Monday, 24 February 2014

Response to BritMums Vaccination Post - By a ScienceMum

I'm writing this in response to a blog post on the BritMums site. In it a Dad declares himself pro-vaccination. Which is great, but for me the post doesn't go far enough and some of the comments that have followed have added to that feeling. So rather than respond to them all individually on the thread and look like I'm trying to high jack it entirely, I thought I would put up my own post here for those who are interested.

First up, If you are vehemently opposed to vaccinations, I know I have no hope of changing your mind so you may as well leave now  (or accuse me of being in the pay of Big Pharma* or something and then go, whatever) this post isn't for you.

This is for the many parents who just want to do the best for their kids, but have no previous experience in this area. Who try to do their own research and find they face a sea of contradictory information. I'm not a medical doctor and I'm not an expert in this field, but I am a scientist (and a Mum) and I have done a lot of research, over the years so I hope my opinions may be helpful to a few people.

(Also, I don't have a lot of time, so I'm just going to list a few of the comments on the post, and give my response, apologies if I don't link to evidence for what I say, I don't have time right now but if I can,I'll fill in the blanks later.)

Here, we go-

Some of the additives in vaccines are a bit "unsavoury":
There is a lot of talk about the additives in vaccines, much of it is plain nonsense. Either the "dangerous" ingredients are old ones not used any more or they may sound all chemical and scary but they have been used in millions of people for years without any real evidence of harm.
EDITED TO ADD: Often the additives are just used in such teeny tiny amounts that they pose no risk. For example, formaldehyde in vaccines sounds scary, but you'll get far far more of it from eating a pear then you will from a vaccine! As far as I know pears don't cause autism either.
 Here is a really helpful link to a more detailed explanation of additives in UK vaccines. 

Herd immunity:
This isn't really mentioned in the post but is touched on by a commenter. Choosing not to vaccinate your child doesn't just put them at risk. Yes if they are healthy then it's fairly unlikely that anything dreadful will happen to them without the jab. But they could pass a disease on to someone more vulnerable, a new born baby or anyone with certain medical conditions. If everyone eligible was vaccinated, the disease would simply disappear off the face of the earth as there wouldn't be enough hosts for it to keep going. We've already managed this with small pox and are very close with Polio. Diseases that used to kill and disable tens of thousands. Stuff the moon landings, this is one of man kinds greatest achievements.

Infographic by Leon Farrant data from CDC, 2011

The size of recent outbreaks means vaccinated kids must be getting sick too:
One commenter was worried about this, and it does seem to make sense if you assume the vast majority of kids are vaccinated. However, there are areas all over the UK where vaccination rates just aren't high enough. Take the recent Measles outbreak in Wales. Most babies are getting their MMR there, but a whole bunch of teenagers and young adults never had the jab as they got caught right in the middle of the (now utterly debunked) autism scare. Tragically, one of them died. You actually need a very high proportion of people to be vaccinated to get herd immunity. For Whooping cough, which has had a resurgence recently, and which can be fatal in newborns, you need up to 94% of the population to be vaccinated to keep those who are vulnerable safe.

Click here for an interactive map of vaccine preventable disease outbreaks

You shouldn't just blindly do as you're told - do your own research on vaccines:
Actually I agree, do do your own research. That's what science is all about after all, ask questions and look for evidence. But also question the evidence you get. Relying on scientific, peer reviewed papers isn't a perfect system. But it is by far the best system available. Anecdotes, magazine articles and yes - know it all blog posts are not the equal of a scientific paper. There are a lot of people who claim there is a conspiracy of government and big pharma, to hide the risks of vaccination, to make profits while cruelly endangering children. Yet often the people saying this stand to make a profit from you not vaccinating your child. Many have links to sales of alternative remedies or expensive private single vaccinations. Andrew Wakefield, who started the whole MMR scare was being paid huge amounts of money to produce evidence that would enable people to sue vaccine companies. He was also trying to develop and sell an alternative single vaccine. That someone would make false claims for personal profit is, to me, a more convincing story than that the NHS would conspire to pay for vaccines that would make loads of kids ill and cost them even more money!

Image is part of a great cartoon explanation of the Wakefield affair - Take a look at the rest here, it's well worth it

All drugs, including vaccines have side effects:
Yes they do. There are very few proven side effects to vaccination, but everything in life carries a risk so it's a matter of weighing up those risks. The question is - which is more likely to result in serious, long term damage to your child - a vaccination or an vaccine preventable disease? For the vast majority the risk of disease is far far greater.

My kids are healthy, why should I vaccinate them just to protect others?
It's a tricky question. Is vaccination an option or also a responsibility? In some other countries they take the latter approach and unvaccinated children are not allowed to attend government funded schools. Personally I'm uneasy with that but I am glad my children's jabs are also helping out others. Sure your healthy unvaccinated kid probably won't go deaf as a result of measles, but what if in a few years time they aren't so healthy? What if it's your best friend's, fully vaccinated child who needs to have chemo, looses all immunity and then gets measles? The outcome could be devastating. What if it's your own newborn who gets whooping cough from their otherwise healthy older sister? What if your kid is just one of the unlucky few who gets really sick even though they were fine otherwise. Just like kids used to all the time, before we had vaccinations?

There are plenty more common confusions over vaccination, and having read so much about it on the internet I can see why. If more comments come up on the Britmums post I may add them.

There is a whole blogging community devoted to trying to dispel these kind of myths, but it's one that rarely overlaps with the parent blogging world of Britmums etc. Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm in the process of making a few changes here and one of my main aims to to try and provide a link between these two blogging communities. There is a lot of nonsense out there, at best it is well meaning but inaccurate, at worst it endangers lives and preys financially and emotionally on the fears of loving parents. It assumes mums and dads are too stupid, too afraid or just have too little time (/sleep) to see through it. But I believe that "mummy bloggers" (and parents in general) aren't idiots, if we can only get at accurate information we can and will make sound, rational, decisions.


*I actually was employed, as a contractor, by big pharma for one year after I graduated. I didn't much like it and left to take up a less lucrative career with a charity. I have no remaining ties to pharma as far as I know.


  1. Excellent, well-reasoned blog. It may become my go-to link for whenever I encounter people opposed to vaccination. Thank you.

  2. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for the great summary. We need to get the message out there just like this, in 'average-parent friendly' speak (which is a rubbish way of saying what I mean, but I hope you get it!!)

  4. Wow, delighted to see my post on BritMums inspired you! You've written a superb post here. I just hope you don't think dad bloggers are idiots *winks*

  5. Thoughtful post making great points, especially the one on herd immunity. Thanks for the response to our guest post on BritMums.

  6. Don't worry John , I'm sure Dad bloggers can be every bit as smart (or indeed stupid!) as us Mums!

  7. Yes I get it! Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately there are vast amounts of information and misinformation on the subject and both sides like to use technical term and long words to put their case. No wonder so many people find it hard to get to the truth! I mean, it's not like parents are busy or anything?!