The Data Set of Me, by Steve Safran

Stevie has a bee in his bonnet, and I quite agree with him. As an immunologist, it’s difficult for me to find common ground with those who eschew science. However, I’ve always maintained that we cannot judge the well-meaning parents of children who suffer from autism or other disorders (wrongfully) attributed to vaccines. I cannot sit here on the Throne of Science and proclaim that I wouldn’t fall into the Data Set of Me if something awful befell my child. However, those feelings–given the political power of a movement of healthy, smart people– can be murderous.

You are a great person. You’re smart, you’re educated, healthy, and, if I may say, damn fine looking. Hell, you’re one of the best people I know.

But you, fabulous you, are not a data set.

“Who is this guy to tell me I am not a sufficient collection of statistically reliable information gathered by appropriate methods in order to reach or disprove a conclusion?”

Of course, to most of you, that sounds silly, right? (You are smart and good-looking, after all.) But there are people who make important decisions according to this very mindset: “It happened to me, therefore it must be so.” Examples? Sure.

“I got a flu vaccine and then I got the flu. Therefore flu vaccines are ineffective.”

“Some former Playboy model’s kid had a shot and now he has autism. Therefore, shots cause autism.”

“My daughter isn’t having sex, so she doesn’t need to worry about HPV or cervical cancer.”

“I believe in my God, my religion, and those rules. Therefore, yours are wrong.”

Of these, the one I actually find acceptable is the one about God. At least it’s an opinion. You have yours, I have mine: we’re cool… at least around these parts where we’re unlikely to kill each other about our differences.

What is worrying me–what is literally killing us– is the Data Set of Me. This is the mindset of the anti-vaccination crowd. Vaccines are not a faith, but a tool. Immunity is not a religion, but a biological reaction. Life-threatening infections cannot be staved off with kale. And the medical establishment is not willfully denying you alternative options to avoid whooping cough. And yet, the Hot New Fad for 2014 is the “Anti-Vaxxer” Movement. Quack science has found its ducklings.

Like many avid Internet users, I have grown apathetic to the sharing of misinformation by the misinformed with the misguided. Except this stupid sharing is really, really dangerous. And no oddball theories about GMOs or drug company profits or doctors who want to keep you sick (or endorsement of anti-vaccine chiropractors) are deemed too oddball to “post” and “like.”

We live in a generation that has never seen smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, or polio take the life of a child we know. There are hundreds of thousands of people alive right now because of the miracle of inoculations. Maybe that’s the power of fervent prayer, incredible quinoa consumption, and wild coincidence. Or, just possibly, vaccines prevent disease. The bee in my bonnet is that statistically-proven, medically sound information can be unintelligently debunked with blogposts from people who cite The Data Set of Me, and scare others into giving in to their basic fears of shots (they’re ouchy!) by suggesting the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits. When there is no, none, ziltch, zero, nada proof that this is so.

The Anti-vaxxers hurt more than our logical sensibilities. They’re killing our children. If your kid isn’t vaccinated, the “herd immunity” is compromised, and we’ll fall like cows at the hands of drunken high schoolers. Our family docs, our pediatricians, and our CDC are urging you to search for information that is true, and reminds us:

Perhaps the greatest success story in public health is the reduction of infectious diseases resulting from the use of vaccines.”

Let’s consider that statement from the CDC with at least as much weight as Tammy’s Facebook post about not being anti-vaccine, per se, but pro-safety. (Those who deny their children shots consider the Anti-Vaxxer epithet derogatory). Recently, a Dutch group studied why Tammy is so insistent her kids don’t need shots. And because here at East Meets Breast, we aim for understanding, let’s find out what makes Tammy tick… so we can stop that clock.

The delightful Dutch, with real surveys and statistics, found that Tammy believes her healthy lifestyle is sufficient to prevent diseases. She delivers organic meals to breast-fed, hand-washing children and believes that these are adequate “preventive” measures. Tammy also is an amateur immunologist and worries the host defenses of her newborn will be incompetent to handle a barrage of antigens. Well, she’ll say it this way,

“A baby’s immune system has built up thanks to the mother, and it is not desirable in my eyes to give the child all kinds of substances that can disrupt the whole immune system.”

Tammy thinks that the risks associated with the vaccines (and she still supports discredited evidence linking them to autism) certainly outweigh the benefits because the diseases her healthy kids might contract could then be, quite easily, treated with antibiotics. Also, Tammy deems “natural” immunity superior to vaccinated immunity and would rather her child contract the (potentially fatal) disease and combat it with his own, uneducated battery of T- and B- cells than risk exposure to dangerous aluminum and mercury. More than one study has also shown that Tammy’s fears are supported by her community and usually at least one alternative care provider who disparages the use of vaccines.

To be fair, a certain proportion of the whooping cough cases from the Pacific Northwest in 2012 can be attributed to decreased efficacy of the vaccine. However, the dramatic increase in its incidence (and preventable deaths of children) has doctors pointing fingers at the Anti-Vaxxers. The anti-HPV crowd baffles me even more than people who can drink gallons of liquefied vegetables. Here is a vaccine that can prevent cancer. CANCER. Unfortunately, Tammy doesn’t believe that, either, and places her trust in cauliflower and the chiropractor.

Right now in California, where vaccination is falling out of favor more quickly than Duck Dynasty, people are dying from the H1N1 flu: 28 humans… dying. And across the world, vaccine-preventable outbreaks will astound you. To be reasonable, some of these can be chalked up to non-compliance or access rather than political Anti-Vaxxer beliefs. Also, recent media scares that (European) H1N1 vaccines may cause narcolepsy in young children (notably, so does contracting actual swine flu), give less thoughtful people an excuse to skip their appointment at CVS.

Ultimately, this plea is to champion science above fear, and to encourage a more thorough browsing of the Internet for medical information if your family doctor or pediatrician isn’t reassuring you with statistics backed by the keenest minds in medicine. There is simply no legitimacy to people spouting opinions that are anti-science. Prior to the vaccine, every year whooping cough was like having three 9/11’s. Worse, actually: three 9/11’s with children as the primary casualties. Can you even imagine the panic if that were to happen today? If something were killing thousands of our children yearly, what would you risk to stop it?

You are a fine person, and a reasonable one too. Engage Tammy in a dialogue apart from her kale-crunching crowd and acupuncturist. Spread good information.

Get the shots.

Stevie and I summed up all of the evidence for you...

Stevie and I summarized all of the evidence for you…

10 responses

  1. Im glad to hear your opinion on the efficacies of vaccines for children.I was worried about vaccines and autism from all the here- say and written discussions.My grandchildren get their vaccines.Thank you.Carol

  2. Equally important – adults should get their vaccines, too! There is no excuse or applicable voodoo here – adults have a mature immune system and do not experience developmental delay. Many babies who die contract whooping cough or flu because they are too young to receive the vaccine, and a very self-centered (more often than resource-poor) adult refused to participate in the herd effect.

  3. Sooo a bio teacher I used to work with was spewing venom because she would have to vaccinate her baby to put him in day care. She didn’t think it was fair that she didn’t have the option to not vaccinate. I told her she did — but then she needed to keep her non-vaccinated child home. It’s one thing to risk your own child’s health. . .it’s another to risk my child’s. Then I asked who would receive her venomous wrath when her child contracted something deadly from another child whose parent refused to vaccinate. She looked at me with a dumbfounded expression.

  4. I have a child with autism. He drives me up the wall but I wouldn’t change a hair on his beautiful, innocent head. I believe this is him, from birth. He has had all his vaccinations as have my other children who followed him.
    The discredited Andrew Wakefield (the one who caused all the furore about autism and vaccines in the first place) did things to children that in my view (and in the eyes of the British General Medical Council) were abusive (unnecessary painful procedures) and he had a FINANCIAL INTEREST in saying that autism was linked to the MMR vaccine: he was simultaneously trying to patent a vaccine of his own!
    I do understand from a mother’s view that when you’re coming to terms with a life-changing diagnosis you want answers, you want to blame someone or something – but why would you believe a man whose actions amounted to abuse and who was struck off as a doctor?
    There was an outbreak of measles last year in the UK, due to parents who failed to vaccinate their children. I just shake my head at it all. Why would you put your child at risk? I would like to see the prevalence of autism among those children who remained un-vaccinated, and those who were vaccinated, just to demonstrate that it is the same. If there is an environmental cause for the increasing diagnoses of autism in recent years, it is not vaccination.
    I’d also like to point out (now that I’m on the soapbox) that in the developing world, vaccines have played an enormous role in reducing childhood deaths. In the last 20 years, deaths of under fives from *preventable* causes have halved (I’m studying for a degree in International Development and Statistics – this stuff interests me).

    • Thanks for adding to the discussion, Sandy. You’re third parent of an autistic child that has reached out to say that vaccines are NOT the problem here. The problem is the spread of misinformation. Go ahead and stand on the soapbox! xoxo

  5. I’ve always thought not getting vaccines is a form of freeloading – freeloading off the rest of the population who does get vaccines, keeping disease rates and transmission low to non-existent. If “anti-Vaxxer” is considered derogatory, I’m guessing ” freeloader” might not go over so well either.

    Also, I like the term “data set of me” (I used to use the term “sample size of 1”) I think I’ll have to switch.

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