Monday, March 9, 2015

Anti-vaccine Parents - What Are The Odds?

Sometimes critical thinking can be difficult, even painful, but that does not make it any less important or advisable.

Some people are afraid to fly on an airplane.  Tell them over and over that the ride to the airport is statistically more dangerous than the flight and it does not change their minds.  In the car, especially if they are driving, there is a sense of control.  In the airplane, with both the pilot and the ground out of sight, already frightened people will feel at the mercy of someone else’s skill at best and more likely at the mercy of fate.  Their unfounded fear causes inconvenience only to themselves or perhaps to family who must accommodate them.  That same sense of not being in control is common to other fears but sometimes the stakes are much higher.

In America the fight against measles continues, as does the campaign to get parents to vaccinate.  Looking at it purely logically, measles is very contagious, around the 90% level; and the probability of vaccination side effects or other related problems is far lower.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate problems from the MMR vaccine range from 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 30,000 for children.  Severe problems occur in less than 1 in one million cases.  The potential for a problem when unvaccinated hugely outweighs the opposite decision.  From a pure critical thinking point, it would be a no-brainer, although it doesn’t exactly play out that way.

The USA Today reports:  “a new study finds that more than 70% of children's doctors have agreed to parents' requests to delay vaccinations, even though most believe that puts children at risk.”  A smaller sample of doctors reported delay or opt-out rates of more than 10% - that’s ten percent of parents not children.

The article goes on to explain:  “More parents have begun skipping selected vaccines or delaying others in recent years, sometimes out of concern that immunizations cause autism, an idea that has been debunked in dozens of studies.”  What they don’t mention is that a subsequent investigation showed the originally cited link between the MMR vaccine and autism was based on fabricated evidence, data made up to fit the desired outcome, and that its author was banned from practicing medicine due to the egregious nature of the offense.  By then it was too late; the false information was already out; and it’s so much easier to scare people than to unscare them.

Parents were left with an unreasonable fear of vaccines and relative unfamiliarity with the seriousness of the disease.  Most have no idea that measles can cause severe complications and, in one or two out of a thousand cases, be fatal.  Ordinarily that would be nothing to fool around with. 

Some of the parents who are opting out responded to AP questions with their reasoning.  They said things like, “some research points to inconsistencies, unknowns or negative effects that deserve further investigation” and worry about “how exposure to chemicals, bad nutrition and stress can affect genes and health,” considering vaccine additives and preservatives as some of those questionable chemicals.

So the debate goes on.  Usually a few unvaccinated do not pose a problem, because the herd immunity threshold, typically between 80% and 95% depending on the contagion level of the particular disease, protects the unprotected by surrounding them with immune individuals.  This does not hold where people living in the same areas and communicating in person or by social media tend to think alike and exchange similar views, so some geographical pockets are forming where the vaccination rate is as low as 40%.

Using the fear-of-flying analogy, it’s easy to understand and sympathize.  When parents are scared and feel a lack of control with so many unknowns and more perceived unknowns, how do they take control?  They do it by saying no.  It is a huge concern when parents act in such a way as to put their children in danger.

Applying critical thinking to overcome the emotional reaction can be both difficult and painful.  It’s often not a matter of being uneducated or unintelligent.  Fear plays a big role.

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