The New Pandemic of Vaccine Phobia

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We no longer believe that witches control the weather or inhabit the souls of adolescent girls. We no longer believe that the earth is flat, and we have even held our ground against the pseudoscience of "intelligent design."

Now it is time for all who respect logic, rationality, and the scientific method to come together and say NO MORE to anti-vaccine demagoguery. 

No one pretends that vaccines are perfect, or 100% risk-free. But approved vaccines work. They save lives. They do not cause mercury poisoning or autism. They carry very low risks -- risks almost always worth taking. And, to top it off, vaccines have become something of a civic responsibility: they work best when everyone takes them. 
UPDATE 10/26/09: Another helpful article:
• "What You Need To Know About Swine Flu Vaccine" (NPR)

UPDATE 11/3/09. Panel of Experts reviews vaccine safety and finds no danger signals:
• "Marketing Flu Vaccine: A Tough Sell For Many" (NPR)

UPDATE 11/10/09. NYTimes' Tara Parker-Pope and Dr. Perri Klass both endorse the vaccine and explore why some parents are refusing it:
• "Parents Refusing the Flu Vaccine" (NYT)

UPDATE 12/7/09. "Review Shows Safety of H1N1 Vaccine, Officials Say" (NYT)


I would particularly like to single out Amy Wallace's terrific new piece in Wired, in which she not only faces down the reckless myths peddled by vaccine-haters, but also beautifully articulates the underlying conditions driving these myths. Wallace writes:

The rejection of hard-won knowledge is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1905, French mathematician and scientist Henri Poincaré said that the willingness to embrace pseudo-science flourished because people "know how cruel the truth often is, and we wonder whether illusion is not more consoling." Decades later, the astronomer Carl Sagan reached a similar conclusion: Science loses ground to pseudo-science because the latter seems to offer more comfort. "A great many of these belief systems address real human needs that are not being met by our society," Sagan wrote of certain Americans' embrace of reincarnation, channeling, and extraterrestrials. "There are unsatisfied medical needs, spiritual needs, and needs for communion with the rest of the human community."

Looking back over human history, rationality has been the anomaly. Being rational takes work, education, and a sober determination to avoid making hasty inferences, even when they appear to make perfect sense. Much like infectious diseases themselves -- beaten back by decades of effort to vaccinate the populace -- the irrational lingers just below the surface, waiting for us to let down our guard.

Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans -- now regarded as a third world problem -- were a first world reality.

Today, because the looming risk of childhood death is out of sight, it is also largely out of mind, leading a growing number of Americans to worry about what is in fact a much lesser risk: the ill effects of vaccines. If your newborn gets pertussis, for example, there is a 1 percent chance that the baby will die of pulmonary hypertension or other complications. The risk of dying from the pertussis vaccine, by contrast, is practically nonexistent -- in fact, no study has linked DTaP (the three-in-one immunization that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) to death in children. Nobody in the pro-vaccine camp asserts that vaccines are risk-free, but the risks are minute in comparison to the alternative.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that the following high-risk individuals get vaccinated against the H1N1 virus: 

• Pregnant women
• Household contacts and caregivers for children younger than 6 months of age 
• Health care and emergency medical services personnel
• All people from 6 months through 24 years of age
• Persons aged 25 through 64 years who have health conditions associated with higher risk of medical complications from influenza. 

My own children were recently vaccinated.
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(Photo: Flickr/Sarah G...)
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David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

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