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If you’re feeling too happy and want to get depressed…

As an expecting father, you’re made aware of the vaccinations that your child will need. It’s a standard topic in newborn care classes. And, of course, in this modern day, whenever teachers of these classes talk about it, they have to go to great lengths to inform people that vaccinations are safe. Because, it turns out, there are a number of conspiracy types, or those simply misinformed, who think vaccinations are unsafe, and who deny their children getting them. The problem with that, of course, is that infectious diseases are on the rise among children, which is upsetting as it’s wholly preventable.

If you want to get your dander up, listen to a segment from yesterday’s Science Friday, where host Ira Flatow talks to the highly credentialed Paul Offit about this irrational fear of vaccinations. What will upset you is Chantal, who calls in, and, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, insists that she will not let her children be vaccinated according to the recommended program. Her logic is twisted and inconsistent (she first sites governmental regulations about appropriate amounts of metals in the system, but then later says she doesn’t trust the CDC’s recommendations about vaccinations, because she doesn’t trust the government telling her what to do). Somehow, at some point, she got this notion into her, and no amount of reasoned discussion will dissuade her. What’s most upsetting is that this behavior doesn’t just affect the children of these ignorant parents, but of other children (particularly those children who cannot be vaccinated for certain medical reasons).

Is there a good reason for not simply requiring children to be vaccinated, parents’ desires not withstanding? I’m sure this makes libertarians froth, but the second-order effects of not vaccinating have a deleterious impact on others, not just the child under discussion.


  1. The Guardian’s just published a good summing up of a long-running vaccination scandal here in the UK – a completed unfounded, but widely sensationalised (and believed) link between the MMR vaccine (measels-mumps-rubella) and autism.

    It focuses on the media’s insidious role in the fear-mongering, but it’s a good precis of the whole issue. FYI Leo Blair is Tony Blair’s young son.

    This stuff drives me crazy, the terrible price of the failure to think critically, etc.

  2. And ignorance knows no social boundaries. Suri Cruise is as capable of spreading disease as any tiny Scientologist, though she may be gilded in designer clothes in her bubble of celebrity. In her case, she’s a fetish object for the actor Tom Cruise’s beliefs, so there’s no persuading.

  3. Thanks for the post, peterme. We need more people like you to counteract the irrational denialists who oppose vaccination.

    Congratulations on the impending parenthood. I hope all goes very well. Feel free to email me for gratuitous grandmotherly advice.

  4. Thanks Peter for this post and my congratulations on the impeding parenthood as well!

    As a father of two (fortunately healthy) sons (8 and 2 yrs.) I can only confirm that you’ve touched one of the two topics I swore to avoid whenever it comes to meetings of young parents exchanging their viewpoints.

    The scenario that you describe in your posting is for sure a Northern American one (from my view) since in Continental Europe (as the UK very often defines the rest of Europe 😉 there is a growing number of parents who decide not to vaccinate their children for good reasons.

    One reason for the denial of vaccination is that you do not really have a choice which particular ones you’d want to take since most formula comprise ingredients for diseases that are either not existent any longer in the western hemisphere (excl. Russia) and/or usually occur in geopgraphic regions with very low hygienic standards. Therefore it is not unusual that triple or even 6x vaccination is done on newborns at the age of 12 weeks! After all there is no evidence in history that the human body is exposed to such a heavy virus attack in nature at all.

    For sure one of the central stakeholders to point at in this game is the pharmaceutical industry that earns a ‘good’ fortune on selling these 3x or 6x vaccination products. If you ever try to ask a doctor for say a one ingredient vaccination on tetanus for a 2 yrs. old kid you will learn that such products are not available as this would require a separate clinical testing series which does not turn out to be equally profitable than for adults. Accordingly having the opportunity to sell 6 products instead and only having to invest in one clinical testing is a reasonable choice; for sure depending on the side you watch this scenario from.

    Therefore from my perspective the cynical aspect of the whole issue is the catch 22 you’re faced with as a parent since you want to opt for the best solution available in favour of your baby! … and there are as many good reasons for choosing not to vaccinate (or at least only the necessary ones) than to do so. After all this is also a question of cultural context (even in Europe).

  5. Asking “is there a good reason not to do this?” is dangerous rhetoric. You have no evidence that most people who share your air “reason” the way you do. You and I like to bat around cross-disciplinary cause-and-effect strategies and so forth — but Chantal and plenty of others think, as Apple used to say, different. The world is not a high school debate tournament; other people have different but valid basis for their actions. Here you’ve discounted their opinions anyway, so what’s the point of asking for a reason?

    Chantal’s contradictions are no more egregious than the contradictions in this thread. Of course the media is rooted in fear-mongering; likewise this post, which demands coercion and justifies it with the rising threat of infectious diseases.

    Seriously, it sounds like you’re asking parents to critically think about whether to vaccinate their kids — and then after they’re done thinking about it, to abide by your decision anyway. We all appear to support empowering people — by giving them a vote, or fiscal currency, or power over their children — but do we support stripping it away when the effect isn’t what we were hoping for?

    In your very short argument, where you skip real network theory (to model the spread of infectious diseases), encourage abuse of the medical system (as people who don’t want vaccinations are incented to diagnose a “legitimate” medical reason), and generally discuss an immune system that no medical expert claims to fully understand, you haven’t really convinced me of anything. In my book, jurisdiction over a person’s body requires much more than that.

    As usual, Peter, this argument reduces to how often you’re willing to incarcerate someone who’s making your life inconvenient. Do you really feel victimized here?

  6. It’s not a matter of inconvenience. All the time we incarcerate people who engage in activity that’s harmful to others. Why should this be different?

    Yes, other people have basis for their actions and thoughts. But I will debate their validity, as no one is able to produce a truly valid reason for not allowing vaccinations. Every single one of Chantal’s reasons was deftly handled by Dr. Offit. Thus, they were invalidated. This is not a good context for relativism, as infectious diseases don’t argue about the validity of a person’s standpoint.

    Cases of infectious diseases, whose is all but preventable, are on the rise. Parents who don’t vaccinate their children are potentially subjecting them, and those around them, to irrevocable harm, and even death. In my book, that’s grounds for child protective services.

    You talk about “jurisdiction over a person’s body.” The child has no say in this. If the parent is acting willfully negligent, is it right to let the child suffer?

  7. The sad thing to monitor here as well (and that has been the reason to abandon such discussions within my circle of friends) is the either or attitude: It’s them (those who decide not to vaccinate) against us (those who are on the ‘right’ side).

    I think no one has the right to expose my child to the adverse effects of vaccination without any good reason (and this is highly subjective). The chances that your child gets harmed by mine equals the chance that my child is harmed (lifelong) by adverse effects of imposed vaccination.

    The point is that any ‘flat obligation’ to vaccinate is suggesting a feeling of safety that is and will never be there (similar to any total anti-terror prevention hysteria). Instead I would wish that politician would start thinking about means that make sense. As said above it’s not the western industrialized nations that make the main problem here, but rather immigrants from certain countries as well the conditions they are suffering from in their home countries (supply of fresh and clean water as first priority). Accordingly any control of vaccination on immigrants from such countries would be a first step, but for sure implies a political debate about ‘discrimination’. After all I think it’s us, the industrialized world, that has to support these countries and invest money there, instead of letting the pharmacy industry seek for ‘market opportunities’ since this is one of several areas where the Smith-onian markets theory fails.

    Finally let me quote a dialogue from the novel ‘Homo Faber’ written by Swiss author Max Frisch (and filmed with Sam Shepard as the lead character ‘Mr. Faber’) where the two main characters (a married couple) have a debate over the statistical chances that their 18 year old daughter who has been bitten by a viper might die. In this dialogue Faber tries to convince his wife that the statistical chances that someone will die because of such a viper attack are almost insignificant. His wife responds:

    ‘I maybe wouldn’t care if I had 100 children and one would die because of a viper, but I only have this one single child I do not want to lose!’

  8. Another decision awaits the parents of a new baby boy. To circumcise or not to circumcise. Is this a sensible assault on an innocent babe in order to provide a healthier future, or a pointless relic of medical policy and a sop to over-concerned and superstitious parents?

  9. Ralf:
    Show me the basis for this statement:
    “The chances that your child gets harmed by mine equals the chance that my child is harmed (lifelong) by adverse effects of imposed vaccination.”
    and maybe I’ll agree with you. Everything I’ve seen suggests otherwise. As in, the adverse effects of imposed vaccination are pretty much as close to nil as you could count.

  10. Dad–
    Stacy and I talked about circumcision, and have opted not to have one for the boy. Of course, I’m circumcised, since in the 70s, that seemed to be the thing to do. And it was recommended by pediatricians. Now the hospitals basically say, “It’s up to you.” It seems there’s no benefit one way or another. We’re opting not to do it, because, well, why have unnecessary surgery?

  11. 77 years ago I was not circumcised. Three years later, your Uncle Bert was, a considered medical opinion that developed during those three interveening years. In 1962, your brother was circumcised for the same reason as Bert. Ten years later, however, circumcision had fallen into disregard as a health option for men. Your Mother, however, decided to have your foreskin forsaken anyway because she was afraid you might feel somehow unsibling to Joe. What, I squawked–are they going to go through life hung up on each other’s knobs?

    But the mother always has her way with the child. And the human mind is too complex for any reasonable man to comprehend.

  12. BJ’s post made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that. Yes, for us the circumcision decision was harder than the vaccination one. And as the mom, I got my way :-).

    FWIW – I totally agree on the vaccination thing – all the reading both Steve (an epidemiologist by training) and I have done says the risks of vaccination are as close to 0 as it gets in medicine, while the risks of NOT vaccinating are real and rising. This topic really shouldn’t be debatable. And yet. . .

  13. Your conclusions on how effective vaccines are –all depends on whose studies/journals you research. There is just as much scientific evidence to support both views…so maybe it’s wise to look into studies that are not bias—those that are funded by the same people promoting vaccines and making money off them.

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