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Dad Next Door: The Vaccine Controversy

Fear alone can’t kill our children, but it can open the door to diseases that will.

Photo: Joshua Huston

Imagine a treatment that prevents terrible diseases: everything from cancers to birth defects to deadly infections. Imagine you could get it for little or no cost, and that the risk of serious side effects was less than for cough syrup or penicillin. Now imagine that many people are intentionally withholding that treatment from their children, and in the process they’re putting your children at risk as well. Welcome to the reality of the vaccine debate. 

I understand why some parents are reluctant to immunize their kids. They’re just trying to do what’s right, and they’re hacking through a jungle of contradictory information. But smart, caring, well-meaning parents are being misled by rumors and bad advice. It puts in harm’s way the very children they hope to protect.

Vaccine controversy is nothing new. In 1796, the first vaccine was an injection of cowpox virus that helped protect against smallpox. (The word “vaccine” is from vacca, the Latin word for cow.) When word got out about this strange new treatment, editorial cartoons appeared depicting vaccinated patients growing horns and tails. This idea of preventing infection by injecting infectious agents into our bodies causes much of the fear around vaccines. For most people, willingly exposing themselves to viruses and bacteria, even in harmless or weakened form, is counterintuitive. But it’s exactly this process that makes vaccines effective and safe.   

Consider how we usually treat infection. By the time someone is visibly sick, a virus or bacteria is multiplying and spreading throughout their body in enormous numbers. We then give them a chemical (an antibiotic or antiviral) that’s designed to kill the offending organism. But we have to give it in large doses, often with harmful effects on our own cells, and on the normal bacteria that we need to stay healthy.

Vaccines work in an entirely different way. A vaccine is just a protein, or a weakened, harmless form of a bacteria or virus. Instead of waiting until someone gets sick, we give them a tiny dose of vaccine when they’re healthy. Our immune system uses the vaccine to learn how to recognize infections as soon as they enter the body, before they even start. Vaccination is like installing a super-sophisticated security system, with retinal scanners and voice recognition, at every entrance to the body so you can keep out the bad guys. Not taking this preemptive step can result in having to take more dangerous and extreme methods.

Vaccines are more natural and less invasive than most of the medications we use. So why do they inspire such controversy and fear? I’ve heard many explanations for this. There’s that infamous study out of the UK that purported to show a link between vaccination and autism. But the study was debunked, researcher Andrew Wakefield was found to have faked his data, and dozens of studies since have shown no relationship between autism and vaccination. Still, the autism rumors live on. Similar rumors about seizures, paralysis, and a variety of frightening complications have proven bogus again and again, but they won’t go away.

Likewise, there’s a lot of suspicion directed at pharmaceutical companies that make money on vaccines, and governments that subsidize them. Online rumors expose dark conspiracies with vague but sinister intent. But why, then, aren’t people concerned about other medications that generate corporate profits using government subsidies? The last time I looked, that included… let’s see… ALL of them. Again, I think this has to do with our well-meaning vigilance as parents. The thing that sets vaccines apart is that we are asked to give them to our healthy young children.  

In developed countries, the well-being of a healthy child is a given. When a young child meets with misfortune, serious illness or death, we do more than grieve — we look for someone or something to blame. But less than a century ago, infant mortality was a fact of life. Its rapid decline in the West was due, in part, to vaccination. Smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, measles, epiglottitis, meningitis, pneumococcal pneumonia — the list goes on and on. In many countries, mothers walk miles to the nearest clinic to immunize their children against the threat of deadly infection. But for us, that threat seems theoretical at best.

The very success of vaccination now makes it seem superfluous. And because infant vaccinations are so frequent, there’s a good chance that any bad thing that happens to a baby may happen soon after getting a shot. Need something to blame for autism, or seizures, or some other tragic, unexplained event? How about that stuff they injected into your previously healthy child?

Caution is a virtue, but let’s be cautious about the right things. When we weigh the pros and cons of vaccination, let’s not give the same weight to some ranting blogger in Arkansas as we do to the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Let’s weigh the death and suffering of non-immunized children all over the world, as well as recent outbreaks of pertussis and measles right here in the U.S., as more important than unfounded fears. Fear alone can’t kill our children, but it can open the door to diseases that will.

Jeff Lee fights disease and international criminal masterminds in Seattle.

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