how do we know what we know is true,  parenting,  politics,  science

vaccines and the selling of fear, distrust and a sense of superiority

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I read an article today about a family in New Zealand where a young boy came down with tetanus. His father is speaking out about their decision not to vaccinate, admitting that it was the wrong decision and hoping to spare others the pain they have had to suffer. The following stuck out to me:

He’s not stupid. If anything, he was just a little bit too smart for his own good.

The Williams are the one in 10 parents who opt out when it comes to vaccination, not out of ignorance, but because they think they know everything. Williams said they believed they’d done their research but now admits they were out of their depth.


He also says they fell for the myths and conspiracies that pepper the internet. The Williams downloaded information from the internet and underestimated the diseases while over-estimating the risks of the vaccine reactions. About one in one million will suffer a bad reaction to the tetanus vaccine – such as painful nerve inflammation – while Alijah had a one in 10 chance of dying from tetanus.

It could have been my family. When my oldest was born I read about vaccines and vaccine reactions. I delayed vaccinating him. It wasn’t until he was a couple of years old that my husband and I changed our minds and caught him up on vaccinations, not because he had come down with anything scary but because I started to recognize that my husband, as a scientists, was more qualified to read the actual scientific papers on it, and I started to recognize the false beliefs and assumptions underlying the anti-vaccine agenda.

I look back at the decision. I think of the handful of library books about the dangers of vaccines. I think of the mentions of “alternative vaccine schedules” in Dr. Sears books I borrowed from the La Leche League library. The implication of those and the websites I saw was that thinking parents don’t just follow their doctors advice. The implication was that thinking parents have to be responsible, carefully weighing and balancing the options. Parents could feel like they were part of a special cutting-edge group by questioning their doctors advice.

How many of us felt the need to educate ourselves about whether or not to put our children in a carseat? Did you weigh and balance the risks and benefits? I didn’t. That was a given (and not just because its legally required here). To suggest that parents should educate themselves about vaccines is not a neutral thing. It implies there is something controversial about the issue.

If one does decide to educate onself about vaccines, where is one supposed to go? Doctors and nurses will provide brochures and explain that the evidence shows vaccines are safe and effective. Too often the brochures are printed by the company that manufactures the vaccines, and are easy to dismiss as propaganda because of that. Doctors don’t necessarily have time to discuss the actual research and even if they did, it requires trust on the part of the parent to listen to the doctor and know that the doctor really has looked at all the research. As a culture we’ve bought into the idea that everything has pros/cons, so if the doctors don’t list enough cons for vaccines we assume they’re being bias and reject them.

I had my third child, and an acquaintance asked if I had a midwife or not. I explained that it had been my third cesarean and the woman asked very casually “were they necessary or was it just something the hospital does?” There’s a distrust of doctors making its way around parenting communities, an assumption that the medical world is not looking out for your best interests. If people assume doctors are willing to do unnecessary surgeries, its easy to assume that doctors wouldn’t blink twice about unnecessary injections.

The article also quoted Dr Nikki Turner, who heads the Immunisation Advisory Centre, saying:

“It’s hard for a parent to think logically. If somebody is injecting a foreign substance in your kid’s leg it’s the fear of the unknown and a fear of conspiracy theories.”

There’s so much to be scared of these days. So much talk about how toxins are getting into our water and our food. There’s almost a competitive attitude among many mothers to try to provide our children the least toxic toys. I still have My Little Pony toys from when I was a child, but when I look at them now all I think is whether the softeners in them are harmful. It becomes easy to doubt that anything is safe, and to have an amount of hostility towards the corporations that deliver us the potentially problematic products and the governments that have failed to regulate and protect us. My husband likes to remind me that the rise in cancer rates are associated with age and smoking, but its still hard to shake myself out of this idea we’re all being poisoned everywhere.

Add to this the politics. We know that corporations hold too much power in the world. We know that our governments listen to their lobbying more than they listen to our own. It’s easy to start hearing talk about “big pharma” and how deadly it all is. Friends and relatives forward internet memes about how the government is suppressing cures to cancer. Instead of focusing on the injustice of imprisoning a huge percentage of the population, pro-marijuana activists forward unsubstantiated claims about the medical benefits that are obviously being withheld from us by those who want to profit financially by our dependence upon “big pharma,” a dependence they suggest we could break if we all just juiced pot and ate organic food.

There’s something else too, I hear when talking with people about this. I hear people talk about “stepping outside the box” and about freeing themselves from the “group-think.” They talk about challenging authority and about understanding how the powers that be manipulate us. It’s like a darker variation of the “thinking parents weigh the pros and cons and decide for themselves.” It is that thinking activists have to doubt anything that comes to them from within “the establishment.” We have to reject science, or at least the science done at reputable universities and published in peer review journals. Or maybe we just have to pick and choose which science fits our preconceived notions and we’re free to reject the rest because they come from scientists who may be in the pocket of Big Pharma, corrupt and trying to deceive us.

I think genuinely nice and intelligent people get lured in by the belief that they are on the right side of something. They get lured in by the belief that they are ahead of the pack, a little bit brighter and more intelligent than others. I know I have. The article I quoted above reminds me how lucky I’ve been, that I’ve been able to pull back out of the craziness at least a little. It reminds me I need to be humble and balanced in my parenting and activism, not in the way of saying “every family is different, what works for one family might not work for another” but in the way of being willing to listen to the experts and, when I disagree, do so by confronting the evidence.

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  • The Adventurer

    Great post. Everyone needs to make their own decision and remember it is your decision and you shouldn’t make it known to others that it is the only right decision. There are lots of right decisions out there, what I do for my family may not be what you do but we are all right and should be more respectful of those rights.
    I get very frustrated with people who think only their way is the correct way whether it is to vaccinate, cosleep or even homeschool their kids. (BTW I do 2 of the 3):)

    • christyk

      Except obviously I’ve failed in my writing the post, because what I was trying to say is that vaccinating shouldn’t be people’s own personal decision. It’s a public health decision and all the research out there says it is the thing to do.

      But that us parents behave like two year olds claiming we get to make our own decisions about it and acting as though we can evaluate the choice on our own.

  • Dawn

    My issue with vaccines was less about doing it but rather about WHEN to do it. I liked Dr. Sears book – felt it gave sensible pro/con info. We skipped a few of the ones that if not given within first few months (or whatever, I don’t recall now), then they are not given. What we did do is delay the vaccines. There was something about injecting foreign substances into this itty bitty infant that I just couldn’t get on board with. So we waited until she was about 1 before we started them, and we are still spacing them out, prioritizing by the ones she would be more likely to contract. So I agree totally that everyone needs to make their own decisions, and I also think everyone should do the research on as many things as possible!

    • christyk

      How did you do the research? I know that anything I would have considered as the research into what I did wasn’t really research. It was reading stuff written by other people who have no evidence whatso ever and are just making things us.

      Dr. Sear’s acknowledges that there is absolutely no research to back up his alternative vaccine schedule. He made it up. Click on where I linked his name, and then read that and the other two articles that author links to.

      As a culture we’re so sold on the pro/cons idea that we don’t think anyone can be honest unless they say both, to the point that we give more credence to sources that make up their own pro/cons for sides that don’t actually have any validity at all.

  • marcie

    you are one smart woman – but then, i’ve known that for a very long time. Thank you for this. It is articulated so well, and exactly the mood of conversation in our home – especially that E is now a doctor and having two kids with autism (who are wonderful!) hasn’t swayed me one bit that vaccines are a good thing for public health. Yes, there is space for informed choice, but it is a huge task to get to a sufficient level of ‘informed’, and trust and relationship are key as well when living in a society of interdependence.

  • Betty Online

    I really enjoyed reading this Christy. I think you are so right on with regards to how much we need to rethink the propaganda campaign against vaccinations. While I am always leery of the push from the pharmaceutical companies regarding the use of drugs, much of the recommended vaccination protocol is indeed a public health issue and needs the buy in of the public to really provide optimal protection to our society.

    • christyk


      After reading your comment I’ve been thinking about what could be done to try to reduce the amount that people are being pushed onto unnecessary drugs, other than just encouraging distrust of drugs and doctors. I wonder about increasing the amount of time doctors have with patients to talk about the problems, increasing the amount of research money going towards basic health research and doctors continuing education (as a counter to having it paid for by pharmaceutical companies) and increasing the amount of science education in schools so that people are better able to evaluate the information. And having our governments put more effort into helping with the social issues that cause ill health: poverty, overcrowded classrooms etc. I don’t know.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this post! yes and yes!
    I’m a doctor. A doctor who was a parent before I became a doctor and delayed vaccinating my child because I was afraid of the “bad things that might happen”. Then I spent ten years in medical training. And learned and SAW the bad things that DO happen when young babies and other people contract vaccine-preventable disease. And I learned how to read science research.

    It took me *ten years*.

    And I still don’t know everything, not even close. Anyone can learn what I learned. I am smarter than some and not as smart as others. Anyone who has ten years of full time study can totally pick up everything I know (and more if they aren’t parenting at the time). But if that kind of time is not on the schedule, it is not going to be possible for a TED talk or a single office visit or a brochure to bring anyone up to speed. There will need to be an actual relationship and trust involved. There is no ten minute summary. Or even 20 minutes. Or an hour. I cannot bring people through medical school. There are too many other patients to see.

    And unlike the family from New Zealand, I am not the right person to share the real life stories I have seen. They aren’t mine to share. I am grateful for that family for taking the time to write the article, and I have shared it widely. Most families though, are too busy adjusting to the reality of a dead or disabled child or just recovering their lives to take the time to write. But there are stories out there. Lots.

    As much as anyone, I want to be active in making decisions for myself and my family. But I cannot do everything on my own. We need to trust each other enough to develop relationships that allow real healing to happen. I think you have so many awesome ideas as to how to get that started!

  • Bama

    What about the sheer number of vaccines today? I was born in 1973 and my mom has my shot records still. The number has more than tripled. Even my 20 year old nephews aren’t vaccinated with all our kids are today because they weren’t required/suggested. I believe wholeheartedly in vaccinating. I just don’t believe in 20 vaccinations at once. I think their tiny bodies shouldn’t have to deal with that, especially since most of their body systems are immature. My 14 month old gets a single vaccination every two months. Sometimes she has to have the “cocktail” if they are available as a single. She will be fully vaccinated, just not all at once. these types of posts that serve to judge and insert the opinions of others does nothing to sway the vast majority of us who do want to be thinking parents.

    • ChristyK

      There are more vaccines becuase children are being protected from more diseases, and the scientists continue to refine the vaccine schedule. I’ve never been offered 20 vaccines at once, normally just two or three although sometimes those will be a combination vaccine. Supposedly the tetanus vaccine is actually more effective when it is combined with the diphtheria vaccine, so why should they offer it seperately?

      I’m not sure what you mean by “judge and insert the opinions of others.” It sounds a bit as though you’re saying that even people trying to be thinking parents get so defensive of their own views, however unsubstantiated, that people trying to provide opposite arguments have to bend over backwards trying to sound like they’re not being critical. I’ve actually written quite a few posts touching on the topic of communication, and whether it is the listener/reader or speaker/writer’s responsibility how the listener/reader reactions. (Click on “communication” on the menu at the top of my blog.)

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