Saturday, March 08, 2008
Herd immunity... to the Truth!
I was sick last week with one of the flu or cold viruses that's been going around. I didn't feel like doing much of anything besides sleep, so I found myself watching a news conference on CNN about vaccines and autism. The parents of a little girl with a rare genetic disorder had been awarded money from a fund the government set up to compensate victims of diseases caused by vaccinations.
Watching them describe how their little girl was normal and healthy until she got several vaccinations on one day, I waited for somebody to step in and provide a voice of reason.
After 20 or so minutes of parent vaccine-bashing, CNN did put on their science correspondent for 15 seconds, and he did point out that there's absolutely no evidence that vaccines cause autism. But I bet most people watching took away the message "vaccines ruined a little girl's life; vaccines are bad."
I didn't find out the child has a rare genetic disorder (her mitochondria are messed up) until I did a little research online.
I'm skeptical about a lot of things, but vaccines are not something that I'm skeptical about. Vaccines work. They work best when given to the majority of a population, so the population develops what's known as "herd immunity."
The anti-vaccination crowd are a bunch of non-scientific Luddites. They managed to get thimerosal banned from vaccines (because they claimed it caused autism) back in 2002. Did banning thimerosal (the mercury-based preservative) have any effect on the autism rate among children? No: none, zero, zilch, nada. The rate (and the increase in the rate) of autism is the same before and after the ban.
Do they give up and say "gee, sorry, I guess we were wrong about vaccines causing autism-- I guess all those scientific studies that said there is no link were right" ? Ummm, no. Like fuzzy-thinkers everywhere, they stick to their bad ideas because "it happened to my sister," or "science doesn't know everything," or "it's all a Grand Conspiracy!"
I'm generally a very tolerant person. I think the world would be a better place if everybody was rational and clear-thinking and open-minded. But if you want to believe in astrology or UFOs or ghosts, then that's OK with me; it doesn't do me any harm.
But all those people who decide not to vaccinate their children do harm me a tiny little bit-- they make it a tiny bit more likely that my kids will get sick. It's the herd immunity thing; not everybody who gets vaccinated is immune, but vaccinate a large enough percentage of the population and epidemics can't happen. I don't want your kids in school with my kids unless they're vaccinated.