The consequences of refusal

I’ve written previously about “chicken pox parties”. These types of events are coming back into vogue (they were common in the days before the vaccine, when the only way to provide immunity was to be infected), as parents mistakenly believe that “natural exposures” to these pathogens are somehow superior–and safer–than vaccinations. Though the latest rage are “H1N1 parties”, chicken pox parties are still around, and potentially being held at your local McDonald’s by families connecting on the internet:

I am trying to put together a chicken pox party and am looking for someone to donate their chickenpox to the event.
I was thinking of having it at McDonald or some place with toys to play on.
if you know anyone who would like to contribute or would like more information on a time and place let me know.

This is, again, one of my biggest problems with those who refuse vaccines. They frame the issue as solely “my child, my choice.” Which is fine, until you put that child in with the rest of society via school, or daycare, or even trips to McDonald’s. These interactions include infants who are too young to get vaccinated; people with chronic conditions or who are receiving chemotherapy, and are therefore more susceptible to disease; or those in whom the vaccine just didn’t “take” (my own measles titers were not high enough to be protective, I learned last year when I was preparing to go to Mongolia–despite having 2 doses of the vaccine), and on and on. Yes, you have the right to make decisions for your child–but parents should realize that this particular choice can put a lot of others in danger.

Fear & vaccines

I realize that, despite the scientific evidence to the contrary, there is still a lot of fear and misunderstanding about vaccine safety. Two recent articles discuss this “epidemic of fear” and why it affects us all, the first here at Wired magazine, and the second here at the Gotham Skeptic. I especially like the second, which has some excellent points:

My pediatric practice is situated at the nexus of three Manhattan neighborhoods (the West Village, Chelsea, and the Meat Packing District) that seem to comprise just the right balance of wealth, edginess, and socio-cultural awareness that lends itself to this new mistrust of vaccines. But these neighborhoods are not unique. According to sources at the NYC DOH, the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Park Slope in Brooklyn are also hot-spots of parental vaccine resistance. What stands out about these neighborhoods, and others like them, is that they contain a high percentage of middle to upper middle class families that tend to be young, well educated, and liberal in their political and social views. Because I live in one of these areas, work in another, and fit this description pretty squarely, I can identify with the underlying tendencies at work behind the concerns of these parents. A healthy questioning of authority (doctors), an underlying mistrust in the competence of the government (the CDC), overt mistrust and a general level of cynicism of big business (the pharmaceutical industry), and a sense of empowerment that comes with one’s social status, all contribute to this tendency to mistrust vaccines and those who recommend them. The difference between these concerned parents and myself (also a parent), is an understanding of the scientific method and the role it plays in this issue. One term that I have purposefully left out as a key element in this new epidemic is “skepticism.” While many of these parents believe they are being skeptical of vaccines, their manufacturers and the agencies that recommend them, this couldn’t be further from the truth. What they are being is misled and taken advantage of. They would actually be better characterized as anti-skeptics. To quote Brian Dunning of Skeptoid.com:

“The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.”