Vaccinations: Don’t let fear trump science

For more than three years now, this website has aimed to highlight the gaps between development and conflict management theories and what actually happens in development and conflict management implementation. A lot of what happens in both fields is driven by long held ideas and ‘best practices,’ mostly, but not always, conceived of based on western liberal thought, with the aim of improving the lives of all through health care, education and good governance of our theoretical and natural assets.

So it really angers me that in an age when we, as a development and humanitarian community, are making such progress in areas like healthcare, and increasing the rate of vaccinations of the most vulnerable to preventable diseases (an area where theory and practice align) – for example, vaccinating against yellow fever in DRC – there is a pushback against science in the western, liberal countries which spurred such a ground swell of change. The denial of climate change science among some is a good example, but it is the anti-vaccination movement which really makes me see red.

What breeds such ignorance? Why has the anti-vaccination movement taken hold? It is amazing to me, someone who has worked in countries where vaccinations really are a saving grace and a poverty game-changer, that some people in western countries feel that vaccinations are more harmful than they are protective and empowering. If not for my own experiences with health scares, it is doubtful that I could conceive of just where this movement began. Even so, while I have some theories, I am not sympathetic to the cause.

As far as I can tell, the anti-vaccination movement harks back to the unqualified and deliberate attempt to blame vaccines for the rise in autism. Now, any person with even an iota of intelligence should be able to understand that the ‘rise’ in autism isn’t an actual increase, per se, but rather much better diagnoses over the past 30 years. Sadly, though, when it comes to our health and the potential for it not to be ‘perfect’, there are few of us who can easily accept a reality we hadn’t planned for and look to place blame, because we didn’t do anything ‘wrong’ so how could ‘this’ happen?

Here is my story – my daughter has leukemia. She was diagnosed when she was 17 months old. I could not fathom it. I could not accept it – at all. My head told me, yes, let’s get chemotherapy started, but my heart couldn’t bear the consequences. Even worse, no one could tell my husband and I why she had cancer. I recall screaming at people – at my own mother who is a nurse of 30 years – that they were stupid if they couldn’t tell me why this had happened. Science was useless to me if it could treat a disease but not tell my why my daughter had cancer in the first place. The doctor took a lot of crap from me for months because I held on to that anger. Months. And yet she still talks to me. Because I am not the only one who has felt like this, nor will I be the last.

Of course I wanted to find someone to blame because when life takes an unexpected turn we are predisposed to shift blame – even when there is no blame to shift.

Such is my theory behind the anti-vaccination movement. Life has not turned out exactly as you expected it, so you shift blame and you’re vocal about it, and other people start to worry ‘hmmm, well, maybe we’ll play it ‘safe’ and avoid vaccine X’ and, like anything, ideas grow and people fall in line and the movement starts to gain traction, despite evidence that definitively disproves a link between vaccines and autism. Meanwhile, old diseases like measles and polio and whooping cough start making a comeback because not enough people are vaccinating anymore and we’re all terrified to send our kids to school. And the people in developing countries who’ve been on the receiving end of our vaccination push for 40-odd years are looking at us like ‘WTF? Why wouldn’t you do all that you can to protect your children from horrifying preventable diseases?’ Indeed (which is why I was ok with chemotherapy for my child despite the terrible side-effects we knew came with it. As parents, you do whatever it takes to keep your children safe and alive).

Honestly, I feel that the anti-vaccination movement isn’t about rejecting science (I actually know people who believe climate science but are anti-vaxxers. It is perplexing) but about fear that something might happen that you don’t think you’d be able to deal with, even if the evidence tells you that it is unlikely. Fear can be all encompassing. I know from experience – I was terrified about what it would take to get a baby through nearly three years of chemotherapy – of all of the changes to our life that would necessitate, of all of the sacrifices we would need to make individually and as a family. But here we are, with less than six months of treatment to go, and every day is still tough but we’ve accepted it and adjusted to it and we can live with it. Despite our misgivings grounded in anger and fear, we let science prove itself to us and we have been rewarded.
Unlike other articles on this site, I end with a request: please trust in science. Please keep your children safe, and by extension you can keep other children safe. Vaccinations are so important. Don’t be ruled by misplaced fear.

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