I was noodling around slate.com today reading "Dear Prudence" and an interesting article about Passover when I noticed a link to Slate's video website, the very cleverly named SlateV.com. The video is part of a series in which Emily Bazelon, one of Slate's senior editors, interviews her friend Dr. Sidney Spiesel, a pediatrician and immunologist, about various issues relating to children's health. The videos are usually about 5 or 6 minutes long and have been pretty interesting so far. Today's installment related to the ever-controversial topic of vaccines.
In the 1970s and 1980s, rumors swirled about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, particularly the DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus; now replaced with DTaP, a so called "acellular" vaccine, purportedly safer) vaccine, which caused a spate of highly publicized adverse reactions in 1974. My aunt, with many others in her generation, opted out of having her kids vaccinated. Over the years, some folks have continued to opt out, their opinions bolstered by the incredible amount of information available on the subject that has seemed to link vaccines and autism, for instance. Since the late 1990s, the number of parents opting out of vaccinations has nearly tripled, from around 1% of the population to around 2.5% of the population.
Obviously this is good timing, and I appreciate the effort on Dr. Spiesel and Ms. Bazelon's part to put this together. But good heavens, if this video isn't an example of poor communication, I don't know what is! A friend and I were recently discussing vaccinations, since she opted out of the Hepatitis B vaccination for her son (reasoning: her hours-old infant does not need "protection" against a sexually transmitted disease), and we both agreed that there is just not enough objective information available for parents to make a fully informed decision. Either parents have to rely on slightly hysterical pronouncements from the anti-vaccination lobby, or they have to trust the government. That's a baaaaad choice to have to make.
Argh, this is getting too long. All I'm trying to say is this: throwing around phrases like "very bad research," "weird beliefs," and "very, very naive" doesn't advance your cause. Basically Dr. Spiesel didn't actually explain anything, he just said, in essence, if you refuse to vaccinate your kids, you're a naive sucker with weird beliefs, and I won't have you in my pediatrics practice. That's not an argument!
I'm not saying you shouldn't get your kids vaccinated; certainly not. Herd immunity is a powerful thing. Just look at the "Anti-vaccinationist" page on Wikipedia and you'll see a dozen examples of what happens when the vaccination rate drops -- you get outbreaks of diseases like measles and smallpox, which our generation has virtually no experience with. So, in theory, I'm very pro-vaccination.
But I am saying that, if vaccines (and their preservatives) are perfectly safe, if they cannot cause autism or neurological disorders, than the government needs to appoint a third-party research group to perform exhaustive, long-term tests, and release the study results in a form that parents can understand. Patting parents on the head and saying, "Look, trust me, I'm a doctor, and that's all you need to know," is not going to cut it. Not when we have Thalidomide and massive drug recalls in our not-so-distant past.