When I was pregnant with my daughter in 2007/2008, the anti-vaccine movement was strong and hadn’t been fully debunked. My daily – hourly – thoughts revolved around the fear of a C-section. I was also consumed with doubts as to what we would do once I gave birth and my husband and I were responsible for meeting the baby’s daily needs. How would we keep a helpless human alive with no prior experience?
A friend I trusted recommended a book about vaccines – one of those “what doctors don’t want you to know” deals. I bought it and read it, and even as a scientifically literate person, was somewhat swayed by what the book said. My husband and I talked it over, and from what we could tell, the best decision to make about vaccines was that we would agree to all of them, but just that we would space them out. At the time, we were worried that too many vaccines at once might not be good for a newborn immune system. We had never had a baby before, and the prospect was terrifying. Every decision we made seemed dramatic and life-threatening. Our pediatrician turned red with anger when we told him what we wanted to do, but he assented.
This is a major confession. I was one of those people who infuriated her doctor with an alternate vaccine schedule. I know I will lose serious science cred by daring to say so. But I think it’s important for me to admit that this was my previous thinking on vaccines, because regardless of what you may think of me, I’m pretty confident I’m not an idiot.
Why do so many non-idiots get swayed by the anti-vaccination movement? Well, there were celebrities on the bandwagon who were given plenty of chances to share their thinking. At the time, there was supposed data linking autism and vaccines, since shown to be faked. There is the way that our culture suffuses parents, especially mothers, with fear during pregnancy and childhood because they are made to feel as though all their decisions will decide the fate of their kiddo, from ridiculous limits on food and exercise for pregnant women to the pressure to ensure perfect mother-infant attachment upon birth.
And finally, there is the fact that a lot of us harbor some distrust of medicine. This one comes from the fact that most oppressed groups have had pretty horrible experiences with medical science, from twilight sleep to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And given my expertise, I was able to read scores of original science articles demonstrating that current obstetric care was not good, nor was it that evidence-based. With my growing skepticism of the state of obstetric care, a skepticism of infant care seemed natural.
A lot has changed in the last few years. One of the turning points, to my mind, was Seth Mnookin’s 2011 book A Panic Virus, which identified the culture that contributed to the anti-vaccination movement, explained the sometimes-problematic history of vaccines, and fully and conclusively debunked the autism-vaccine link. In the last few years, I have noticed that derision towards anti-vaxxers has grown. And some anti-vaxxers are certainly willful in their ignorance.
But many are not. Many of them are just I was – scared, not really knowing any better, and wanting the right information to make the right choices for my child. There are moms being told not to eat soft cheese or allow their heart rates to exceed 140 beats per minute. There are pregnancy forums with people endlessly debating different induction protocols and sharing horrifying experiences with epidurals, episiotomies, hypnobirthing, hospitals, homes, standing or sitting births. It’s hard to parse our fears for our kids with the actual evidence for what interventions help or harm them.
A friend of mine just pointed me to a new app that I hope will bridge this gap, at least when it comes to childhood vaccines. The Vaccine Education Center at CHOP, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, has just released a new iPhone/iPad app called “Vaccines On the Go: What You Should Know.” The VEC is directed by Dr. Paul Offit, co-creator of the rotavirus vaccine and preeminent scholar and educator on vaccine safety and efficacy.
Unfortunately, I can only view the promotional video and not test out the app myself, because I own Android machines. The good news is that CHOP is considering options for an Android version of this app. Since most US and worldwide smartphone sales are for Android operating systems (I looked it up, since I was a little upset that I couldn’t actually try it out myself), this means the app could have a greatly expanded reach in the future.
Websites and apps that provide accessible, evidence-based answers to parents’ questions are big ways that science can push back on misinformation. And I wonder if building trust in parents in turn helps build that trust in kids. The more transparent we make scientific thinking and information, the more science literate, rather than science averse, people may emerge from the debate.