HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Vaccines: What A Gift from Science

Winter, the season for ho-ho-hoing and hot cider, is also flu season. We know the symptoms: sneezing, coughing, glassy-eyed stares. The flu is a rite of winter.

With the flu, come the behests: “Get a flu shot.” Physicians, billboards, public service announcements urge us on.

And, predictably, a new malady emerges: vaccine hysteria. The alarmists warn of dangers. A common complaint: “I got the flu when I got the shot.”

Vaccination hysteria already targets the common shots. Shingles, HPV, pneumonia, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, chicken pox, polio, typhoid, tetanus - we have vaccines for them all. Yet with every vaccine comes an admonition, buoyed with some data, some anecdotes, and, crucially, testimony from educated patients. The internet fuels the battle: on one side, the public health community en masse; on the other side, the patients. And, sometimes, the patients who object to vaccines work in medicine. Consider the hospital staff who, in spite of injunctions to get flu shots, refuse, calling on their unions for protection against that dreaded mandate.

In this hysteria, let me interject an academic article. Normally, scholars speak to each other, much like J. Alfred Prufrock’s mermaids who sing only each to each. The lingo of academia turns off readers. Multiple regression, meta-analysis, correlation, hypotheses – the words don’t draw “the public,” who think, sometimes correctly, that statisticians can prove anything they want, that egghead-research defies common sense, that Big Government wants only to pass down ukases. The public, much like Thomas Gradgrind, the schoolmaster in Dickens’ “Hard Times,” wants only facts – simple facts. “Facts alone are wanted in life.” The public doesn’t want the nuances, the contexts, the probabilities behind the facts. Indeed, sometimes they want one-sentence factoids – the stuff of internet blather.

Into this schism between the “public” and the “experts,” researchers presented a paper at the November meeting of the American Public Health Association that deserves mention. Looking at 480 childhood anti-vaccination articles on the web, the authors found a majority (65%) called the shots dangerous. A majority linked the childhood vaccines with autism. An alarming 41% linked the vaccines to brain injury.

Many of the articles cited genuine facts, but facts that – with all respect to Mr. Gradgrind – were useless. Consider the link to autism. Scientists have debunked those early studies. More importantly, the difference between causation and correlation matters. Vaccination has increased. Over time, a lot of maladies have increased. The question: is vaccination to blame? The statistical answer: no. Indeed, many of the articles cite peer-reviewed studies from reputable journals; but the authors misinterpret the results.

And of course there are the anecdotes. Thirty percent of the sites feature anecdotes from parents, convinced that a vaccine harmed their child. In the sharing world of cyberspace, one family’s tragedy metastasizes into a factoid.

The articles did not leave readers bereft of help. Parents fearful not just of the shots, but justifiably fearful of the diseases the shots are meant to allay, got guidance on healthy-living, diet, breast-feeding, alternative medicine.

And, as a sterling rebuke to scientists, many of the authors raised the “values” banner, pitting science against freedom, liberty, the right-to-choose. (People who rail against seat belt laws raise the same dichotomy: science versus freedom, as though the two are opposed). Some alarmists threw religion into the fray – putting vaccines into the Devil’s arsenal.

Yet vaccines mark a scientific advance – enabling us to ward off diseases before they come. For many diseases, we have treatments; yet antibiotics – the usual treatment – have grown resistant to some bacteria. For other diseases, like polio and measles, we have no wonder drugs. The best recourse is a vaccine.

So, in this season of coughing and sniffling and glassy-eyed stares, be thankful for vaccines. There is, alas, no guarantee that Santa will plop down the chimney, bearing our hearts’ delight, much less peace and joy. And there is no guarantee that a flu shot will immune us from the flu, no guarantee that the “recommended” shots will protect us from all the maladies. Indeed, there is a chance, even slight, of “adverse events.” But the probability that we will benefit is high.

Consider that probability a holiday gift from scientists, physicians, and public health bureaucrats.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care in Providence, R.I. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2015

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