As someone who works in public health, few issues catch my attention like the issue of vaccine denialism. I have had the opportunity to investigate outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases and seen some very interesting and even heartbreaking cases. Why someone would take the chance to have their child sick – or even permanently disabled – by a vaccine-preventable disease is beyond me. As a father, I want to protect my child from any and all harms, and few harms are as scary as the disability from polio, the scarring from chickenpox, or the brain injury from measles.
And don’t get me started on the true risk of death from influenza.
On the other hand, I started to understand vaccine-hesitant parents when I became a parent. Just like I want to protect my child from vaccine-preventable diseases, I also worried about the dangers in her environment. My wife and I were very diligent about not letting her put everything in her mouth. When the exterminator came to our home to deal with an ant infestation, I quizzed them on the insecticide they were using. I researched the insecticides’ ingredients. And I even opted for something more “natural” in dealing with the ants first. (When that didn’t work, we went with the recommended non-toxic insecticide.)
Just like we were hesitant about that insecticide to deal with a problem at home, I came to see how some parents could be hesitant about vaccines. Not only that, but a large swath of the population in the United States has not seen a case of measles – or even chickenpox now – so the dangers posed by these diseases is not visible to them. In fact, there has not been a case of polio in the United States .
When you combine the desire to protect your offspring with the invisibility of vaccine-preventable diseases because vaccines have been successful in preventing them from coming back en masse, you get people who are hesitant about vaccines. Some of them are hesitant to the point of outright opposing vaccines, and I understand that.
These are the “common” anti-vaccine people, the people who are misinformed and are going on their gut instinct of protecting their child. These are not the people with medical degrees or scientific background who’ve turned against medicine and science and deny the science behind how vaccines work. These are also not the people who make money writing books and giving lectures about the perceived dangers of vaccines.
I further understand their hesitancies and fears when I see how difficult it is to understand risks and probabilities when humans are all about basing our decisions on past experiences more than on making calculations. Just look at how many of us have gone to buy a lottery ticket, especially when the jackpot soars. There is a better chance that we will become an astronaut, but we still think that we’ll be billionaires come morning.
When I was researching the ingredients of insecticides to use during the ant infestation, I had the benefit of being a scientist when sorting between the good and the bad information online. Other people don’t have that benefit. They go online, do a Google search, look at the most popular results based on an algorithm, and get led astray by celebrities or by people and organizations with titles that sound official. Before too long, their fears are confirmed, and they are scared away from vaccinating their children.
Add up enough of these parents and we get some of the problems we’re seeing across the country. We see the Arizona Department of Health backing off from teaching kids about vaccines. We see outbreaks of measles in communities with high rates of unvaccinated children. And we see pseudo-political organizations pressuring candidates to deny or de-fund science.
When it comes to protecting their children, no one wants to do more than a parent. After all, children are quite literally our future because we’ll fade away and they’ll be the ones to carry on our work and carry with them our memories. As a result, we are very protective, skeptical of anything that could hurt them. Some of us have the benefit of knowing and understanding scientific principles of toxicology, immunology, epidemiology, and biostatistics. Others among us understand that experts truly are experts, and that celebrities are not the best source of information. Yet there is a growing segment of the population that is misinformed and coaxed into making harmful decisions for their children without knowing it.
This is where the History of Vaccines website comes in. We have a wide variety of informational resources to show that vaccines have been around long enough for us to know that work and that they save lives. We know this not just by hearing about it in historical items but also from the scientific observations made on them. If you haven’t already, take a look at some of our image galleries (or follow us on Instagram) or the very informative timeline. Finally, if you have concerns about vaccination, please seek the advice of a licensed healthcare provider who will be able to talk to you about your medical history and take everything into context when advising you on vaccines.