This is an issue very close to my usually cold and concrete heart as it involves the lives and deaths of innocents from completely preventable diseases and infections. With the recent explosion of anti-vaxers circling internet forums, television, and communities, I felt helpless to stop them or challenge their disastrous messages. I thought, what can I do, as an individual, to make their toxic message just a little bit less effective?
I’m going to help strengthen herd immunity, and urge others to do the same. If we can’t silence the anti-vaxer’s dangerous vocal arguments, we can silently protect those they affect by doing our part biologically.
I was worried that this post might conjure images of me sitting on a very high horse dictating what you should do and how great I am for suggesting you do so. If that does come to mind, what colour is the horse? If this post reminds one person to get their booster shots, then I consider that a large victory.
A lot of anti-vaxers recoil in horror at the mention of ‘herd immunity’ as if they’re being referred to as mindless sheep being herded into the doctor’s office in an orderly assembly line (if only that were the case…). Herd immunity is the immunity of a large proportion of the members of society and the consequent lessening of the likelihood of an affected individual coming into contact with a susceptible individual. These susceptible individuals are usually newborn babies who are too young and vulnerable to receive their vaccinations for various infections such as whooping cough (pertussis) and the measles. So basically, the logic of herd immunity dictates that the more individuals who are vaccinated, the chances that a chain of disease transmission will be interrupted are very high, resulting in self-contained, small outbreaks that will die out quickly.
What many adults do not know, and what I’m endeavouring to spread the word about, is that you need booster shots. I was surprised to learn that the vaccinations I received as a young child are not permanent (and this is why I’m not a doctor), and your body needs ‘reminding’ with regards to fighting these infections. Vaccinations for adults are also highly stressed for new parents, or people who are in contact with young and vulnerable babies and children. What actually spurred me on to getting my boosters was the fact that my neighbour is pregnant and I will no doubt be interacting with, holding, kissing, and sucking the youth out of this newborn baby. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be vaccinated before handling this new innocent baby. I am the adult, and for visits where I am responsible for the baby’s health (not dropping him, holding him correctly, basically keeping him alive), I should be vaccinated against any infections that he may catch.
The same logic applies to older children who I am in contact with as part of my work, study or volunteering. I do not know whether these children have been vaccinated. If I can be one more person that they interact with who CANNOT infect them, I see this as only a positive result of booster vaccinations. Their parents have obviously decided against vaccinating their children (something I vehemently disagree with, and with the help of ‘Stop the AVN’ am trying to change), and I can’t change that, but I can help herd immunity by protecting the ‘innocents’ in society. These innocent new born babies include Dana McCaffery who at 4 weeks old died after being exposed to whooping cough after her mother took her outside in a notoriously anti-vax area of New South Wales here in Australia. My heart breaks every time I hear this story, both for the painful death of this beautiful little baby and for the guilt the family feels for not knowing about the blatant apathy their community had with regards to immunisation. Here is her story:
Although verbal back and forths with the anti-vax groups may be falling on deaf ears, you can do your part to fight their dangerous messages. Do exactly what they’re campaigning against. Get vaccinated. Next time you go to your GP, discuss possible booster shots you’re eligible, swallow some concrete, and get the shot. Then, when you’ve got your little bandaid and lollipop for be such a good patient, tell anyone who will listen about what you did and why. You never know whose life you might be saving in the future.
Here is some information for Australian residents about vaccination programs: http://www.myvaccination.com.au/
After studying Psychology for 3 years I am humbled by and extremely confused about the human brain and how it works. Humbled because of the amazing capabilities that have evolved over millions of years, and confused because it is simultaneously the driving force behind the strangest and most dangerous theories, connections, behaviours and actions in history.
One of the most dangerous movements of recent times is that of the anti-vaccination networks, specifically those that say vaccinations (specifically the MMR shot) cause autism. Now I know you’re all sick of the ‘debate’, and I’d be preaching to the choir if I was to tell you that it’s been scientifically debunked, so how about looking at the psychological processes behind this strange conspiracy theory.
Firstly, for those not familiar with the MMR vaccination controversy, in 1998, a theory emerged that the MMR vaccine caused autism. Specifically, the theory argued that the vaccine lingered in the gut, causing gastrointestinal problems which led to autism. This very small study was discredited and debunked. In fact, while the rate of MMR vaccinates has remained constant, the rate of autism diagnoses has continued to soar1. Along with there being no connection with the vaccine, autism is a largely genetic disease, as scientists have found that if one identical twin is diagnosed with autism, the other twin has about 90% chance of developing an autistic disorder2. Also, because this is science, and you’d expect as such from science, I’ve included references of the publications in which I gathered these facts from.
We pride ourselves on being logical and rational beings, above all other animals, capable of intelligent decisions and proud of our newly formed frontal cortexes. Yet this belief is constantly challenged by observing ourselves and others who continually make emotionally driven decisions, whether it’s by believing in a particular religion, or simply buying a chocolate bar because you ‘felt like it’. This is because our frontal cortex is intimately linked to our primary emotions (fear, anger, surprise, happiness, sadness) and these easily take over the function of the frontal cortex. So when your offspring’s health is at stake, what do you think wins out?
Here is a quote from one of the many anti-vaccination websites floating around:
‘The scientific proof of vaccine caused autism has been around for some time but kept from the public by the industry controlled media who trumpet the smokescreen of junk science epidemiology studies that have all been shredded numerous times. Plus, the thousands of parent anecdotes are ignored for obvious reasons’.
Before steam starts billowing out your ears from the sheer ridiculousness, understand that these anti-vaccinators share our brain structures and connections. So what could explain these unfounded beliefs?
A major factor is external explanatory attribution. If you’re unfortunate enough to have a child with a disability like autism, there is the natural inclination to blame something or someone other than yourself to deal with any guilt or frustration you may feel. Everyone does it. We all make explanatory attributions to understand the world and to seek reasons for particular events. In this case, the external blame is placed on vaccines, doctors, the media and ‘big pharma’. No-one wants to be held responsible for their child’s sickness or disease, and with autism, no parent should be. An interesting feature of this psychological theory is the difference in attributions we make about ourselves and others. We tend to blame environmental influences on our behaviour and circumstances (‘I smoke because my job stresses me’), whilst we blame other’s behaviour on their internal choices (‘He smokes because he’s got no will power’).
These attributions flow seamlessly into forming strong and emotional cognitive and confirmation biases. The complaint of parent’s anecdotes being ignored is firstly failing to know that anecdotes don’t count as scientific evidence, but most importantly, is a great example of confirmation bias. We all have opinions and ideas that we wish to be reinforced and supported by others. I think dressing up cats in human clothes is hilarious, and I feel justified and supported when I find other people or groups that share my interest. This confirmation bias is evident in the anti-vaccination groups who actively seek out information that supports their claims and beliefs and ignore those that don’t (or blame it on a conspiracy). This is why they place so much importance on anecdotes. They trust fellow parents/people who share their opinions and are puzzled and insulted when others don’t.
As well as valuing anecdotes from others that support their position, anti-vacs employ the use of the ‘availability heuristic’. This is a cognitive bias tactic that our brains use to help report the frequency of an event based on how easily an example to be brought to mind. If you surround yourself with people who are convinced that a vaccination gave their child autism, and information supporting this theory, then these will be the first examples that come to your mind. But what makes this a vicious cycle of unstoppable madness and dangerous ‘information’ is that cognitive and confirmation biases are so strong and ingrained in individuals, that bringing them to their attention will most likely be ineffective as they will be dismissed by those who hold anti-vaccination views.
Of course these psychological tendencies and theories can be applied to anything in life. They are the core components of large organisations such as religions and cults, and can filter down into the smallest of decisions and opinions in everyday life. So even though you may vehemently disagree with and campaign with every fibre of your being against their movement, it’s hard not to identify with them on a purely human and emotional level.
1 – Exkorn, Karen Siff. 2005. The Autism Sourcebook: Everything You Need to Know about Diagnosis, Treatment, Coping, and Healing. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
2 – Lathe, Richard. 2006. Autism, Brain, and Environment. Philadelphia, PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
(This post was originally featured on the brilliant Martin Pribble’s website http://martinspribble.com/ Check him out!)