07 November 2009

Denialism and Parenting - Where to Draw the Line?

This morning, I was dismissed from my military duty for having the appearance of being sick. It's true, I've been sick for a while, but I am on the mend and didn't feel altogether awful. Nevertheless, policy has changed and now, so much as a sniffle can get you sent home. To think...I showed up with 3 broken ribs back in 2001 and wasn't sent home then. [sigh]

It's a long drive and on my way home, I tuned in to NPR. Normally, NPR is not my thing. Well, most talk radio isn't. But NPR is a little too politically skewed and I tend to prefer objectivity in my news (which is probably why I don't put much stock in any of the news I read or hear now that I think of it...). But, well, it is what it is. I was listening to NPR as I drove and what I heard floored me.

Michael Specter was the guest on Saturday's Weekend Edition show, on to talk about his book, Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet and Threatens Our Lives. I know, that's quite a mouthful, isn't it? Yet, what he had to say had me cheering. Finally! Someone for whom a large segment of progressives have a great respect for has come out and said that which has been attributed to the conservative right or those with no grasp of science for so long - that perfectly intelligent people are making decisions based on incomplete or misinterpreted data that are harming us or, at least, have no backbone of support.

The examples he talked about specifically were the rising number of communities with large percentages of completely unvaccinated children and, what calls the "organic food fetish". It was amazing. Here was a popular science and technology writer finally, finally saying publicly what I grumble about under my breath all of the time: Denial is Harmful.

Not too long ago, I wrote an article for our Emergency Management newsletter at work about denial and the cost in both lives and dollars as it relates to the way that people think of and prepare for disasters. It will probably end up here at some point, but Mr. Specter's argument was the same. That perfectly logical, intelligent, well educated people can still, especially as a societal group, think completely irrationally and buy in to misinformation without looking clinically at the facts - and it is a threat.

He went so far as to say that parents of completely unvaccinated children were irresponsible and frankly, I could not agree with him more. In fact, when it comes time to choose a school for our daughter, the numbers of unvaccinated children (exempted from the requirement) will play a part in that decision.

This form of parental denial is growing. In 2008, AMN Healthcare featured an article on vaccine refusal and the resurgence of Pertussis (Whooping Cough). It was noted in the article that the antigens that children are exposed to through all of their childhood vaccinations are less than the antigens that were contained in the original Smallpox vaccine - and less than those they're exposed to daily just going about their business. Mr. Specter, in his interview on NPR today used the following example of just how ignorant us intelligentsia really are when we make these kinds of decisions. In his words, "A vaccine may kill one child in over a million, whereas the disease itself will kill one in every 1,026." Yet, parents see that one child killed by a vaccine and believe the vaccine itself to be worse than the disease it's treating.

He even went on to say that he had spoken recently with someone who refused the flu shot because they said they didn't want any foreign substances in their body. He laughed and asked, "What do they think they're doing when they sit down to dinner each night?" Touche, Mr. Specter.

On "natural" food and drug products, he asked, "What does that mean? What is natural?" He pointed out that, if you remove vector borne diseases (i.e. diseases carried by insects and animals) from the history of man, you will find that the two largest killers of humans are pure, untreated water and untreated food products. So, is "natural", that is, food and water that has been untampered with and in a natural state, really all that great?

I'll be honest - I think that organic food tastes better, but it's expensive and so I don't buy it very often. I do know, though, that nutritionally, it is no better or worse than a "non-organic" food product.

So why is it that, when I make the choice to save money; when I decide that yes, the risks of the disease far, far outweigh the risks of the vaccine; when my daughter gets sick, I give her actual medication (the reason the FDA doesn't regulate homeopathic remedies is because they have zero impact on the human system. That means they don't DO anything - other than act as a placebo) - I'm made to feel like a Bad Parent by the not-so-All Knowing, not-so Scientifically Savvy parents out there?

Look, I understand that when bad things happen to children, we want to find something to blame. When we can't find that culprit, we turn to our environment and select the thing or things that we think are the most sketchy. Vaccines are a perfect example. They hurt when they're administered. They're developed by scientists working for "evil" pharm companies, so they must not be for the better good but for profit, right? They're administered by people who know more than we do about such things and one thing I've observerd is that other smart people don't always like thinking that someone out there is smarter than them. It's threatening, somehow. So vaccines have a lot to fear and be worried about and there seems to be a body of convincing conjecture out there that sounds scientifically sound that "proves" that vaccines are the cause of certain lifelong problems in children.

From a personal perspective, I wanted to blame a flu shot on the miscarriage I had before our daughter was conceived. Nothing could explain why it happened, but the flu shot coincided with the miscarriage. I was devastated. Yet, I have a cold, calculating voice that seems to sometimes be independent of the rest of me and it pointed out that miscarriages are bad, but they happen more often than we're made aware of in general, for a myriad of reasons. Conception is not perfect. Chromosomal matchup is not a flawless dance. Mistakes are made and it's the body's way of deleting the file that's become too corrupt for use any longer, in order to start again.

But dammit, it was so much easier to blame the vaccine. I hate having shots to begin with and I'm a skeptic too. I know they're good for me, but I don't trust them. In the end though, I don't really blame the vaccine. I blame a bad chromosomal matchup. I'd like to blame the needle, but I don't. I researched the body of evidence on vaccine interactions in early pregnancy and much to my disappointment, I found that I had nothing tangible to say, "A ha! THAT made it happen!" It would have been nice though. Perhaps made me feel a little less defective...

I'm going to pick up his book. He's well respected in his field and it'll be an interesting read. If you decide to do the same, he closed the interview with this thought: "Some will agree with one part and not another. I already know this. But I would ask that reader to consider WHY you agree with one and not the other." You see, as he pointed out, it doesn't work that way. Selectively denying scientific statistics and proofs is still a denial unto it's own. And I agree with him. It is extraordinarily harmful to us and to the generation we're bringing up now.

To listen to the full Weekend Edition interview with Michael Specter on Denialism, please click here.


Lylah M. Alphonse said...

I had to do an exemption when it came to vaccinating my two youngest children. They're fully vaccinated -- I just wanted to do the shots one at a time, waiting 3 weeks or so between doses, instead of having the nurses administer multiple shots per visit. Our older son, who is 11 now, experienced damage that the doctors now think was from having several vaccines at once when he was about 4 (all of them were for multiple diseases, too), and we didn't want to risk that again. Filing for exception from the requirement was the only way we could adhere to the more drawn-our schedule that our pediatrician agreed was best for our child. I wish the requirements could change slightly -- that the inoculations need to be completed by a certain age, rather than on a certain schedule.

Swistle said...

The book sounds really good---but how can it top this review? I feel like I can already brush my hands briskly and move the book to my "Read and Liked" pile.

Phe said...

Lylah - That's a bit different from what I was thinking of. I know that pediatricians are really re-thinking the methods by which they administer multiple vaccines, and that sort of exemption you got is completely understandable.

I would agree that filing for an exception seems silly when policy can easily be changed to an age based requirement and makes sense to do so.

My concern for A is more along the lines of those parents who choose to forgo all vaccinations because of the scare data they read out there.

I also wish that the medical community and vaccine makers would be more proactive about boosters. Pertussis is a perfect example of why we really need to continue a lifelong regimen of certain vaccines. Many of them are only good for a certain period of time and while part of the disease resurgences we're seeing today is definitely attributable to parents not vaccinating their children, there is another group helping it along - all of us who never received boosters for childhood diseases so that we don't bring them home to our kids before they're vaccinated!

Phe said...

Swistle - LOL! And thank you.

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