages. Those comment threads are an excellent repository of memes used to oppose vaccines.
Better and more productive to step back at look at the wider issues.
It’s important to realise that the correct comparison for vaccine safety is not with absolute safety. Everything in life we do has at least some risks. The correct comparison is comparing against not taking the vaccine.
Vaccines do have side effects, but they’re not the excitable claims made in these sorts of “discussions”.
Here’s a comparison of the MMR vaccine vs. measles for a million kids:
(Note: the rate of children with measles developing thromocytopenia may be ten times higher (3,300), e.g. as reported here. Chart from Jess Berenson-Shaw’s article Yes, we’re going there – should you vaccinate your child?, data from the Australian Academy of Science. Measles is also a disease we can eradicate.)
There’s also a catch-22. If a vaccine is highly successful at stopping a disease and almost everyone is vaccinated, then the count of vaccine side effects (however minor) has to rise, and the disease count fall. (The rate of vaccine side effects will be the same, however – the same number of kids per million will be affected.)
Some people then point at this saying the vaccines are worse than the diseases. BUT if you let vaccination rates fall, the disease will come back – and surprisingly quickly. With that in mind, you’re much better to keep vaccination rates high; the effects of not doing that will be worse.
A resurgence in disease will mostly affect the unvaccinated and those that aren’t able to take a vaccine. This is one of the reasons vaccination is better thought as a help the population to help yourself thing. If you pitch in, you benefit. If you don’t, you’ll lose if the disease shows up.
A recurring pattern is parents who sincerely believed not vaccinating their children was the right thing to do, only to realise how horrifically wrong they were when the disease hit their kids.
You don’t want to be one of those parents. I can’t imagine anyone wishing that on someone, yet some people opposed to vaccines directly say that – that your kid will be OK, that the illnesses don’t happen.
Unfortunately the diseases do happen, and if you don’t prevent them you and your kids are sitting ducks for the disease if it’s making it’s way around your neighbourhood.
There’s an historical problem here. Most parents (and doctors) today have never seen what these diseases can do, unless perhaps they have experienced up close life in countries where the diseases are rampant. (Your typical tourist doesn’t see this.)
This may be awkward, but you want to be skeptical of why the ‘core’ people hold views against vaccines do. This is anecdotal, but my experience is that most of the small knot of people at the core of promoting opposition to vaccines are wanting to have something to blame for their child getting ill.
The potential link to vaccines is sometimes, if not often, quite obviously wrong, or exceptionally unlikely. Despite this it’s clear they wish to have something to blame, and are fervent “true believers” that it’s the vaccine has done it.
In rare cases the link with vaccines might have some significance, but it’s still not sensible to “blame” things in that way.*
Reality in life is that many of these things are simply blameless. I have a hearing loss from congenital rubella.
It’s no-one’s fault.
There was no vaccine at that time so there was no way for anyone to protect themselves. As a result hundreds of New Zealand children were born disabled. Essentially, a natural lottery happened where some kids and their parents were going to lose out.
Lest anyone think hearing loss is a minor matter, it’s not. It’s a lifelong affliction that affects you in more ways that all but a few truly understand. That’s the same for other non-fatal effects of disease.
An excellent example was this reader who was losing her sight. She probably could “find” any number of things to blame, but she accepts it as how things go sometimes. She also accepts that at present there is no cure.
It’s more than understandable that parents would feel strongly about their child’s suffering, but there’s no good sense in trying attribute blame.
There is often a near frenzied hauling up of “facts” to defend their view that vaccine don’t work/cause harm/are evil. Small snippets from the enormous research literature are dragged out of context and held up as if in religious affirmation of their belief: how dare others challenge them, they do not hold the faith, they do not “see”, only the few are those that truly understand.
My suggestions are that parents are better served by a small number of sound sources of vaccine information. (This is a post I probably should update, but it’s a starting point at least.)
I would also suggest parents realise that properly understanding research science papers involves digging very deep, even for the rare pieces of research that are meant to offer something simpler for the public.
An example might be what I did to break down a research paper meant for a wider audience that examines if too many vaccines too soon harmful. And that’s very straight-forward research to look at compared to most research papers. (For what it’s worth, the research showing there is no link between vaccines and autism is very straight-forward too.)
The cut’n’paste efforts you see of those opposing vaccines almost always hides that they’ve read it somewhere online, and are repeating it in belief rather than understanding. If you can manage to question them (a hard thing to do!), you’ll find they don’t understand the research – they’re repeating what they’ve been told is “irrefutable evidence”. Doctrine claims, rather than critique.**
A pity is that this is being done by otherwise sensible people, quite capable of knowing better. Believing because others have said something is not the same as knowing.
Reading more doctrine is not research either. A key to research is to challenge, to critique the claims made. Knowing comes from testing claims. You have to take your favoured ideas, and rip them to pieces. Find all things that might be wrong in them, track them down, and test them. Experimental science takes this further, testing in real life what might going on.
You’ll often see that when people put up these claims opposing vaccines they don’t critique their claim, but demand that others “show they’re wrong”. Aside from that this tries to shift the burden of proof, it reveals that they have wrong approach to research.
Science doesn’t take sides; science is about sorting out what is right.
Too much time is spent attacking those that try explain why vaccines are fine. This ‘us’ vs ‘them’ battle isn’t helpful or useful. Everyone else is against them, “the others” are “the enemy”, only the “true faithful” know “the right way”.** None of this will ever resolve an issue.
It’s one reason why I dislike the argumentative approach. It’s understandable to want to! I do sometimes myself. The groups opposing vaccines encourage being argumentative, in part because it re-enforces the notion that there is something to “fight” for. You’ll notice that’s a self-fulfilling circular argument. Of course if you are argumentative, others will be argumentative right back, but that doesn’t make vaccines good or bad!
My tribe, your tribe, lets fight is a nonsense, a bit of a childish one at that. It’s not helped by people taking explanations as if they were opposing them personally.
I can imagine new parents looking at the mess of those Facebook comments, recoiling and wondering if they ought to hold off on vaccines. For parents, I suggest using better sources, ones relying on those who have tested claims — science, in other words.
With that all this said, the oft-repeated advice “don’t read the comments” isn’t bad!
Other vaccine-related articles on Code for life
* Maria Skłodowska-Curie.
** These fervent beliefs often remind me of the fervent beliefs of some ‘closed’ religious groups. Some of the Vaxxed movie promoters in New Zealand reminded me of it again.
One example was bringing people up to the front to say how their child was “damaged”. Aside from the lack of checking or proof that was ever really the case, it’s very like religious groups bringing a few of the devout to the stage at the beginning to say how they were “saved”. It sets up a false moral wall: if someone challenges any point the organisers make, they point at these people to try shut down the challenge than address the point raised.
Infant being treated for severe pertussis infection. “She received extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a procedure that can take over the work of the lungs and heart. She also received dialysis to help her kidneys keep working.”
From the CDC website, public domain.