Raising a Toddler

The Vaccine Debate

I am always surprised by the passion (and sometimes mania) of people who hate Western medicine. I find their opinions and beliefs interesting and worth listening to, but I rarely find myself agreeing. And it’s not because I think it’s a perfect science. But I have great respect for doctors and nurses that I’ve worked with – or who have worked on me. I have a respect for their knowledge and schooling – and I find it so bizarre that people who have never studied ANY medicine (be it Western, Eastern, homeophathy, Chiropractic) are somehow pinnacles of knowledge on the subject.

Take for instance Jenny McCarthy. Playboy model turned actor turned mother turned activist. Why is anyone listening to her? What kind of credible history or knowledge does she bring to the table besides a rhetoric of anti-vaccine hatred and emotional hysteria? It seems to me she is like any mother who just wants answers for why her child is autistic. But to blame vaccinations for it and come up with proof from thin air is pretty shocking to me. The fact that people are blindly listening to her makes her downright dangerous.

WIRED is one of my husband’s favorite magazines. They recently featured an article on the rage against vaccinations and talked a lot about Paul Offit, a pediatrician who co-invented the rotavirus. The article points out:

This isn’t a religious dispute, like the debate over creationism and intelligent design. It’s a challenge to traditional science that crosses party, class, and religious lines. It is partly a reaction to Big Pharma’s blunders and PR missteps, from Vioxx to illegal marketing ploys, which have encouraged a distrust of experts. It is also, ironically, a product of the era of instant communication and easy access to information. The doubters and deniers are empowered by the Internet (online, nobody knows you’re not a doctor) and helped by the mainstream media, which has an interest in pumping up bad science to create a “debate” where there should be none.

I still don’t think I fully understand why so many people are backing away from tried and true measures like vaccinations. Do we just have it too good (not to have polio, mumps, measles, etc) that we start philosophizing too much? Do we really want to live like a third world country? Or should we just be grateful for the scientific approach to medicine that we have in this country? In saying that, I totally get that there is a lot of greed that goes into Western medicine – but there’s a lot of good too.

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.

McCarthy and other “anti-toxins” advocates who work with autism are convinced that vaccinations cause autism because autism gets diagnosed around 18-24 months – which is when kids get vaccinated. But seriously? That’s when you would be able to find out if something is wrong with your kid. My kid is 2 and I can totally see how it takes a while after they’re a tiny baby to notice the difference in their behavior to that of their peers. It just seems so strange to link a correlation between these two based on nothing.

To be clear, there is no credible evidence to indicate that any of this is true. None. Twelve epidemiological studies have found no data that links the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine to autism; six studies have found no trace of an association between thimerosal (a preservative containing ethylmercury that has largely been removed from vaccines since 20011) and autism, and three other studies have found no indication that thimerosal causes even subtle neurological problems. The so-called epidemic, researchers assert, is the result of improved diagnosis, which has identified as autistic many kids who once might have been labeled mentally retarded or just plain slow. In fact, the growing body of science indicates that the autistic spectrum — which may well turn out to encompass several discrete conditions — may largely be genetic in origin. In April, the journal Nature published two studies that analyzed the genes of almost 10,000 people and identified a common genetic variant present in approximately 65 percent of autistic children.

Another thing that kills me about anti-Westernists is the fact that their solutions or treatments to anything are FAR more unstudied that anything in Western medicine. Anytime I talk to people who try herbs or homeopathy, they always think things work that are not FDA approved, or researched very well.  I know it’s hard to get the FDA to approve anything without a lot of research and time, but isn’t there some safety in that? The article talked this too – some of the Autism activists are recommending Vitamin D as the cure-all:

The speakers told parents not to despair. Vitamin D would help, said one doctor and supplement salesman who projected the equation “No vaccines + more vitamin d = no autism” onto a huge screen during his presentation. (If only it were that simple.) Others talked of the powers of enzymes, enemas, infrared saunas, glutathione drips, chelation therapy (the controversial — and risky — administration of certain chemicals that leech metals from the body), and Lupron (a medicine that shuts down testosterone synthesis).

Why do people support other treatments that are highly inventive, under researched and kind of risky rather than just going with rational scientific methods? This is the question I pose to you. I really am blown away by it all. Why are parents so CERTAIN they’re right?


7 thoughts on “The Vaccine Debate

  1. Thank you for sharing these feelings so well!! I have always felt the same way you do, but have not been able to express it. I agree with you 100%!!

  2. Well said… There’s nothing more I can add to it… The only problem I see with western medicine is when it is over used. We have a pill to pop for everything in our right here right now world. And instead of finding the source of our problems, we’re masking the symptoms.
    However, when I am a mother, bring on the MMR! 🙂

  3. HOORAY for this post. I read that Wired article when I was in Omaha for a residency interview last month, and just wished I could shout it out and force every parent of an infant to read it. This subject really gets my blood boiling, especially when you can google “vaccine” and get 10 psychotic pages containing the ravings of an understandably angry, albeit misguided, parent for every piece of decent information from places like the CDC.

    The whole WIRED article is outstanding, and everyone should read it. As it points out remarkably well (and understandably–not always an easy task for writing about medicine), this isn’t a fight between opinions. This is a fight between science, fact, and provable truth vs. fear, hysteria, anecdote, anger, and circumstantial correlation. The autism/vaccine connection makes as much sense as saying that ice cream cones cause rain because the last time you ate one it rained.

    One excellent analogy from the article compared vaccines to seatbelts/airbags. Yes, these interventions cause occasional harm, and even more harm than good in some extraordinarily rare cases, but suggesting that no one should use a seatbelt because a few people were hurt by them makes all the sense of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. The fact is that MILLIONS of lives are saved every year, MILLIONS of kids live full, healthy lives that would have been crippled or diseased, and a MINUTE FRACTION of scattered children experience adverse reactions to vaccines. And no, none of those reactions are autism.

    It’s a question of relative risk vs. reward, and parents who selfishly choose not to vaccinate are relying on the herd immunity of the rest of the community to keep their kids from getting these diseases. Thank you so much for writing about this incredibly important topic, Amber, and everyone please encourage your friends to educate themselves about vaccines. That article is a great start. Allowing your kids to go without vaccines is handing them a revolver for Russian Roulette, hoping that everyone else’s good decisions keep your kid from getting a disease we conquered decades ago.

  4. Amen. I agree with so many parts of this post. I had a roommate once who was always eating some weird green goop and spouting off about vaccinations. I would say to her “Have you met anyone lately who has polio? There used to be a lot of people. Hmm…I wonder what changed!
    Utah seems particularly prone to these types of quack medicine schemes. I wonder why?
    As for me, I am going tomorrow to get my H1N1 vaccination so I guess you can tell where I stand!

  5. i love your thoughts….jenny mccarthy is out of control !! -i used to feel bad for her now im just done with it!! i still dont beleve in swine flu (random )

  6. Vaccines have done a terrific job of combating infectious diseases. No doubt about that. The real issue is Thimerosal an organic mercury compound, that sort of was, but still is to some extent used to preserve batch distributed vaccines.

    The studies referred to by the author are called epidemiological studies or simply population studies where data is extracted from medical records which are then massaged by statisticians. Believe me, the data can be shaped any way the researchers want. I know all about this stuff. I was a statistician at the U.S. Census Bureau.

    In any case, these studies are not controlled experiments. It has only been in the last few years, that laboratory research papers have been published on the safety of Thimerosal, which is believed to trigger autism. In fact, a recent article published in the journal Neuro Toxicology from the University of Pittsburgh found that infant macaque monkeys receiving a single Hepatitis B vaccine containing the mercury-based preservative thimerosal showed significant delays in developing critical reflexes controlled by the brain stem. This was in sharp contrast to the control group who developed normally but did not receive the vaccines.

    What does this research tell us? Autism involves neuropathology whose complexity the author is not prepared to address because the author does not have all the facts.

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