It used to be that doctors prescribed the medicine and we gratefully took it. No questions asked. Modern medicine had been able to treat and prevent so many diseases, to save so many lives, and doctors were given unquestioning authority by the majority of people.
Welcome to the information age. Magazines, newspapers, t.v. and now the internet report on all the latest medical news and the general population now knows about every new study, each inconsistency and all the dissenting opinions. We know about how the medical establishment let us down by over-prescribing antibiotics and ushering in the age of super bugs. (Though it was us begging our doctors for something to treat this sore throat.) We know about the many flip-flops of opinions about diet and nutrition. (But we still lock onto the latest tidbit of information as though it were gospel. Trans fats bad for you? Ban them! Blueberries good? Eat them by the bushel.) We know that formula was good but now it’s bad and that babies should be put to sleep on their tummies, er, sides … what’s that? Backs. Yes, for sure backs.
We know about all the legitimate mistakes the medical establishment has made and we know about every dissenting study and tidbit of quackery of the past 15 years. The mainstream news media, so anxious to provide a balanced perspective, gives equal weight to both sides of every issue. The lunatic fringe, however, has never had it so good. Every Tom and Dick and, hell, even I have a blog, is free to present all manner of opinion and rhetoric — the more out there, the better. Throw the cause du jour, like autism, in the mix and it’s not surprising that people are becoming more skeptical and feeling more empowered to make unorthodox choices.
Note that I am not a critic of “informed choice” in the health department. I used a midwife during both of my pregnancies and refused such standard procedures as routine genetic screening. I am as skeptical of the over-pharmacutical-ization of our ills as the next guy and generally try to steer clear of chemical reliance. (With the notable exception of caffeine. A girl needs to get her edge somewhere.)
In fact, that is probably why I actually had to ask my uptown family doctor cum homeopath for the standard immunizations at L’il I’s eight-week check up. She just lumped me together with all the other educated, urban, alternative medicine and natural childbirth-seeking patients she has and momentarily assumed that I wanted to forgo vaccinations for my children. I do not, but electing to leave one’s children un-vaccinated is a choice that has become increasingly popular over the past few years.
The recent hullabaloo over a measles outbreak in an alternative California grade school points to a perceived risk of autism as the main reason for opting against immunizing one’s children. The autism scare has definitely been given the most media attention as of late, but there are a host of other reasons anti-establishment parents cite for avoiding vaccines. They range from the true-but-insignificant data showing ill side effects in a very small number of cases to outright-absurd claims against vaccination efficacy. Here’s a three-year-old sample argument from the Primal Mommies blog. As for autism, there really isn’t any evidence suggesting a causal link from vaccines to autism spectrum disorders after all. Here’s what the Canadian Pediatric Society has to say.
So maybe we can’t prove that vaccines cause autism. Maybe big science won’t back the studies that show all the problems that vaccines can cause, right? Isn’t it still better to keep your kids all-natural and let their bodies fight diseases on their own? No, it’s not. The sorts of illnesses we’re vaccinated against are serious and were very often fatal or crippling. Many of these diseases have been mostly eradicated (thanks to universal vaccinations) and it’s easy to forget how devastating they were.
It is actually because almost everybody gets vaccinated and because these diseases had become almost unheard of that the risk of vaccinating versus contracting the disease gets skewed. If everybody is getting immunized, then your chance of coming into contact with said illness is minuscule and the incredibly small risk of experiencing serious side effects from the vaccination approaches the risk of contracting the disease. But as soon as some people start to refuse vaccinations these illnesses rear their ugly heads once again. Blah Blah Blog has a pretty good account of herd immunization and the dangers of not-vaccinating.
This California case shows how quickly the measles can spread when even a small percentage of students are vaccinated. Even if the percentage of Americans who opt against immunizing their children is still well below the 10% danger threshold, that was not the case at this particular school. We tend to socialize with and have our beliefs validated by like-minded people. Today, though, it would be much safer for a Puerto Rican child in the Bronx to miss his shots than a So-Cal-charter-school kid.