Ross Douthat has a rather excellent piece in the New York Times. He thoughtfully explains why some people end up not vaccinating their kids.
These are people who have direct, immediate, personal experiences that make them anywhere from skeptical to terrified of giving their kids certain vaccines. The much-discussed example now is parents who have a child who seems to slide into autism immediately after vaccination, but the category is wider than this. There is still a lot of mystery around human health, and there are a lot of people who have medical experiences, or whose children have medical experiences, or both, that are strange and baffling and awful in ways that simply don’t respond to standard medical diagnostic tools and methods. This the world of “chronic fatigue” and “fibromyalgia” and “environmental illness” and is-it-Lyme-disease; the world of the “sudden illness” that changed Laura Hillenbrand’s life; the world of all kinds of debilitating allergies and inflammations and reactions and agonies that sometimes get classified (not unreasonably) as psychosomatic but aren’t experienced any differently than a normal, mainstream problem or disease.
And people in these worlds end up relying on personal experience, not medical consensus, in the treatments they choose for their families because the medical consensus doesn’t seem to offer them anything: It can’t explain why they’re sick or why their kids are sick, it didn’t predict the reactions they seem to have to different medications and treatments and antibiotics and, yes, vaccines, and it doesn’t offer a clear path back to health … so they feel, very understandably, like they just have to experiment until they somehow find their own.
If we really want to increase the vaccination rates in this country. It is best for us all to not dismiss the anti-vaxxers as insane and selfish. It probably is best to understand where they are coming from. The anti-vaxx movement may have begun as a hoax, which I find totally infuriating. But Douthat is right. Western medicine doesn’t have all the answers.
One of my good friends has a daughter with severe Celiac Disease. She has major, big-time issues with gluten, as well all sorts of other mysterious aches and pains that take the poor girl out of school for weeks. The doctors don’t have much advice for my friend. She’s had to figure out herself how to treat her daughter. When her daughter gets an ordinary chest infection, she has to call the drug companies to find out if their antibiotics contain gluten. She gets most of her advice from parent chatrooms on the Internet.
And then I’m in the autism community. In our case, doctors have been exactly zero help. His pediatrician never thought my son had a problem. His neurologist diagnosed him at age five, but hasn’t been any help since then. She’s a drug dealer and doles out some attention medicine, which is mildly useful.
It is blatantly obvious to all the parents in my clique that some autistic kids get better and some kids don’t. Some kids learn how to talk and communicate and have useful, productive lives. Other kids stall out. Again, doctors and western medicine are useless at this point. We huddle in corners of therapy centers sharing our secrets.
Some people believe that kids recover from autism when there is a major change in diet. I don’t see it, but others do. I’ve seen the impact of intense interactions between the child and parents or other adults. With enough effort, the young brain can sometimes get rewired. Still, both these beliefs — food and intense interactions — are examples of DIY health, cobbled together by people who aren’t getting answers from the medical community.
So, I do have some sympathies with those who question the medical establishment. Douthat doesn’t think that sympathy and increased information will change the minds of people who don’t vaccinate their children. I think it’s an important first step.
UPDATE: However, however, however. Where the anti-Vaxxers and I part company is when they state that western medicine is purposefully hurting children. Doctors are willingly disregarding the interests of the their kids and pumping poison into their veins. I think that Western medicine still doesn’t have the answers for many serious health issues, but I don’t think that doctors are actively hurting my kids.