Why The Fight For Vaccines Can Seem Unwinnable

No matter how many medical facts and peer-reviewed studies are presented, an anti-vax parent will react emotionally and defensively.

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The vaccination debate reached a fever pitch in early 2015. When a measles outbreak hit Disneyland in December 2014, mainstream media and parents across the country were suddenly having conversations that are usually reserved for doctors’ offices, mommy groups, and internet blogs. The Most Magical Place on Earth combined with a highly contagious infection produced a perfect storm of parenting wars.

On one side, there are the doctors.

Generally, doctors base their medical opinions on science that has been tested, peer-reviewed, tested, and reviewed yet again. This science has been proven to be true to the best of current medical knowledge. On the doctors’ side are parents who believe this science, as they should.

According to the CDC, around 95 percent of kindergartners have gotten vaccines for preventable diseases, including the MMR vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella. More than 90 percent get the vaccinations for polio, hepatitis B, and chickenpox. That means that most parents in the United States are vaccinating their kids which is great news.

On the other side, there are the “crunchy,” natural parents who insist that vaccines, particularly the MMR vaccine, bring a whole host of issues that aren’t worth the risk.

These parents tend to believe that vaccines cause autism, that vaccines are being hawked by scientific frauds working for the money-grubbing pharmaceutical industry, or that “vaccine injury” caused by any number of concerning ingredients is a real thing. 48 states allow religious exemptions and 20 states allow philosophical exemptions from vaccines. Around 5 percent of parents aren’t vaccinating at all, or those that do vaccinate late or don’t keep their children up-to-date with booster shots. Often, these parents have been misled by debunked studies and self-proclaimed doctors whose only degree is from the University of Google.

Also on the anti-vaccination side? Emotions. Really strong emotions.

Therein lies the crux of the dilemma: nothing can beat the emotions of a concerned parent. No matter how many medical facts and peer-reviewed studies are presented, an anti-vax parent will react emotionally and defensively. Often they point to “other science” as the reason for their beliefs. They tell everyone, “Just do your research”-as if a casual Google search for “natural science” blogs that enforce their views based on nothing substantial is the kind of quality research needed to justify the risks of not vaccinating their kids.

City-level, state-level, national, and global organizations of doctors and scientists agree that vaccination should be a foregone conclusion. Knowing that they are more knowledgeable about diseases, vaccines, and the latter’s efficacy on the former than I will ever be, I choose to believe them.

I choose to stand with science. I know I am not alone.

In spite of any political or socioeconomic differences, anyone who vaccinates their kids stands with this science. Many parents who vaccinate also already know about the debunked studies. We know that vaccines do not cause autism, we know that toxins caused by mercury and thimerosal aren’t a real thing, and we know that “big pharma” isn’t out to get us. We know that these are all a bunch of conspiracy theories that support the irresponsible risks of choosing not to inoculate children against diseases that should have been eradicated. We know this and we recognize the personal and societal risks of a population that doesn’t vaccinate against diseases that have maimed and killed millions of children.

Yet when we share these articles from reputable news sources, warnings from government agencies like the CDC, and even emotional appeals from other parents who have actually lost children to these diseases, anti-vax parents still argue their case against all reason. At times like these, it seems as though we aren’t breaking through at all.

It appears that logic and reason cannot defeat the staunchly self-righteous beliefs of parents who think that a vaccine created painstakingly to ensure long-term health with minimal risk is more of a danger than the disease itself. It’s helpful to remember that these people are a minority–a very vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless. When you remember this, it seems like we are finally making progress. If only a minority of parents aren’t vaccinating, it seems like the rest of us are probably safe and it’s not that big of a deal.

Unfortunately, even a relatively small number of unvaccinated kids can greatly damage herd immunity. The theory of herd immunity dictates that if the majority of people in a community are vaccinated, then those that are not vaccinated will most likely still be protected from the disease. However, it’s the belief of many pro-vaccination groups that someone should only be exempt from vaccination if they aren’t actually medically eligible for a vaccine. These exempt individuals include newborns, the very old, or the immunocompromised, like cancer patients. These people physically cannot receive vaccinations and depend on the rest of their community to maintain that immunity for them. When people who are medically eligible for vaccines choose not to be vaccinated, this compromises the stability of herd immunity which puts the vulnerable in danger and may lead to the mutation of viruses that a vaccine cannot stop.

Those that don’t vaccinate claim it’s simply a personal choice for their family and that their choices shouldn’t and don’t affect anyone else. What they fail to realize is that herd immunity is simply a numbers game. By refusing vaccinations, they reduce the efficacy of herd immunity which means that every single person in the community is at risk to contract a serious disease that often takes lives.

For this reason, we have to press on. For every parent who is unwavering in their belief that vaccines harm more people than actual diseases do, there is another parent who might just be on the fence. Making parenting choices is hard and when you’re confronted with competing opinions that sound a lot like facts, it can be hard to make the right decision.

Hearing that vaccinating is a choice that affects only your family can be just what some people want to hear. Unfortunately, this is completely untrue. It’s willfully ignorant and indicative of an incredibly privileged attitude. The vast majority of the most vocal proponents of the anti-vax movement are educated, upper-middle class, white families.

Those that don’t vaccinate are lucky to have healthy children. They are lucky to have access to some of the best medical care in the world. Not everyone is so lucky, whether you look at the data in your own city or across the world.

Though the anti-vax crowd yells louder and louder, those of us that side with science have to be even more vocal. We must accept that we will probably never change the opinions of those firmly in the anti-vax camp, but we must also recognize that there are some who are still questioning. As parents and citizens of the world, it’s our duty to teach anyone with doubts about the importance of vaccinations. While this feels a lot like a losing fight, lives are literally at stake. We just have to keep fighting.

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