Mayim Bialik is a problematic ambassador for science

Mayim Bialik is an actress. She grew up playing TV’s “Blossom,” and recently has surfaced again on television as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist on “The Big Bang Theory.” In between, she went to college and on to grad school, receiving a PhD in neuroscience. She is a “Brand Ambassador” for Texas Instruments and is this year’s featured speaker at the National Science Teachers’ Association conference.

She is also anti-vaccine, and a spokesperson for the “holistic mom’s network,” which eschews much that modern medicine has to offer and features several prominent anti-vaccine advocates on its advisory board.

Reactions have been mixed regarding her gig at the NSTA convention. Skeptical raptor thinks it’s OK as long as she’s just talking about her path to science (presumably, something like this article in Nature) (he clarifies here as well). Hemant Mehta (himself a math teacher) thinks not so OK, and I lean much more that way. As I noted on the Skeptical Raptor’s Facebook page, she may really like science, but the fact is that her position on vaccines undermines not only the science, but also the very *scientists* who do such work. She’s saying that some science is great, but other parts shouldn’t be believed and accepted. This is not cool or acceptable for such a big-name speaker.

That’s not to say that there are not controversial areas within science, or that everyone has to agree on every point. Certainly there are many areas which are fraught with controversy, and which we’re working to understand. But the basics of vaccines are not one of them. Certainly people would be outraged to see Michael Behe or another prominent evolution denier from the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis speaking at this conference, even though they may also have a PhD and, likely, a love of science. In Bialik’s case, she is *actively endangering the lives of others,* but because she’s a fellow science lover, it’s OK to give her a podium and additional notoriety? No.

Further, because she’s a PhD, many give her views on vaccines more weight than someone like Jenny McCarthy (who lacks any formal science training and is easier to write off), even though Bialik also lacks training in microbiology and immunology. In my opinion, that makes it even more important to avoid legitimizing her vaccine opinions.

Bottom line: if you love science, don’t actively undermine a part of it that actually affects the everyday lives of millions of people, and if you’re a company or organization who is promoting science, please don’t choose as a spokesperson or honored speaker someone who does this.

 

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NVIC and Mercola, sittin’ in a tree

Some who oppose vaccination do so, at least in part, because of concerns that pharmaceutical companies make profits off of vaccines. Many recommend alternative products, including supplements, in lieu of protective vaccinations.

As such, it’s a very…interesting…relationship that the anti-vaccine National Vaccine Information Center apparently has with supplement shill Mercola.com. Both sites are currently down with the following images, including Mercola’s logo on both sites.

NVICmercolaCertainly it’s no secret that the two organizations have worked together previously against vaccines, but this suggests more than just a casual friendship, not to mention the irony of NVIC shilling for Mercola, who’s been called a “snake oil salesman” and sells items of dubious medical value via his website. Does his “Health Liberty” coalition now run NVIC’s site?

 

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Why I vaccinate my kids

Being a new parent is exhausting. All of a sudden, you’re out of the hospital and on your own with this amazing, tiny human, and you alone are responsible for her care. You’re given reams of paperwork about feeding and sleeping, developmental milestones, red flags to look out for. You’re inundated with information you barely have time to look at. Mom is trying to heal from childbirth while barely sleeping, while her partner is trying to pick up the slack and pitch in as much as possible. You both fumble with the car seat, thinking that NASA must have equipment that’s easier to figure out. You obsessively check your sleeping baby to make sure she’s still breathing. You worry about every sneeze and try to decipher her cries. Is the diaper too tight? Is this acne normal? What do I do about her poor dandruffy head?

Do I vaccinate?

vaccineWilliam receiving the first of  his 2-month vaccinations

I know it can be scary. You might have heard from friends or relatives, or read on the internet, that vaccines can harm your baby. You may be concerned about autism, or think that “natural immunity” is better than that which develops from injections. You may think that the diseases she’s being vaccinated against “aren’t all that bad,” or that kids today receive too many vaccines. You might feel that your physician is “bought out” by “big Pharma” and that your health care providers are writing off your concerns.

I know you just want to do what’s best for your child. I feel you. I’m the parent of a teenager, a tween, and a 2-month old. Here is why I vaccinate my children.

William vax 2William receiving his vaccinations

I’ve spent almost 20 years of my life studying infectious diseases up-close and personal, not from random websites on Google. I’ve worked with viruses and bacteria in the lab. I respect what germs are capable of. I worry about vaccine-preventable diseases coming back because of low levels of herd immunity. I cry over stories of babies lost to pertussis and other vaccine-preventable diseases. As I’ve noted before, chicken pox has played a role in the deaths of two family members, so I don’t view that as just a “harmless childhood disease.” Vaccines have eradicated or severely reduced many of the deadliest diseases from the past: smallpox, polio, measles, diptheria.

But that’s not the only reason I vaccinate. I vaccinate because I’m all too aware of the nasty diseases out there that still don’t have an effective vaccine. My current work focuses on a germ called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (“MRSA”), a “superbug” which kills about 11,000 people every year in the United States. We have no vaccine. I previously worked on two different types of Streptococcus: group A and group B. Group B is mainly a problem for babies, and kills about 2,000 of them every year. It leaves many others with permanent brain damage after infection. We have no vaccine. Group A kills about 1,500 people each year in the U.S. and can cause nasty (and deadly) infections like necrotizing fasciitis (the “flesh-eating disease”). We  have no vaccine. These are all despite the fact that we still have antibiotics to treat most of these infections (though untreatable infections are increasing). Infectious diseases still injure and kill, despite our nutritional status, despite appropriate vitamin D levels, despite sanitation improvements, despite breastfeeding, despite handwashing, despite everything we do to keep our kids healthy. This is why protection via vaccination is so important for the diseases where it’s available. If vaccines were available for the diseases I listed above, I’d have my kids get them in a heartbeat.

w after vax 1William with daddy, right after finishing his vaccinations

I’ve done my best to keep my kids healthy and safe. I nag about bicycle helmets and make sure they’re getting exercise. I make them eat vegetables. I don’t move the car until everyone is buckled up. My older kids were in booster seats for what felt like forever, as both were on the small size for their age. Vaccinations are just one more part of this arsenal. I’m well versed in the safety data and know that most vaccine side effects are minimal (fever, soreness at injection site). They don’t cause autism, or SIDS, or any of the other claims made by dubious sites such as Natural News or Mercola. They do save lives and prevent disease by training the body to recognize and fight germs.

My youngest recently went in for his 2-month shots. He cried a bit when he received them, but not any worse than he does when he needs to be burped, changed, or held. He slept a little extra that evening, but was back on his normal schedule the next day. At his visit, he received the oral rotavirus vaccine; his second Hepatitis B shot; his pneumococcal vaccination; and the combination shot including diptheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, and Haemophilus influenzae (DTaP/polio/Hib). Each one I see as a small measure to support his health and safety, as well as my own peace of mind, knowing that I did what I could to protect him from infections that used to kill thousands of children every year. Some still do when vaccination isn’t available or accepted–measles killed over 120,000 people in 2012, most of them young children who hadn’t been vaccinated.

W after vax 3William at home after his vaccinations

We all try to do the best by our children. As a scientist who’s studied infectious diseases, vaccination is a no-brainer for me, and I worry for the children out there who are left undefended against these infections because of misinformation and wrongly-placed fears. I know these parents are trying to do right by their kids, but infectious diseases don’t recognize good intentions. As I sit here with my baby breathing softly beside me, I am thankful for those who came before me and dedicated their lives to protecting children like him, and grateful that he will never have to suffer from infections that were the scourge of earlier generations.

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