Give It a Shot by Sarah Lamp

Children are inherently vulnerable to a wide variety of dangers. No one knows this better than a parent, and certainly, almost any parent would agree with the statement that they would do anything to protect their child. However, in some cases, people may disagree about whether something is helpful or in fact harmful; one such case is vaccines. Although a majority of parents happily vaccinate their children and themselves, others refuse vaccines for their children on the grounds that vaccinations supposedly harm mental abilities. Unfortunately, by doing this they are in fact making their children, and the children around them, vulnerable to many terrible diseases. There is no irrefutable scientific evidence linking vaccines to an increased risk of disease or disabilities in children, meaning that parents who do not vaccinate their children gain nothing but risk a great deal. Perhaps the most significant reason that many distrust vaccines is chronic misinformation, as incorrect findings are distributed as facts and convince parents that vaccines are dangerous, thereby leaving children more exposed and vulnerable to disease than they otherwise would be. Parents are supposed to protect their children: vaccines are just one more way to do this.

For a parent, this is not just about facts and figures: it’s about the life of their child.

While the parents may think that they are doing what is best for their kids, proof that vaccines cause diseases such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is oftentimes thin and based on circular reasoning or manipulated data. However, many parents are not given the breadth of information necessary to make an informed decision. On the website of the non-profit advocacy organization Voices for Vaccines, one mother, Chrissy, reveals her experiences with both the pro- and anti-vaccine movements, making a critical point regarding how medical professionals can spur parents into a panic over vaccines by misdiagnosing young children with developmental delays as being autistic. This can send already-anxious parents into a frenzy. In her article, Chrissy writes that “At first I was relieved because my worries had finally been validated. Then I was angry and convinced that my child had been damaged by the vaccines he had gotten,” clearly expressing the emotional turmoil that surrounds the vaccine debate because, for a parent, this is not just about facts and figures: it’s about the life of their child. Vaccines provide an opportunity to save lives and stave off disease – imagine what a difference a vaccine would have made during the Spanish Influenza epidemic a hundred years ago, how many lives could have been saved. When there is an opportunity to have a slightly higher chance of  preventing a disease and keeping their children healthy, parents have an unspoken obligation to always seize it, or to at the very least make sure to understand what it entails.

Still, the facts and figures are important. Statistics alone prove that it is unspeakably foolish to leave children unprotected from horrific diseases: all one needs to do is look back at the time before vaccines, when even the President of the United States was not safe from polio. According to an article by Dina Fine Maron for the Scientific American in 2015, the United States Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that “among children born in the past two decades vaccinations will prevent more than 20 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths,” figures which highlight the dramatic difference vaccines can make.

To not vaccinate is a very selfish decision, as it affects not only one’s own child but also other children around them: to have one child unvaccinated is to potentially expose an entire school to a disease. Vaccines are developed for the very purpose of protecting people, and are designed to be safe for children; exhaustive clinical trials and tests are required by the CDC for the very purpose of ensuring that the drugs are as safe as is possible. While it is true that genetic variation and immune deficiencies can sometimes result in a bad reaction, the chance of a child beings diagnosed with a disease or disability as a direct result of a preventative vaccines is far lower than the risks of infectious disease an unvaccinated child faces. It is unfortunate that facts such as these are often misinterpreted or excluded from anti-vaccine forums, as positive, correct, information plays an important role in lessening the stigma around vaccines and convincing parents.

Furthermore, no government organization nor laudable scientific community has, as of yet, put forth any proof showing that vaccines, nor any ingredients in vaccines (specifically the mercury-based preservative thimerosal) cause autism; in fact, the CDC soundly refutes any claims to that effect, asserting on their website that “since 2003, there have been nine CDC-funded or conducted studies that have found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and ASD, as well as no link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and ASD in children.” Despite this, in a 2011 article titled “Straight Talk about Vaccination,” Matthew F. Daley and Jason M. Glanz share the troubling results of a survey over 1,500 parents, in which “one quarter […] [believed] that vaccines can cause autism in healthy children, and more than one in 10 had refused at least one recommended vaccine.” The reason for this level of ignorance is that parents have been consistently offered false information via the internet or personal anti-vaccination campaigns, or have not been corrected by medical practitioners. It is for this reason that a mandatory forum is needed to educate all new parents about vaccines, such as a  required, government-sponsored, information session about vaccinations which can address any and all fears. The problem is never that parents do not want to help their children: it’s that they are no longer sure what is best.

A mandatory forum is needed to educate all new parents about vaccines.

Yet, in the face of what is oftentimes irrefutable evidence, some anti-vaccine advocates persist in denouncing vaccines not just as causes of disabilities but also as a way for large pharmaceutical companies to exploit parents. According to this sector of the population, Image B, which was posted to an online forum titled “Diabolical Pro-Vaccination Campaign”, is just another example of coercive techniques designed to trick parents into poisoning their children. This reasoning, already weak, pales considerably when Dina Fine Maron reminds the world again in the Scientific American that the physician who was initially responsible for spreading the idea that vaccines are linked to autism was “barred from practicing medicine due to ethical lapses,” something which is often glossed over by devotees of the anti-vaccination movement, along with the fact that “more than a dozen studies [by expert organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM)] have added to the body of evidence that this link does not exist.” Until there is definite proof showing the connection between vaccines and autism or other diseases, the idea that vaccines are always harmful is based on nothing more than pseudo-science and speculation.

Until such time as there is quantifiable evidence clearly showing that vaccines do cause more harm than good, parents have a duty to vaccinate their children.

The claims of the anti-vaccine movement have no scientific validity. Nonetheless, there is still the potential for real tragedy as a result of simple ignorance, and the culture of misinformation that has grown around vaccines.  Parents are trying to do the best they can for their children, but without having all the correct facts, it is difficult to make an informed decision. It is a situation that is unfair to everyone, but most so to the children themselves, both those who are vaccinated and yet are at risk from the unvaccinated, and the unvaccinated themselves, who are exposed to potentially life-threatening diseases. To help combat this, the government and healthcare practitioners should  step up efforts to reach and educate people, especially parents, who are wary about vaccines, as vaccinations are currently the best way to combat diseases and help improve general health. Ultimately, until such time as there is quantifiable evidence clearly showing that vaccines do cause more harm than good, parents have a duty to vaccinate their children. If they are truly not swayed by statistics alone, perhaps they should consider whether it would be better to have a living child with autism as a result of a vaccine, or a child who has died as the result of a disease for which they were not vaccinated.

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