By Anna K. Eaton, PhD
This post is a response to Alice Callahan’s post on vaccines (republished here). Please note: the author is not advocating distrust towards doctors, scientists and the medical community. Rather she advocates that clear rationale and logic should be the basis for making important decisions.
Anna K. Eaton is a former research scientist who currently teaches part-time at a local community college. She writes science lessons for chemistry, biology and math students at her Science Matters blog.
A Decision Based on Logic - Why I choose to vaccinate
I recently read a blog article by a fellow scientist turned stay-at-home-mom on why she chooses to vaccinate. Although we both agree to vaccinate our children, I disagree with her reasons on why as a scientist and a mother, I should let a doctor stick a needle into my defenseless baby and inject foreign substances into their bloodstream.
The premise of this article is that the author trusts scientists and doctors because she, herself, is a scientist and she is aware of the all that goes into scientific research. The author trusts the scientists, medical community, and scientific committees and believes that since she can’t know everything, she places a certain amount of “faith in humanity” and “trusts others who know more [than her].” But questions remain: How do you know which doctor or scientist to trust? After all, there are so many and they are not all in agreement. Also, how do you know that the doctors (or scientists) you have chosen to trust are experts in the field? There are scientists that may never have published, others that may have only published twice (that’s me) and still others that may have published hundreds of articles in peer-reviewed, highly-acclaimed journals. Surely these scientists do not all have the same level of expertise and therefore worth your same level of trust. In a world where everyone seems to proclaim that they are an expert and where people may even take deliberate measures to fool the public into thinking they are experts, its hard for me to say to someone to trust doctors and scientists. In fact the author of this article admits that she herself has trouble trusting the experts when it comes to cord-clamping, going so far as to bringing research and documentation to a meeting with her doctor to have a discussion about delayed cord clamping.
As a scientist and a mother, trust is just not good enough. Training to be a scientist, I was taught to question, which in and of itself is in direct opposition to trust. Add that to the realization that doctors do get payments from pharmaceutical industries, bad science does get published and people do have agendas – no, trust is just not good enough for me. As a mother, biologically-speaking, my sole goal on this planet is to raise my children to reproductive age. I am going to question things, I am going to worry, and most importantly, I am going to do what I believe is best for my children – not trust that someone knows what is best better than I do. It’s just a natural instinct and I’m not going to try to fight years of evolution.
Taking trust out of the equation would leave me without much reason to vaccinate my children (as per this author’s blog post). So why do I choose to vaccinate?
First, some background on myself. I am a scientist – a basic scientist. I earned my doctorate from the University of Maryland, College Park, working on protein kinetics. My strengths are microbiology, cell biology, and biochemistry. After earning my doctorate, I went on to a position at the Cleveland Clinic. I started doing loads of experiments with radiation and then found out I was pregnant. Everyone told me that I can work safely with radiation, and while I don’t necessarily disagree with them, I just figured, why risk it? I left and became a stay-at-home-mom.
My first child was born before I could really get into the amount of vaccine research out there. I was forced to operate blindly. I questioned the vaccine schedule, I questioned my doctors and I questioned vaccines in general (I’m a scientist, would you expect anything else?). My first child was born at the start of 2010, when Wakefield’s MMR paper had yet to be officially retracted. Every instinct in my newfound maternal arsenol of instincts screamed NO, don’t vaccinate! But years of studying microbiology challenged these instincts and I eventually went with some sort of delayed vaccination schedule.
Then my pediatrician handed me a book. It was written by Paul Offit, pretty much the foremost leader of vaccine research in the world. After reading this book, I was reminded that as a scientist, we look to logic for making our decisions. We question, gather evidence, analyze that evidence and attempt to draw logical conclusions (Note: there is nothing in there that says trust). So I poured into vaccine research. Luckily it didn’t take long to realize that there is overwhelming research supporting vaccines and the vaccine schedule as it stands. I mean just go to the library and look at Vaccines, 5th Edition. The weight of that textbook speaks volumes.
But wait, Offit is a scientist and doctor that develops vaccines. He is a person and he has an agenda. Why would I trust him and his book? Well first of, I don’t trust him and I didn’t trust his book. His book reminded me to search for logical reasons when making a decision. When it comes to vaccinations, the absolute only logic comes from looking at the evidence, all the evidence and weighing that evidence. This is a hefty undertaking and slightly more work than relying on the anecdotal stories the anti-vaccine movement throws at us. I went to the research and read that research and started writing blog poststo disseminate my new understandings. I emailed Offit and talked with him personally. I read many chapters in the Vaccine textbook and I came to a logical conclusion that the evidence is there to support vaccines.
Some people will say that Offit works with the pharmaceutical industry to develop vaccines. Naturally, this suggests a logical reason to distrust the man, distrust the research and distrust vaccines – I do not disagree. But wait, let’s get more information about Offit before we jump to the conclusion that Offit’s agenda is something akin to sinister. Offit is playing a large role in the rotavirus vaccine development. Rotavirus is the virus that leads to severe diarrhea and dehydration that kills a half million (450,000-600,000) children every year, worldwide. But, get this, the consequences of this disease are not felt here in the United States. It’s felt in some of the poorest countries of the world. This vaccine will most likely be donated to these countries. Does this man seem to have an agenda to make money by his rotavirus vaccine? The evidence suggests otherwise. No, I have to conclude that this man has an agenda to help people.
Feelings of distrust are in all of use and as I argue, possibly the strongest in a new mother. We can’t hide those feelings and certainly, reading an article about a scientist that trusts other scientists is not going to change those feelings. No the only way to conquer distrust is to search for truth. And the only way to search for truth is to turn to logic. So to moms everywhere strive to look for logic in things. And when it comes to vaccines, the evidence points to vaccinations. Trust me.