Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Long Rambling on Vaccines and the Quest for Control

There is a very vocal camp of parents who are convinced vaccines caused their children's autism, despite numerous scientific studies that show no connection between vaccines and autism (and NO scientific studies that DO find a connection).  There's a terrific article in the current issue of Wired magazine on this subject in defense of science and reason.  The author notes that the human brain seeks out correlations and tends to confuse correlation with causation, and that the pseudo-science that comprises the vaccines-caused-my-kid's-autism arguments preys on well-meaning parents who are desperate to find a reason for their children's struggles and a manageable way to solve their problems.  (Autistic behavior happens to become evident around the same age as kids get vaccinated, so parents conclude one caused the other.)

So more parents are choosing not to have their children vaccinated, but autism diagnosis rates continue to climb.  And the largest U.S. outbreak of mumps in three years is occurring in New York and New Jersey right now.  Is this because fewer children are receiving the MMR vaccine?  It certainly correlates; I wouldn't be surprised if there were a causal relationship as well.  As the Wired article points out, opting not to vaccinate your child is not removing a risk; it's taking a different risk.  I, for one, am not willing to put my son at risk of contracting polio, diphtheria, rubella etc, or developing meningitis or going blind as a result of such illnesses.  (An aside: I knew a guy who had had meningitis as a kid.  It messed him up.  At age 21 he still had all his baby teeth.)

For a nice roundup of some facts about vaccines, please see the sidebar piece to the Wired article.

As a parent, it's hard to accept that your child will face obstacles that are out of your control.  It would be comforting to believe if you could make all the right choices throughout his childhood, he'd come out with a perfect life.  You can't control genetics, and you can't control how other people will behave toward your child throughout his lifetime.  But you can control what you put into your body, and therein lies the root of the anti-vaccination movement.  And eating disorders.

When I was 17, I started experiencing symptoms of depression.  I felt completely at its mercy, and I didn't know what to do about it, so unconsciously, I started grasping for control of my world, and I guess I felt like the only thing I could control was what I put into my body.  So I stopped eating.  Ironically, this exercise in self-control spun my life totally out of control - all I could think about was not-eating.  My parents forced me into therapy.

When I graduated from high school, I weighed 97 pounds.  My doctor and parents threatened that if I didn't gain some weight soon, I wouldn't be allowed to start college in the fall, and I'd have to go to an in-patient hospital program instead.  So I started a new exercise in control - making the choice to become healthier in time to leave for freshman orientation.  Logical arguments had not convinced me that I had made seriously unhealthy choices, but creating an alternate narrative of self-empowerment and self-control did manage to give me a viable new direction.

Now, almost two decades and 30 pounds later, I feel more in control of my life than I ever have before.  I could not control my son's being born with PDD, but I can control how I deal with it.  I choose not to be swindled by snake oil salesmen.  I choose to reject chelation and hyperbaric chambers and B12 shots in favor of behavior modification and (increasing) personal acceptance of my son's neurological differences.  I choose to believe in scientific studies instead of the quackery popularized by a Playboy bunny.  I choose to be an advocate for my child and not make death threats against someone because he invented a vaccine for rotavirus.


  1. This is an excellent and much-needed post amid all the anti-vaccine hype that's out there. Thanks!

  2. Nicely said! We are dying (almost literally) to get the swine flu vaccine here, but b/c of the egg allergy Danny still hasn't gotten it. It's a privilege to have access to some of these life-saving vaccines, and I do feel put at risk by those choosing not to get them.


Keep it civil, people.