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.