Thursday, May 6, 2010

The 21st Century McCarthyism: the Spread of Anti-Vaccination Movement

The process of vaccination is that people are injected with small, innocuous amounts of specific virus in order to help them form immunity against that virus. This is how human bodies work to protect themselves from viruses and diseases that invade their bodies—-we form immunity against those invaders after we get the taste of them (well, at least the ones that we can fight off). And with this incredible innovation in medicine, human beings have benefited from vaccination for more than two centuries.

Granted, vaccination was not without controversy; it was deemed inappropriate for different reasons since its birth—-religious, ethical, or safety-related. Therefore, it may not be a surprise to see another phenomenal anti-vaccination movement (considering its cycle) arising in the 21st century with yet another interesting head figure named Jenny McCarthy. Jenny McCarthy, an ex-Playboy model, an actress, and the “mother warrior,” is the leading heroine who firmly believes that vaccination causes autism. I’m sure her intentions are genuine, stemming from motherly love. Nevertheless, I must also ponder the oddity of such spread of misinformation in today’s society which we proudly call the Age of Information.

As there is small, but significant growth in non-vaccination, public health officials are becoming worried. The CDC is making an attempt to clarify the misconceptions through carefully explaining the process of vaccination. Also, countless scientific-minded bloggers have explained the misleading arguments that McCarthy presented in her interviews and books. There are three main McCarthy arguments that many people tend to believe: “toxins,” intense “toxins” injection schedule and side-effects.

Many scientific-minded bloggers have already made excellent and hilarious rebuttals about her ideas. Orac summarizes his counterarguments concisely regarding “toxins” which McCarthy believes to be the cause of autism. Steven Novella refutes McCarthy’s and her ex-boyfriend Jim Carrey’s argument about harms involved with too much vaccination injected into young children’s body. CDC explains the potential of side effects of all the vaccinations and the high unlikelihood of getting extreme side-effects. By the way, autism is not even part of vaccinations’ side effect; studies have shown that vaccination does not cause autism quite clearly. So why are people misled when there are resources to clarify their doubts?

Through the advancement of the internet, obtaining information has become easier than ever (just google it). Perhaps such ease in getting information may have given people a double-edged sword as they are bombarded with diverse information. It has become hard to figure out which information is correct because everybody sounds so convincing! And one of the reasons why people can be easily misinformed is that they choose to believe in information that is more palatable and easy to understand. Moreover, parents of autistic children who support anti-vaccination are desperate to find a cure for their children. They want to believe that there is a cause to their children’s illnesses and eventually a cure.

Our society is basically motion without memory, which, of course, is one of the clinical definitions of insanity.

This is how James Billington, the thirteenth librarian of the United States Congress, describes our society in a too-much information age. In fact, many critiques are realizing people’s diminishing attention span as they flip through (no, scroll through) enormous amounts of information on-line. And we don’t peruse it—-we skim it! Nick Carr mentions a research article done by researchers in University College London whose result many can agree.

Internet research shows that the speed of young people’s web searching means that little time is spent in evaluating information, either for relevance, accuracy or authority.

We generalize what we skim through and mash them up with other information to create a whole entire meaning or perhaps no meaning at all. The fact is that we are not allowing ourselves to become analytical readers, but training ourselves to be impulsive readers. Such impulsive reading is spurring people to make impulsive conclusions such as vaccination is the cause of autism.

And what creates such impulse? Stimulating stories! No matter how much scientists and doctors cry out the importance of vaccination, people still find it dubious after watching, say, the Oprah Show, or say, reading Mother Warriors: A Nation of Parents Healing Autism Against All Odds by Jenny McCarthy. It is true that watching Oprah talk with McCarthy about McCarthy’s heart-wrenching stories of her son’s ailment is much more entertaining compared to listening to pedantic, preachy and pathetic-looking doctors. Moreover, reading CDC’s explanation about vaccination is far less influential than McCarthy’s empowering, though batty, story of hope and optimism toward the cure of disease that medical advocates dismiss as incurable.

It is easy to target doctors because it seems highly unlikely that they will understand the plight of parents with autistic children. Doctors sit at the top of the social pyramid, make millions of dollars and play safe for the sake of their golden jobs. Many times, doctors would tell various side effects and potential causes often related to family history—-genetics. The fact that there is some correlation (or worse, causation) to genetics for the disease their children are going through will make the parents feel only guiltier and more hurt. In an attempt to find salvation for their undeserved guilt, it is possible that they found vaccination as their villain. To these parents, finding the cause is just as important as finding the cure. The cause will eventually lead to the cure. Moreover, the cause will exempt them from self-deprecation. Watch this youtube clip from an episode of Doctors. Parents who believe vaccination to be the cause of autism would not hear a word from the doctors and the doctors’ urge to promote vaccination.

People become short-sighted when it comes to accepting something negative happening to yourself, not to mention happening to your own children. The small, safe amount of vaccine seems “toxic” when it is injected into your skin. Words like “autism” and “side-effects” catch your eyes more powerfully compared to the words describing the benefits. What pierces your heart is McCarthy’s unfounded theories dressed up with 30-second close-up of tear-brimmed eyes of a ludicrous yet loving mother. What relieves parents of autistic children is the bashing of vaccination as the cause of all evil rather than facing the truth. Finally, what matters to parents is protecting their children even if that means they have to take the anti-vaccination stance.

What these parents need to know is that currently there is no known cure for autism. However, there are treatment options that can improve autistic children’s behaviors and communication skills. Accusing vaccination as the cause of all evil and preventing autistic children from receiving any vaccination will not only jeopardize their health, but also endanger the health of their community. Vaccination works as a team-play; if a significant number of people within a community are vaccinated against a specific illness, there is less chance that the whole community will become sick, an effect called community or herd immunity. This means that the opposite is also true—-if significant amount of people are not vaccinated, the community as a whole is susceptible to disease in question. A recent study done with Hutterite group in Canada with H1N1 vaccination again emphasizes the importance of vaccination as the best way to prevent an illness for you and your community.

It is important that people see beyond the massive information in the internet, touching anecdote of a good-looking mother warrior, and the necessity to target something for the cause of their beloved children. Though less attractive and less acceptable, people need to heed to medical voice over celebrity appeal in order to make medically safe decisions for their children.

By choosing valid information in the internet such as information posted in the CDC website (which is run by the government), reading the site carefully before coming to a decision, and talking to their doctors, parents will be able to form medically safer decisions for their children. Lastly, although autism does have significant correlation to genetics, parents should not beat themselves too hard for their children’s illnesses, not to mention targeting the cause at unrelated matters such as vaccination. The most important step for parents with autistic children is to find the best treatment option for the children and help them maintain a healthy and meaningful life.

Now is the time to wrap up 21st century’s cycle of vaccination controversy. Anti-vaccination advocates must put on prescribed lenses of scientific truth to look beyond their myopically skewed views. If not, maybe this time they may have no other scapegoat to victimize other than themselves.

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