OK, as the vaccine debate turns increasingly ugly, I have a few thoughts about the importance of searching for the truth, rather than defending a “position”. These thoughts are based on my experience as both a political hack and as a litigator. In both those arenas there is more harm done by pursuing victory at any cost than any other phenomenon.
If you cut through all the pro and anti-vaccine rhetoric, it seems pretty clear that:
1) vaccines work (some better than others) and have saved hundreds of millions of lives;
2) the medical community says they are safe;
3) by “safe” they mean statistically safe, which is to say if 1 out of a million people die, then that is statistically safe as the rate of death is “statistically insignificant” (unless you’re 1 in a million, in which case it’s pretty significant);
4) society is safer as a whole if everyone gets vaccines; and
5) despite #4, people currently have the right of self-determination, which is to say that they can choose to refuse vaccines, both avoiding the risks they pose (usually small, although the risks appear to be higher in younger, older and physically compromised individuals) but also losing the benefit vaccines bestow of likely immunity from whatever that particular vaccine would have addressed.
The real shame is that the debate is so heated. Pro-vaccine commentators suggest that folks who don’t vaccinate are addle-brained, or worse. Anti-vaccine folks suggest that by calling vaccines safe the medical community is perpetrating a fraud on the public. The truth, as always, is somewhere less extreme.
The pro-vaccine lobby might well be more successful by acknowledging, instead of skirting, that while adverse reactions may be rare, and severe reactions even more rare, they are nonetheless real and do occur. Rare simply means they don’t happen that often statistically. That might give skeptics more confidence in the information they are receiving.
Similarly, the anti-vaccine folks could also benefit from being more open to the science in the area, or at least science not funded by pharmaceutical companies, and by examining more critically theories that question the overall effectiveness of vaccines. It might also help to keep in mind that most health care professionals simply accept the information they are given that vaccines are “safe”. That doesn’t make them part of a conspiracy.
I’m generally pro-vaccine, which is to say that I believe the benefits — both individually and collectively — outweigh the risks. But I’m troubled by two things.
First, the mocking/sarcasm/bullying and other forms of hostility being employed in the “debate”, is really counterproductive. I should say that these traits are most often displayed by the pro side, and then most often by folks who appear to have actually not looked into the issue at all. They support vaccines on faith, which is perhaps a poor intellectual position from which to mock folks with a different set of beliefs.
Second, I’m troubled that the public health/medical community choose messages designed to convince folks to vaccinate, without addressing concerns about the risks. I’m increasingly concerned that there are no good answers to the concerns about the dangers of adverse reactions, and more specifically, why adverse reactions aren’t studied more, why physicians don’t receive more training on recognizing and treating such reactions. I’m concerned because if there were good answers to those questions I would expect that we would have seen them by now.
If we, as a society, want better take up rates in what is still a voluntary preventative medical treatment, we need to stop ridiculing concerns and start addressing those concerns. People are generally smart and sensible. If they get objective information on the risks, most will still choose to vaccinate. But if the risks are much higher for vaccinating infants, or for combining multiple vaccines into one shot, don’t people deserve to know that? That is the very essence of informed consent.
At base, I think we’d all be better off trying to have a discussion that leads to greater understanding and truth, rather than trying to “prove” that whatever idea we currently hold is 100% accurate and that the only need is to convince others, rather than critically examine our own beliefs.