Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Vaccination Debate: Can't we just all be friends?

I never understand why bloggers/columnists/pundits insist that breastfeeding is the hottest debate topic for parents by far or that no other controversial issue elicits the same kind of vitriol. The vaccination debate is, I think, just as nasty, although maybe not as commonly seen.

So that you may understand my perspective fully, I am generally in favor of vaccines. Simply put, there are a lot of ugly diseases that used to kill lots of people that don't now, in large part because of vaccines. There are caveats, of course. There is always the possibility of side effects or reactions that can be severe, plus the chance that you might actually get the disease from the vaccine. It is a decision that I think all parents should make with as much information as possible. If they decide to vaccinate based on their research, as I generally have, or decide not to, as I sometimes do, I will allow them their decision in peace. What I ask is that they allow me the same courtesy.

Recently, a friend of mine on Facebook posted a link to a woman's sad story of her son's terrible reaction to a vaccine as an infant. Her description of the life he has faced since is heartbreaking. But it was unfortunate that she decided to criticize all those who decide to vaccinate their children, implying that they wish others' children to be sacrificed in the name of the greater good. The author went on to the–in my opinion–tired claims of autism and the MMR vaccine. I replied to my friend's post, saying that I certainly felt for the woman and what she and her son must be suffering, but that I thought the post was "unreasonably inflammatory." I also challenged the link between autism and the MMR vaccine.

I do not believe this link to be true. I have read many articles and studies which have widely discredited this association. In response, I was told that I must be a vaccine representative, making money off pitching vaccines. Several times, someone attempted to discredit me by saying I had an economic agenda to reply to my friend's post on Facebook. My obvious reaction is that if I'm in the pocket of Big Pharma, I've been missing a lot of paychecks.

The fact that I disagree with the autism-vaccine connection does not mean that I don't believe in reactions to vaccines. Every time my daughter was due to receive a vaccine at a regular checkup, I came to her pediatrician's office armed with information. I was expecting that her doctor would take my information and present a case in favor of the vaccine (or not), during which I would come to a final decision. Her specialty is infectious diseases, so I was looking forward to hearing her expertise. Sometimes she advocated for a vaccine I decided not to get. Sometimes she argued that a vaccine might not be necessary, and then I didn't get it. Sometimes, she convinced me to get a particular vaccine. I challenged her on other issues, for example extended breastfeeding and extended rear-facing. When we went to our last appointment and I told her we would be moving, she said she would miss me as one of her parents who challenged her to rethink her positions.

I'm in somewhat of an awkward position in this debate. I pretty routinely vaccinate my daughter (although not without research and discussion first) and I do the same for myself. Yet I fully respect those who choose not to vaccinate based on their own research. I respect them because I have studied the issue, see both sides, and I understand there are risks to either decision. And for some reason, I can't seem to get ahead in this position. I'm wrong for not lambasting those who vaccinate for poisoning their children or being mindless lemmings following standard protocol. I'm also wrong because I'm not lambasting those who don't vaccinate for being scaremongers who are only healthy because they rely on everyone else to vaccinate and prevent the general spread of these terrible diseases. And I apparently am worst of all because I seem not to take a uniform position (meaning that I believe some vaccines are more necessary than others, and I would get some but not get others).

Why must this happen? I generally try to stay away from the vaccination debate because I know that eventually it will be drawn upon these absolute lines that offer no opportunity for reason or common sense. More importantly, I cannot see why these debates (on vaccination and other issues) must so routinely descend into personal attacks. It's pathetic, sad, and just plain bad argumentation. Are people really so insecure that, when they don't feel they're proving me wrong adequately enough, they must cast aspersions on my agenda?

And finally, why are we not joining forces to gang up on the people who make these decisions without research or debate, who act in a knee-jerk fashion based on "how they grew up" or what their friends are doing?

I understand, more than most, that debates must always have a focus and purpose. But in most issues we face as parents, in most decisions we must sometime make, trying to persuade someone to go a particular way is not as effective as the methods used to make that argument and the evidence given to support it. This is true because in general, most people attempting to argue their positions in these kinds of debates are not trying to advocate for legislative change. They are attempting to change the minds of parents who are, in these issues, entitled to make up their own minds. In essence, this means that the more information that is disseminated, the more parents who are able to get access to those debates, even if they don't participate themselves, the greater the likelihood that they will be informed when they come down to making those decisions. And I do think that, within the scope of the vaccination debate, disseminating correct information in the most unbiased form possible is just as or more important than the decision the parent ultimately makes. If you are unabashedly in favor of one side or the other, your accurate presentation of the facts will persuade more people to your side. Certainly it will earn more supporters than scaremongering or personal attacks. I can love your argument, but I'm not going to say you had the right idea if you were a jerk about it.

I know it's cyberspace, and I know it's en vogue to start a flame war, especially if you feel you're losing. But let's remember that we're all humans here. We all make mistakes, and we all believe things that may not be true or turn out not to be true. I am all for supporting the issues that are important to you (just ask me about breastfeeding sometime), but I think that it should always come in a respectful form. I liked competitive debate because you were forced to deal with the person you were speaking to directly. I like debate online because it allows me more opportunities to discuss and disseminate information. I like to debate, period, and the internet provides ample choices. But I do my best to remember that there's a person on the other side of that computer, and I only wish that everyone else would do the same.

1 comment:

  1. Eloquent as usual, Holly!

    I recently removed a Facebook friend from my list because I was so hurt by a status update she wrote. She undoubtedly had a specific person in mind when she wrote it, but it didn't change the fact that she put it out there to the general population of her 200+ "friends." The status update said something like "I don't care if you don't vaccinate your kids, especially since you don't care about their health or whether they catch or spread diseases. But do me the favor of letting me know ahead of time so I can cancel our playdates, mmmmkay?" She was met with a few "high fives." I was going to respond, but decided against it. I don't know her and don't particularly care what her opinion is on the subject. For her to make the leap from "non vax" to "don't give a shit" was enough for me to have one less Facebook friend, and I'm a calmer person because of it.

    Your last sentence bears repeating. "... I do my best to remember that there's a person on the other side of that computer, and I only wish that everyone else would do the same."