Dear Anti-Vaxxer: Yes, I do the research
One of the most frequently-sighted* comments from the anti-vax crowd to those who understand the safety and benefits of vaccinations is to “do the research”. It is never really clear what they mean by this, because they say it to nurses, MDs, DOs, and others with extensive training in healthcare and public health, such as people with Master’s Degrees in Public Health and PhDs in sciences related to human health. I have addressed the arrogance of this position before in this blog post.
So I’d like to take a moment to explain my story to anti-vaxxers in the hopes that they will understand that neither myself nor my colleagues are “brainwashed”, or “just swallowing what Big Pharma tells us”. First and foremost, I know very few scientists who enjoy just floating down the stream of science without making some waves of their own. We are trained during graduate school gestation to start questioning, criticizing, and picking apart the literature. We usually begin reading an article with the switch flipped to “skeptical” and not “thispaperistotallyconvincing”. So let me tell you, anti-vaxxer, I have spent some time questioning vaccines. Yes, you read that right.
When we decided to start a family, I felt that I needed to make sure that vaccines were as safe and effective as was generally claimed. I then proceeded to make an error for which I berate others on a daily basis: I Googled. And that Google search led me to understand how tremendously powerful the anti-vaccine message is if you have no recourse to understand the vast swathes of misinformation used to craft that message. It appeals to our emotional centers, not our rational centers. I have used the analogy of plane crashes and fear of flying here before, but will expand on it more below.
When there is a plane crash, it is all over the news, and it’s terrifying. But it is also so rare that it is essentially a negligible risk, and we fly anyway; in fact, over 640 million people safely zipped through the skies at 500 mph and 25,000 feet in the United States during June 2011-June 2012. Yet, when a plane crashes, even highly-trained accident investigators are not immune to serious psychological reactions. Anti-vax sites are very similar to a media story of a plane crash. They highlight an exceedingly rare, highly emotional event and conclude that because of these rare events, vaccination itself is not safe for the general population. In fact, both flying and vaccination are safe; yet hordes of people are terrified of these things, against all rational thought.
I was able to get past the emotional appeals of the anti-vax movement because I am lucky enough to have the training and access to read and understand peer-reviewed scientific papers. I must note that there are huge numbers of people without formal training who are also able to do the same, and/or who listen to the person in whom they have entrusted their child’s care: their pediatrician. Regardless, after being electrocuted by the anti-vax movement, I started reading the literature on PubMed and found that the “science” often spouted by anti-vaxxers was at its very best sketchy, but more often frankly disingenuous. And this made me pretty angry, actually.
What I want to the anti-vaxxer to know is that I have never stopped researching. I check the literature as it comes out and am reassessing things constantly. This is an argument that nobody wants to be on the wrong side of, including me. I check myself often. I ask myself, “Is it possible that HPV vaccine really is causing whatever disease the anti-vaxxers are claiming this week?”. Then I go into PubMed and read the latest research. Thus far, I have remained convinced that vaccinations are safe and effective. But I continue to “do the research” and “question everything”. So please, do not insult me and tell me that my colleagues and I don’t. We have, and we do, and the science remains on our side, not yours.
Here is a challenge for the anti-vaxxers out there. Try, for one day, to pretend like you understand that vaccines are safe and effective. Relax for a moment and let the truth of the science wash over you. Read the studies. Challenge your own beliefs. Open your mind to the possibility. I did it for your side, and now I ask you to try it for your kids.
*Public service announcement: The use of “sighted” here is meant to be a pun; a play on the fact that the works of anti-vaxxers are never “cited” but often “seen”. Maybe it’s a bad one, but it’s a pun nonetheless. Thank you for your attention.