An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All

Onsdag 21. oktober 2009

Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans – now regarded as a third world problem – were a first world reality.

Today, because the looming risk of childhood death is out of sight, it is also largely out of mind, leading a growing number of Americans to worry about what is in fact a much lesser risk: the ill effects of vaccines. If your newborn gets pertussis, for example, there is a 1 percent chance that the baby will die of pulmonary hypertension or other complications. The risk of dying from the pertussis vaccine, by contrast, is practically nonexistent – in fact, no study has linked DTaP (the three-in-one immunization that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) to death in children. Nobody in the pro-vaccine camp asserts that vaccines are risk-free, but the risks are minute in comparison to the alternative.

Still, despite peer-reviewed evidence, many parents ignore the math and agonize about whether to vaccinate. Why? For starters, the human brain has a natural tendency to pattern-match – to ignore the old dictum “correlation does not imply causation” and stubbornly persist in associating proximate phenomena. If two things coexist, the brain often tells us, they must be related. Some parents of autistic children noticed that their child’s condition began to appear shortly after a vaccination. The conclusion: “The vaccine must have caused the autism.” Sounds reasonable, even though, as many scientists have noted, it has long been known that autism and other neurological impairments often become evident at or around the age of 18 to 24 months, which just happens to be the same time children receive multiple vaccinations. Correlation, perhaps. But not causation, as studies have shown.


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