Vaccination, measles, and the dangers of informed ignorance

There is a father in California who is worried about his son getting measles. He has a reason to worry because his son hasn’t been vaccinated. Carl Krawitt’s son Rhett can’t be vaccinated because his immune system is too weak after finishing three years of chemotherapy to treat his leukemia. Now, with Rhett’s leukemia finally in remission, the family has to worry about a deadly disease that had been eradicated in the United States for a decade-and-a-half.

Think about that. Thinking about having to watch your child suffer from leukemia and endure the torture of chemotherapy to treat it then finally getting the news that the leukemia is in remission. You should be relieved. You should be celebrating. You should not have to worry about a measles outbreak that should have been preventable if not for the informed ignorance of others.

I say informed ignorance because regular ignorance would be people not vaccinating their children because they do not know about vaccines. That is generally not the case.

The problem that has allowed measles to take hold in this country for the first time since 2000 is that people are using select bits of unsubstantiated and outright false information to justify decisions that put the population at risk.

Those who choose not to vaccinate their children feel they have enough expertise to make their own medical decisions. The problem is, these people are not medical researchers and do not treat the information they collect from the infamous Dr. Google with a level of critical thinking on which sound decisions on serious, complex subjects like medical science should be made.

To non-researchers one study or article that validates their opinion is a weapon, a sword to wield against their enemies. To researchers and those well-versed in the scientific method a single study is simply a data point. It may be interesting, but it is largely meaningless without other data to support or disprove its findings.

A child with measles.
CDC/NIP/Barbara Rice

In 1998, one fraudulent study claimed to have found a link between the measles vaccine and autism. One study. Proved to be fraudulent. Andrew Wakefield had manipulated evidence, abused developmentally-challenged children, and followed other unethical practices. Searching for it brings up words like debunked and hoax and irresponsible.

Unfortunately, that one horrible thing (I hate to even call it a study) was enough to create fear, uncertainty, and doubt in the unscientific community, and that has led to the decreased immunizations that have allowed measles to become a threat in the United States again.

I say that’s what happened in the unscientific community because the scientific community did what what the scientific community does. They looked critically at the original study. They tried to recreate the results in their own experiments (and could not). They did additional research.

Based on substantial amounts of research and analysis, experts have found no link between the vaccine and autism and found serious side effects to the vaccine to be extremely rare.

Are you still skeptical? Do you want to make your own informed decision? Fine. Just be sure to follow the critical thinking of a scientist. Start with the following:

  • Check that the source does not have any potential conflicts of interest.
  • Review the methodology of the study to ensure it was sound and tied to the hypothesis being tested.
  • Check the sample size to ensure it is sufficient to make reasonable assumptions about the larger population.
  • Check the sampling methodology to ensure it was without bias.
  • Check the statistical results to ensure that they realistically reflect the results.
  • Analyze the conclusion to make sure it is supported by the evidence.
  • Then, find and review all other studies and analysis on the subject. Be sure to check for conflicts of interest, soundness of methodology, sample size, sampling methodology, statistical results, and the logic of the conclusion for these as well.
  • If there are gaps in the research that leave unanswered questions, request funding in order to perform experiments to test those. Document your findings, and prepare to have your documentation scrutinized as described above.

Does that seem like a lot of work? Well, it is. That’s why scientific research is a job that people do full time after going to school to learn how to do it properly.

Googling is not scientific research. Leave science to the experts.

Besides putting very young children, people with weakened immune systems, and their own children at risk based on informed ignorance there is another aspect of the anti-vaccine movement that really annoys me: it’s not really anti-vaccine.

Most people who choose not to vaccinate their children aren’t truly against vaccines, whether they realize it or not. They are against giving vaccines to their children, but that is a luxury that they had because enough other people were immunizing their children to keep diseases like measles away. Hopefully, this outbreak can show people how big a risk they were taking. Hopefully a bunch of kids don’t have to die for those mistakes in judgment.

No matter what your political candidates or neighbors say, please vaccinate your kids.

And if you don’t understand how vaccinations work, read this post by South of I-80. It won’t make you an expert, but it will give you some much-needed perspective.

One last thing.

If you smugly read this whole post because you aren’t anti-vaccine; however, you do plan to choose-your-own-adventure when it comes to a vaccine schedule, I invite you to read this post again because everything I said about critical thinking and trusting sound science applies to you too. See, also, climate change deniers and creationists.

RELATED POST: Girls aren’t bad at math and neither are you

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You can also find Kim Z. Dale on Twitter and Google+ and like Listing Beyond Forty on Facebook.

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