Why I Don’t Listen To Jenny McCarthy — Or the CDC
The journalist responsible for the original uproar about the MMR vaccine and autism has been shown to have produced very shoddy research, and widely discredited. He was even recently banned from the practice of medicine in the UK. This has, of course, not quieted the debate. In fact, it’s gotten even worse, with his vaccine supporters claiming the science is settled, and vaccine opponents acting as if this is all a big cover-up.
The problem with this debate, for most people, is that they don’t have the training to actually view the real research and make an informed decision. They’re trying to decide whether to listen to their usual source of information, an emotionally-charged celebrity (Jenny McCarthy) or to trust the authorities, who just naturally have that stink of “they must be hiding something” about them. Add a dash of humanity’s propensity to swallow conspiracy theories, and nobody knows what to believe.
As a parent, I decided it was my job to educate myself and make the decision for my kids, regardless of what the CDC said. Nothing is riskless. It is my job to weigh the risk of vaccinating against the risk of not vaccinating, both for specific vaccines, for the age of administration of those vaccines, even to the level of possibly discriminating against brands of vaccine based upon ingredient levels (you may laugh, but I have asked my pediatrician which brand they use).
Some anti-vaccine folks in my extended family supplied me with the crackpot books they’ve read (i.e. books where the author was denouncing the entire germ theory of disease as bogus), and it was clear reading these that the authors had an axe to grind. A book written from an ideological perspective is not necessarily a disqualification, but books where the ideology trumps the science are out of the question.
I ended up on a book published by my kid’s pediatrician. I chose it because it seemed to honestly and neutrally discuss the relative diseases guarded against, the ingredients of the vaccines in question, and the safety record of the vaccine. The author supports vaccination, but it was clear that he did his level best to offer the evidence without bias, separate from his own recommendations pro/con on each vaccine.
I ended up choosing the vaccine schedule that I put my kids through based on that information — i.e. a cost/benefit analysis of the likelihood my child might contract the disease in question, the severity of the disease if he did catch it, and the relative risks of the vaccine in relation to the above.
As an example, I chose that my children get the polio vaccine. While it’s a rare disease, it’s a particularly nasty disease, and the vaccine is one of the safest available. I also chose to get vaccines such as HiB and Rotavirus, because they’re relatively harmful diseases, particularly in infancy, and also diseases that my kids aren’t that unlikely to contract.
On the other hand, I chose against MMR. While measles, mumps, and rubella are common, they’re also typically mild diseases. The vaccine has a higher prevalence of adverse reactions than most, and there is a worry that some of the vaccines for “mild” diseases can lead to complications later in life, with a more virulent and dangerous form of a disease affecting the individual in adulthood. Thus I didn’t believe taking risks to protect my kids from diseases that seemed relatively innocuous in most kids made a lot of sense, especially since the long-term effect is unknown. I had the same rationale for the chickenpox vaccine.
I also opted for a more spread-out vaccine regimen (i.e. not necessarily later in life, but more visits and less shots per visit), because I think the likelihood of an adverse reaction may be increased when you subject a body to the stress of several vaccines at once.
This, of course, is done with the unique attributes of my family taken into account. It’s a low-risk household, with the kids breast-fed until 12 months, no day care, and not a huge amount of interaction with hordes of other youth. Further, they’re well-nourished and healthy kids, so I feel they’d be far better than “average” at weathering the storm of a disease like measles or chickenpox. This, of course, also makes them less likely to have an severe adverse reaction to a vaccine, so it affects the risk/benefit of vaccinating just as much as not vaccinating.
I know that this decision is my responsibility as a parent. I know that I am weighing some risks against others, and that there’s a chance that things could go wrong. It is because of that responsibility that I read 3 books cover-to-cover on the subject, discarding two of them as trash and settling on one that I thought trustworthy before making my decisions. At the end of the day, I feel like I made the best decision I could, given the evidence I had, and I and my family are going to be the ones who have to live with the consequences, right or wrong. That’s a heady weight, and one that most parents probably don’t want to bear. But that’s the responsibility that comes with raising a child.
The problem will come when the kids need to go to school. The schools typically demand that you’re current with all or most of the vaccines on the CDC schedule. Most public schools will allow you to let your unvaccinated child attend if you claim a philosophical objection to vaccinations. It’s a major hassle, but they do allow it. The problem for me is that I don’t have a philosophical objection to vaccination (especially as an atheist — no religious reasons for me). One of the pieces of evidence against a philosophical objection is to give your child any vaccines — i.e. my piecemeal approach is not philosophical.
I do have a philosophical objection to bureaucratic one-size fits all government mandates, though, and thus I don’t accept that the government should be the one demanding that I follow their cost-benefit analysis for “most” kids when it doesn’t fit my family’s particular situation. My philosophical objection is being forced to take risks with my children that the CDC wants me to take, when I’ve evaluated the research myself and I disagree. That objection, though, is less well accepted in California than Scientology.
PS – Above left as a comment to this post at Reason. It’s a topic that I’ve wanted to cover here for a long time, so I expanded the comment slightly and presented it here.
PPS – Do vaccines cause autism? I don’t think there is a direct correlation. Some adverse reactions have included extreme fever and meningitis, though, two things that can cause permanent brain injury. I don’t know that there’s any correlation between mercury or aluminum and autism, but there may be a link with severe reactions and autism, or at the very least, with severe reactions and non-autism brain injury.