Fear and statistics

I’m not an exceptionally brave person. I’m afraid of dogs I don’t know. Thunderstorms in the middle of the night make me anxious. I’ve never gotten over being in a car that rolled on an icy road even though no one was injured in the crash. I’m nervous about doing things I’ve never done before. I suffer from acrophobia and claustrophobia.

I don’t know anyone who is not afraid of something. Fear is not the same thing as a reasonable cautious approach to things that are dangerous. Fear tends to be based more on emotions than on rationality.

The recent outbreak of measles has prompted a rash of editorial and online attacks against parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. These parents have been depicted as stupid, selfish, scientifically ignorant, and worse. The emotion and fear on both sides of the issue are understandable. The issue at hand is the health and safety of children. One side fears of the possible consequences of epidemic disease. On the other side fears exposing their children possible serious harmful side effects from the vaccines.

Some get their children vaccinated because that’s what they’re told to do. Some don’t because they read something on the internet that said vaccines cause autism. Some on both sides of the issue know nothing about how a vaccine works. Others are well informed and well read.  Some choose to avoid vaccines because they have children who have reactions following vaccinations.

I believe that vaccines make us healthier and increase our life expectancy. My own grandmother lost two of her children to diseases almost unheard of these days. Another of her sons contracted polio but survived.  My children were vaccinated when they were young, and I encouraged that my grandchildren be vaccinated as well.

While I am aware that vaccines are generally effective, claims that vaccines alone have eradicated these diseases and the deaths they cause are overstated. Some of the improvements in health, longevity, and the decline of infectious disease is in part the result of improved sanitation, clean water, better nutrition, and education on the importance of hand washing. The use of antibiotics and improved medical treatment has also reduced the number of serious complications and deaths.

I know parents on both sides of this issue. My friends who question having their children vaccinated are not stupid, or irrational, nor do they distrust science. They, like parents on the other side of the issue, are concerned for their children’s well being. I am not surprised that many do not trust the pharmaceutical industry. The record of drug companies’ putting profit ahead of consumer health and well-being is well documented. Many examples exist of drugs and treatments that have been sold as miracle solutions to problems only to be later proven to be harmful to a significant number of patients. Companies have hidden or underreported possible side effects. Hormone replacement therapy, for example, was at one time recommended for nearly every woman past menopause. It was claimed to reduce our chance of heart disease, stroke, wrinkles and almost every other risk of getting older. It was the panacea which would keep us young forever. After years of use, and hundreds of millions of dollars in profits, researchers found that in some cases, the drugs could increase a woman’s risk of heart disease and strokes as well as come kinds of cancers. Distrust of the system is not totally unfounded.

Science does not provide us with “the truth.” Scientists continually question their results and try to prove and disprove what they understand. Drug companies which have invested in the development of a new drug have a conflict of interest when it comes to investigating that product’s pros and cons. It is in their interest to present the benefits positively and to downplay the statistics of experienced side effects. That is why we need independent, publicly funded research into the effectiveness and safety of vaccines and other pharmaceuticals.

Many decisions we make are based on what we perceive to be the benefits weighed against the risks. Statistics are supposed to help us make those kinds of decisions. Studies have shown that far more children could be made sick and have long term problems as the result of contracting childhood diseases than are harmed by the vaccines themselves. Research also shows, however, that vaccinations are not always effective and may not prevent all cases of the disease they are intended to protect against. They may only reduce the severity in some patients and may have no effect at all in others.

All vaccines and drug treatments have side effects. Most of those negative reactions are minor like a sore spot where an injection was given. Others are more severe such as an allergic reaction, seizures, or even death. For most vaccines, according to the Center for Disease Control, the number of serious complications is very small, but they do happen.

When it comes to making decisions about the health of our families, it helps to understand the statistical risks and benefits. We all know in our heads that there is no such thing as zero risk. If our child, or a child we know, however, is the one in a million who has a severe negative reaction to a vaccine, it doesn’t make it easier that 999,999 others had no reaction. Our children are not anonymous numbers in a statistical analysis. We all make these decisions for our individual families based on our fears, our experiences, and our understanding of the evidence.

Parenting is a tough job. No one knows for sure they are making all the right decisions. Name calling, making fun of their concerns, or even burying them in statistics won’t change the minds of parents who choose not to vaccinate their children.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains