An Open Letter To The Non-Vaccinating Parent

by Holly Reid
Originally Published: 
A woman in a laboratory looking at a test tube sitting at a desk with a microscope on it
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Maybe you are outright against vaccines, or maybe you aren’t exactly against them, but fall into a broader category of “vaccine-hesitant.” Whichever one you are, I’m going to guess that you’re used to a certain set of assumptions made about you. I’m not going to lie, I have some assumptions I hold as well. For example, I assume you love your children fiercely. I assume you want what’s best for them. I assume that you are trying your hardest to find the right information to guide you along the path that’s right for your family. I assume you are educated and strive to strengthen your research skills. When it comes to these traits, we have every single one of them in common.

I’m not going to berate you. I’m sure you are so very over the barrage of insults and judgment. I’m not here to argue with you, but I do have some questions.

​My first questions for you – Where are you getting your information? Were you led to it from social media? In this article, the National Institute of Health explores the recent rise in anti-vaccination sentiments across Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, even Myspace. As this excerpt from the article describes, “Online anti-vaccination authors use numerous tactics to further their agendas. These tactics include, but are not limited to, skewing science, shifting hypotheses, censoring opposition, attacking critics, claiming to be ‘pro-safe vaccines’, and not ‘anti-vaccine’, claiming that vaccines are toxic or unnatural, and more. Not only are these tactics deceitful and dishonest, they are also effective on many parents.”

How effective? The article describes a study in which participants were given 40 different websites with information about vaccines. Nearly 60% of the users assessed that all the sites were entirely accurate when, in reality, 18 were actually accurate and the other 22 were inaccurate. These sites were not evidence-based and argued vaccines were inherently dangerous. The study showed that it only took viewing an anti-vaccine website for merely 5-10 minutes to increase perceptions of vaccination risks. And once that seed of misinformation has been planted, it’s difficult to uproot; the study found that the anti-vaccine sentiments obtained from viewing the websites still persisted five months later.

So another question: why do you believe these platforms rather than the thousands of doctors and scientists who support vaccines? Is bias a factor? We all have our biases, whether we like to admit it or not. When it comes to not vaccinating, confirmation bias and explanatory depth bias come into play in particular. An example of confirmation bias would be: “I didn’t vaccinate my children and they are not autistic and they have strong immune systems.” This type of thinking takes one anecdotal instance and broadly applies it across the board, encouraging you to see cause-and-effect where there is none. Explanatory depth bias occurs when we spend a significant amount of time reading up on a particular subject and believe we know more about that subject than we do. Believe me, I’d love to think I’m an expert on several diseases due to being a hypochondriac who has memorized a few Wikipedia articles, but I’m just really not. I didn’t spend years and years studying and being painstakingly tried and tested. And that’s okay, because lots of people did!

On that note, since I recognize that I am just another mom (on social media no less!) with zero degrees in science, I asked a real professional where we should find accurate, reliable information. Dr. Sarah Fankhauser, an assistant professor of biology at Oxford College of Emory University, is an expert on infectious diseases, has her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology, and is also a mother. She offers some insight into the robustness of actual science: “Legitimate scientific studies go through a process of peer-review and publication. During this process, other experts in the field have to review the work, critique it for accuracy, bias and sound-construction of the research, before it’s even published. These papers are often hard to digest because they’re written for other scientists, but you can sometimes find editorials or news articles written about scientific papers (written by individuals that have some scientific background or have consulted scientists). How do you know if these editorials are legit or not? Does the article provide a reference to a peer-review study in a credible journal? If you can find the original study on PubMed, then chances are greater that it’s legit.”

Listen. I understand the fear. I GET it. But the importance of placing value on information provided by actual science and guidance from actual doctors cannot be understated. When my children were very young, I remember feeling uneasy when I looked at the vaccination schedule. I remember watching my babies cry as they received up to four injections in their chubby legs. I cringed and looked up at their pediatrician and, worried he would belittle me, asked anyway, “Can babies really handle this? Can their immune system adjust to so many different things thrown at it at once?”

He responded thoughtfully and thoroughly, explaining to me the complexity and diversity of the immune system and, as science progresses, how these vaccines are the most effective and safest versions that we have to date. Really, I am lucky my children are healthy enough to immunize, because it helps protect the children who are not. After all, it was the older, immunized children and adults who protected my babies when they were tiny and vulnerable.

​So let’s wrap this up with my last questions: At the end of the day, are you confident that you’re basing your non-vaccinating actions on the best possible information out there? Have you challenged your biases? Have you questioned the source of your information? Have you tried your hardest to ensure that the articles you’ve read have been put through the peer-review and publication wringers? Because, let’s be clear: I assume you love your children more than anything in the world. Whatever you put your faith and trust in regarding their health should expect nothing less, right?

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