I generally keep away from politically touchy subjects in this column, not because I don’t have opinions on those subjects, but because I don’t think that public forums are a very effective place to raise difficult issues. People’s emotions usually get provoked, and the discussion tends to devolve, first to entirely unsupported claims, and then to playground-level name- calling.
This is why I haven’t yet spoken to the subject of vaccinations. I just didn’t think it would be helpful. But recent events have convinced me that it’s something I do need to address. There’s just too much at stake for me not to.
So, here’s the deal. I know that vaccinations can be scary for parents. You’re taking this young child, who is entirely dependent on you, looking to you for protection, and you’re letting a doctor stick her with needles containing the weakened or killed versions of dangerous diseases. It seems crazy. It runs counter to your better instincts. And then you go online to find people claiming all kinds of things about vaccinations, including connections to autism, so there’s an understandable temptation to “be safe” and just skip this whole vaccination thing.
But here are a few objectively provable facts. The whole autism scare arose from one paper published by one person, Andrew Wakefield, who argued that there was a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine. However, Wakefield was subsequently found to be in the pay of a law board that was seeking exactly this kind of evidence. Investigations by other scientists discovered that Wakefield had falsified the data in his paper and committed academic fraud in order to benefit himself financially. He was struck from the medical register in Great Britain and is no longer able to practise there. Since that time, many research studies have been conducted to assess the safety of the MMR vaccine, and none has found a link to autism.
In fact, serious side-effects for vaccines are extremely rare. A 2015 study by the United States government found only 33 life-threatening reactions from over 25 million administered vaccines between 2009 and 2011. Most of those reactions occurred in older patients (none in patients under 4 years of age), and the majority occurred in patients who already had a history of asthma and allergies. Only one of those cases involved hospitalization (i.e. an overnight stay), and none of them led to death. In other words, your child runs a much greater risk by crossing the street or by getting into a car with you than by getting vaccinated.
But, just for the sake of argument, what if vaccines really did cause autism and other side effects? Would that justify not getting your child vaccinated? Let’s look at some basic risk analysis. Estimations of autism rates vary widely, depending on diagnostic criteria and other factors, but experts generally put the number at about 2 cases of autism per 1,000, and 6 cases of autism spectrum disorder per 1,000. So, let’s round up and say that your kid has a 1 in a hundred chance of being autistic if he gets his MMR vaccine. That’s the risk of vaccinating.
Now, consider that before the introduction of the measles vaccine in 1963, something like 2.3 million people (most of them children) died of measles each year. That doesn’t even take into consideration the many more millions who were hospitalized by measles, or who were hospitalized by mumps, or who were made deaf, blind, or mentally delayed by Congenital Rubella Syndrome. Without the MMR vaccine, your child has a massively higher chance of infant death, neo-natal death, serious birth complications, blindness, deafness, mental delay, hospitalization, and a host of other complications. That’s the risk of not vaccinating.
I know that you might not see that risk right now. It might seem like things have been pretty safe for your kid, even without vaccinations. But that’s only because enough people around your kid have been vaccinated, and so those diseases don’t spread like they once did. The trouble, however, is that the more of you who don’t get vaccinated, the more that group immunity starts to break down, the more those diseases start to spread again, and the higher the chance that your kid (or someone else’s) gets seriously sick. And it’s already happening.
There have been a growing number of measles outbreaks across North America and Europe, places where vaccinations had all but eliminated the disease. 72 people died of the measles in Europe last year. There have already been more than 10 outbreaks in at least seven states in America in 2019, making it almost a 25 year record for cases in the United States with most of the year still to go. That might not seem all that significant, but when you consider the 110,000 measles deaths that occurred last year in countries where vaccinations still aren’t prevalent, you can see the consequences that wide-spread refusal to vaccinate could have.
I understand that vaccinations might seem scary, but the alternative is much scarier. The risk of getting those needles, after a few tears, is almost zero. The risk of not getting them is substantially higher, not only for your children, but for many others. So book your appointment, and get it done.
Luke Hill has been the parent of birth kids, adoptive kids, foster kids, and just-need-a-place-to-stay kids for fourteen years. He’s had experience with kids in homeschool, public schools, and alternative schools. He’s been a teacher, a camp counsellor, and a coach. He’s also taught parenting courses for Children’s Aid for almost a decade. When he isn’t working with kids, he’s a writer, a publisher, and the director of a non-profit organization that supports book culture.