Fears over the Swine Flu Shot: Blame it on the Vaccine-Autism Scare

Surprised so many parents refused swine flu shots for their children?  About 40% according to a recent ABC-Washington Post poll.

Half the parents the doctors are seeing these days don't want the H1N1 vaccine for their kids, and the other half, can't wait to get it, according to Perri Klass, a pediatrician with a regular column in the New York Times Health section (18 AND UNDER; Fearing a Flu Vaccine, and Wanting More of It).

So what about mom's and dad's reluctance to get the shot (or the mist)?

I blame it on the vaccines-autism spectacle, specifically the more than decade-long misinformation in the media suggesting vaccines trigger autism.  A lingering theory despite a large body of scientific evidence that says otherwise.  Despite some very good recent media reports debunking the claim.  The recent Newsweek article on the fraudulent Lancet study that launched the scare.  Or the recent NY Times editorial.  Or Wired magazine's excellent series (more on that later).  Still, misinformation proliferates.  Perpetuated by parenting magazines (Hello, Cookie Magazine, Jenny McCarthy is no expert!), celebrity/journalists (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.), politicians, once respected journalists (David Kirby), websites and blogs (The Huffington Post) and countless autism activist organizations.   

True, a lot of people doubt vaccines trigger autism or don't believe it anymore.  But an increasing number are refusing to vaccinate against childhood diseases.  That's the price we're paying for health experts who didn't speak out loudly enough.  For journalists who chose to cover the flawed and biased but oh-so-dramatic pseudoscience over the boring, more rigorous studies that didn't find any pernicious results. 

Then there's the psychological costs of the false alarm. 

The residual doubts.  The lingering doubts.  About the safety of vaccines.  The efficacy of vaccines.  The trustworthiness of health officials.  Probably even among people who discount the autism link.  The vaccines-are-dangerous seed has been planted.  Psychologists and political campaigns know all too well negativity works - the disturbing thoughts, the fear, the anxiety, it remains after the fact.  Much more so than the positive.   It's easy to remember the downsides to vaccines, even if they're not true.  

So as a result, the flu shot looks much scarier today.   Granted, the flu isn't as bad as Rubella or Polio.   But still, it's a flu shot!  Do people out there fear the H1N1 strain is going to trigger autism or other chronic conditions and diseases? Learning disabilities?  What?  Are they worried contracting the flu from another person will have the same disastrous results?  I would love to know.   The objection to childhood vaccines (and by that we're really talking those for the two and under crowd for the most part) rests on injecting potent things into fragile bodies and minds.  But people are rejecting flu vaccines for children of all ages.  Do parents really think the vaccine is going to harm a five year old? 

Then there are those passing on the H1N1 shots because they don't think the swine flu is all that bad.  Well, if the swine flu isn't so bad, then the vaccine must not be so bad.  If I were a public health official, I'd ask you to get the shot for all the vulnerable folks out there.  

Yeah, we may be tired of hearing about autism and vaccines, but we're not finished it with it yet.  That's our legacy of botched science, botched scientific reporting, and biased spokespersons.   Personally, I'm thinking this is just the beginning.  Scientific evidence is only going to get more difficult to interpret in ten-second media bites.  The sheer volume of information is only going to get more and more cumbersome.  

We're setting ourselves up for another perfect storm. 

FYI:  When the ABC-Washington Post poll asked parents why they rejected the SF vaccine here's what they said: 53% cited safety concerns and 33% either weren't concerned about SF or didn't think it was all that dangerous.   Pretty amazing facts considering all the official statements about the vaccine's safety and necessity (especially for high risk groups). 

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