F.R.I.W.A.F.T.T. You may not be familiar with that acronym, but my husband rattles it it off whenever we are about to navigate a tricky passage while boating. It stands for: Fools Rush in Where Angels Fear to Tread. I’m not setting sail just now, but I am about to weigh in on probably the only topic that is more contentious and leads to more name-calling, recrimination and venom than the election of President Trump.
I speak, of course, of vaccines.
While this isn’t a topic that I have devoted a great deal of time to studying, I have read a fair bit. I completely get the public health concerns and the worries about those who are immune-compromised and whose health would be at serious risk were they to contract, for example, measles. As the daughter of a polio survivor, I certainly am not eager to see diseases that have been eradicated reappear. However, I simply don’t understand the vitriol and hatred directed at parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.
People I know who are intelligent, kind and fair-minded on all sorts of controversial topics are nonetheless convinced that there is only one reason that parents might have concerns about vaccines: They believe that these people are stupid. Those who are more sensitive might phrase it somewhat more charitably: Parents who don’t vaccinate are gullible victims of false information. Ostensibly based on that idea, Facebook and other social media platforms have now removed any articles or videos that raise questions about vaccine safety. Not surprisingly, that autocratic attitude actually bolsters the suspicions of those with questions.
The last time my husband and I sailed in the Gulf Islands of British Columbia, we were surprised at a change that the boat rental company we favor had instituted. For years, they had marked off a certain risky passage between two islands in bold red, decisively announcing that charter boats were not allowed to traverse there. This year, they instead marked it as a difficult and dangerous passage and explained that any boat damage sustained while going through there would be charged to the boater.
Why did they make this switch? It turns out that forbidding a passage that, in fact, was navigable with the correct skill set was the equivalent of waving a red cape in front of a bull. Boaters saw going through that passage as an exciting and daring challenge. When the company in effect said, “Feel free to go, but based on our experience we don’t recommend it,” a greater number of their customers chose to avoid the area.
Without weighing in on either side of the vaccination controversy, here are some ideas that deserve to be discussed in an atmosphere of open debate, fact-checking and courtesy. These aren’t necessarily the issues that those who are more invested in this topic would raise, they are simply those that are popping into my head as I write. I think that anyone truly interested in affecting human behavior in the hope of attaining a healthier society should express interest in discussing these ideas rather than tarring and feathering anyone who raises them.
1. Let’s introduce a bit of humility into the mixture. Can we acknowledge that the medical profession and individual doctors have at times made the wrong call? For anyone who thinks otherwise may I recommend reading The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore. You might also research the medical establishment’s opposition to the theories of people like Joseph Lister or Sister Kenney, and for good measure look into the accepted medical theories that upheld both slavery and Nazism. It is not ridiculous to ask what might be commonly accepted by the medical community today that is going to embarrass and cause individual doctors guilt down the road.
2. In the same vein of humility, let’s acknowledge that, in the course of history, hordes of people suffered and died due to plagues and illnesses that we no longer see or that are under control. While correlation does not equal causation, it is rather difficult to make the case that the eradication or lack of prevalence of many of these diseases is unrelated to vaccines and inoculations. Reading and researching the devastation caused by disease in the past is a powerful reminder that today we are blessed indeed.
See how easy it is to find areas of agreement!
3. Can we get some accurate answers to some really important questions?
The olden days of only a few decades ago used to feature debates where facts mattered and where ideas could be developed. Watch an episode of William Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line and then contrast it to a modern “talk show” where unpopular opinions are shouted down and most answers are delivered in sound bites. The end result is that everyone believes whatever they believe and—often for good and valid reasons—doesn’t trust anyone offering opposing information.
This means that in order to actually change minds, when someone with credentials says something, they must then take questions from someone else who is accepted as an authority and similarly credentialed. Anyone making an argument loses veracity when they cite only the opposing views of those who are easy to dismiss while ignoring those who are more difficult to ridicule. Censoring any opposing views, such as is happening in this debate, tends to suggest the weakness of an argument, not its strength. I have read numerous anti-anti-vaccine pieces that all feature the idea that science has disproven any connection between autism and vaccines. Leaving aside whether that is accurate, I have also heard numerous concerns about vaccines where the word autism is never raised. Another article pooh-poohing the autism connection, even if accurate, is meaningless if it ignores other worries.
4. There should be a way to get an honest and unassailable answer as to whether physicians get monetary or other incentives to vaccinate patients or whether there is any threat or punishment involved for a pediatric practice with a high percentage of unvaccinated patients (this would include parents going on social media and blasting a pediatrician). Despite looking for an answer, I haven’t found anything I consider decisive. This matters, because the minute doctors are encouraged to make a decision based on anything other than what is best for that specific patient, then no matter what the original good intentions, parents are correct for questioning whatever the doctor recommends. Perhaps the guidelines for getting a medical exemption are drawn unreasonably tightly so that loosening those guidelines might actually result in more, rather than fewer, vaccinations? Perhaps someone could explain why this health “crisis” merits more draconian policies than other, on the surface more serious, health threats that tend to be downplayed and ignored?
5. Here is another question that should be able to be answered factually and should lead to discussion: Do all ‘first-world’ countries have the same number of vaccines, composition of vaccines and vaccine schedule? If not, why not?
6. My last contribution for this Musing: There seems to be a growing number of allergies, auto-immune diseases and other problems among the young. How accurate is this perception? Who is doing the short and long-term research to ensure that solving one problem with a vaccine isn’t causing different problems? A corollary to that question is whether vaccines provide inferior, equal or superior protection as getting the disease itself.
I no longer have prime responsibility for young children, so I do not need to decide whether to vaccinate or not. However, I am willing to bet that most parents and individuals on both sides of the issue are good people. (Sadly, that good-will assumption does not extend to the government, corporations or medical associations. People in control of portions of those groups have squandered the right to be trusted.) Portraying the pro-vaccine side as wise and noble crusaders and the anti-vaccine side as dupes and fools does nothing to bring about a society with the safest and most advanced medical protocols. Maybe some mutual respect, active listening and responding to serious questions would be more productive? Alternatively, all my writing has done is anger some, disappoint others and contribute to the fracturing of relationships; after all, F.R.I.W.A.F.T.T.
P.S. Please do not leave comments either for or against vaccinating children. This isn’t the place for that discussion. I simply wanted to point out that a conversation is necessary and possible, rather than for each side to dig in its heels and excoriate those who think differently.