Current news reports are filled with alarms about the recent widespread outbreak of measles, the largest since the disease was thought to have been eliminated here almost 20 years ago. The cause is being attributed to the spread of misinformation about vaccines that scares parents into not immunizing their children.
The false theories about vaccines that create parental concerns are that vaccines cause Autism, that trace amounts of mercury and aluminum in them are dangerous, or that that they contain other ingredients unacceptable to some religious groups. At the same time, various factors have been identified as contributing to these concerns and creating an assertive anti-vaccination stand in some.
A fear of environmental toxins and a distrust of big pharma has become more pervasive. Also, older first-time mothers who have delayed childbearing generally have higher levels of education and are more likely to reject vaccination believing in their own expertise; a greater belief that healthy eating and exercise can protect against infectious diseases, and overconfidence in the power of children to fight off such diseases due, in part, to the success of vaccination.
As with rumors, biases and false information in other aspects of life, social media and the ability to spread ideas and find support in like-minded people has contributed both to misinformation and fears of vaccines that parents are prone to have in general about the well-being of their children.
Unfortunately, an atmosphere of blame is now being created toward religious groups but also toward parents who are now being accused of putting not only their own children but others as well at risk because of a failure to vaccinate. Leading religious leaders have taken the responsibility of reassuring their believers about both the safety and acceptability of vaccine ingredients, urging that children be vaccinated.
The wish to reassure parents generally touches on deeper concerns. In my own work I have encountered the anxiety parents feel about vaccines as a cause of autism as well as possibly other developmental disorders. Although this fear originated from a small, deficient, inaccurate study, its pervasiveness speaks to a deeper cause.
Statistics show a sharp increase in the rise of autism and it is not clear if this reflects a greater skill in diagnosis, a change in diagnostic criteria for the disorder, or a real increase in numbers. Due to the increase in numbers, much attention has been given to this disorder in popular media and elsewhere. But despite various theories offered there is no accepted known cause of autism. There is also no actual cure for the disorder, only a variety of therapies.
Whenever in life something of concern occurs there is an almost universal need to find a reason or cause. This is especially true when it is something concerning our children. If their well-being is affected in some way, parents often second guess themselves. If only I had or hadn’t done this or that thing, this might not have happened. Mothers in particular feel they should be omnipotent, preventing harm and providing cures.
It is not difficult to see how avoiding vaccinations could fill the need to take all precautions where our children are concerned. But in this instance, parents are confronted with the need to separate more universal anxieties from real events. We have now had sufficient evidence that having children vaccinated is a public health matter like safe drinking water or food safety inspection.
As members of a community we recognize the need to give up some personal freedom for the benefit of the common good. In this case it is also for the good of our children to withstand infection.