By Karen Ernst
The concerns parents have about vaccines could fill a book. Fortunately, a new book co-written by Stacy Herlihy (SH) and Allison Hagood (AH) addresses these concerns. Meticulously researched and exhaustively documented, the facts in the Your Baby’s Best Shot are actually presented in a readable and accessible way. The unassuming tone is no surprise as Herlihy and Hagood are a thoughtful, intelligent pair. Moms Who Vax recently sat down with them (via email) and picked their brain about a few issues related to YBBS and to vaccines in general.
MWV: What motivated you to write Your Baby's Best Shot?
SH: For me personally it was extreme frustration with debating with hardcore anti-vax nuts online. I’ve been involved in a few parenting message boards over the years. Parenting can be a very lonely experience sometimes, especially if you work at home as I do and don’t always have time to get out much to interact with other parents.
So I became involved in a few boards over the years. Over and over again I’d see this issue come up again and again. I become known after a while as someone who could confront the nuts and help others make sense of this issue if they were on the fence.
The problem was that after a few years I felt as if I were repeating myself time and again. I would write out these very detailed posts only to have them ignored by the anti-vaxxers who would then accuse me of being crazy and over the top on this issue.
So I said to hell with it, walked away, stopped posting and said hey I’ve always wanted to write a book. Why not? But the book was too daunting a project to face alone. So I sought out a co-author. Luckily I found just the right person to work with.
AH: I’ve been having discussions about this particular issue for a number of years. I got involved because a friend’s child was diagnosed with autism, and our mutual friends immediately began blaming vaccines. I thought to myself “that doesn’t sound right,” and started looking into the science. The more I read, and the more I learned about the lies and misinformation of the anti-vaccine movement, the more passionate I became.
I began to have more online and face-to-face conversations with people about this issue, and realized how widespread the anti-vaccine misinformation had become. I felt that this was going to be an ongoing battle against people who have no compunction using lies and frauds to manipulate people. It is incredibly unfair for the anti-vaccine movement to mislead parents about vaccines.
But I didn’t have an idea of writing a book until I “met” Stacy. We were members of an online discussion board on which vaccine discussions had taken place regularly. She threw out a “I should write a book!” post, I sent her a private message, and here we are two years later with a book of which we are both very proud.
I love educating people, so the book is a natural existence of that love.
MWV: Which section of YBBS brings you the most pride?
SH: The one where we call out the bad anti-vax websites. I had so much fun with it. People like Barbara Loe Fisher and those who run the Age of Autism really annoy me so much. Their websites look so convincing to anyone unfamiliar with this issue. I’ve spent hours trying to explain to people online exactly why they aren’t.
Figuring out polite ways to call them names was both challenging and fun. And hard to get past our editor. Lol
AH: It’s difficult for me to pick out just one section! I am very proud of the fact that we managed to communicate the decades of science that supports the safety and efficacy of vaccines in a way that a parent with little to no science background can understand it. As an educator, that’s always a win.
MWV: At the beginning of YBBS, Stacy describes a moment in which she is sure she made the wrong decision to vaccinate her child. Was there an a-ha moment that convinced each of you that, in fact, vaccines were the right choice to make? What tipped the scales in favor of vaccines?
SH: I’ve always been pro-vaccine personally. I don’t think you can study history and not feel that vaccines are pretty much the greatest thing ever. I think people today are simply unaware of just how high infant mortality rates were until fairly recently. You can’t read anything about childbearing prior to the last 50 years and be unaware of it.
AH: I’ve never been anti-vaccine, so there wasn’t a point at which I changed my mind about them. The tipping point for me getting involved in this issue was encountering the incredibly anti-science propaganda used by the anti-vaccine movement, and realizing that I could address it on a large scale.
MWV: Do you believe that parents would blame vaccines for autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, and other issues if the anti-vaccine movement were less prominent?
SH: I think that makes sense. The vaccine equals autism still gets a lot of play in the media today unfortunately.
AH: I absolutely do. The anti-vaccine movement is luckily very small, but they are incredibly vocal, and the media has done a great disservice by providing them a platform in the name of a false “balance.” The overwhelming scientific consensus, based on the research, is that vaccines are safe and effective, and continuing to cover the anti-vaccine movement as if it were of equal strength creates a false controversy
MWV: Which anti-vaccine figure do you believe has done the most damage to public health?
SH: Andrew Wakefield hands down. He has constantly lied to the public and still continues to do so. He was the driving force behind the first allegation that vaccines and autism are linked. He continues to push that meme forward even though even he must know by now that he’s wrong.
AH: For me, it’s a toss-up between Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy. Mr. Wakefield is either delusional (if he continues to believe in a link between vaccines and autism), or a psychopath (if he knows that there isn’t, and continues to mislead distraught parents). McCarthy, on the other hand, uses her celebrity to provide this charlatan a public voice, and that is almost as damaging as Wakefield’s lies.
MWV: Since YBBS has been published, has anything about the anti-vaccine movement and the pro-vaccine push back surprised you?
AH: One anti-vaccine advocate created a hate page against me on Facebook, before the book was even published (the page was removed). I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, but that was a bit unexpected.
MWV: What piece of advice would you give to pediatricians and pro-vaccine parents in their dealings with vaccine hesitant parents?
SH: I think it depends on how deep that goes. If someone is extremely anti-vaccine I personally think there’s little you can do to change her mind. There’s a hardcore of parents out there who will never believe that vaccines are anything but a great-big-giant-lie-promoted-by-the-pHARMashills. You can’t reach them. You can only avoid them.
We didn’t aim to. Some walls you can’t break down.
Then you have people who are a little on the fence about this. They may want to avoid a few vaccines or stretch out a schedule. Those people I think can and should be reached. The best way to do that, at least in my opinion, is to carefully point out the problems with avoiding such vaccines or demonstrating that a prolonged schedule does not reduce the risk of a vaccine reaction and does increase the possibility of getting a vaccine preventable disease.
Give them good information that treats them like smart human beings and they will listen to you.
AH: Try to determine what kind of hesitation they have. If they are committed anti-vaccine activists, there probably won’t be anything that you can say to them to change their minds. The ability of the dedicated anti-vaccine advocate to dismiss all science that doesn’t support their beliefs is indefatigable.
However, if they are truly hesitant, because they’ve “heard some stuff” about vaccines, then I think spending the time to find out the source of that hesitation can bring about the opportunity to address their concerns. You might not be able to address their concerns adequately the first time you have that conversation, but I believe that continuing to address it can be successful. I’ve had several experiences with parents who were initially anti-vaccine, but later realized their fears were unfounded based on ongoing discussions.
Of course, each pediatrician is going to have to decide how much time they have to spend doing this kind of education. The health care system in this country doesn’t allow for a huge amount of time for each patient, unfortunately! That’s why it’s so critical that we not just expect this education to come from pediatricians. The rest of us need to get more involved in addressing and debunking the anti-vaccine propaganda, and holding the media accountable for providing the anti-vaccine lies a platform.
MWV: Do you have any plans for follow-up books?
SH: We are in discussion about a new book that would address other parenting related issues such as breastfeeding in a similar manner. Once I can get my sixteen month old to get on a more regular sleeping schedule I’d like to think about crafting a new book proposal. That’s probably next year’s project.
AH: We are discussing ideas about a follow-up, addressing things like birth issues, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, homeschooling, and other aspects of raising children.
Interview by Karen Ernst, mother, teacher, and co-founder of Moms Who Vax.