By Karen Ernst
Normally, I love Science Friday on NPR with Ira Flatow. The topics are wide-ranging and
discussed with real experts who have a real passion for their work. Science
Friday on May 4, 2012 was a disappointment for many reasons, but the biggest was the
guest and her stance on vaccinations.
Mayim Bialik, who plays Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang
Theory, has a PhD in neuroscience.
She also write books about her parenting style, some of which may be
controversial to the mainstream public.
Rarely does she publicly discuss her decision not to vaccinate her
children. Thus, when Science
Friday announced that Mayim Bialik would be the guest, numerous people went to Science Friday's Facebook page and commented that they'd like Ira Flatow to ask her about
her decision to abandon all good scientific understanding in favor of the
pseudoscience of the anti-vaccine movement.
About halfway through the interview, he did ask her about
She responded: “Attachment Parenting as defined by Dr.
William Sears and Attachment Parenting International has absolutely no opinion
on vaccines. It is a completely
separate issue, one that I do not discuss in the book for that reason. What I do mention in the book is that I
give some resources for some kind of pros and cons kind of books. . . What I do
say is that we researched every single vaccine, and we spoke about each
individual vaccine with our pediatrician.
We went to the CDC sources.
The number of vaccines that we received when you and I were kids is a
third or a fourth less than kids get now.
So my feeling is, you can really do whatever you want, just like I get
to do whatever I want. But I don't
inherently think that no one should get the flu [vaccine], for example. That's my personal opinion. Meaning, to me, the things that people
choose to vaccinate against are not necessarily things that were vaccinated
against 20 or 30 years ago. My
feeling is that everyone gets to decide and do research based on their family
and their needs as to what they want to do, but it's completely separate from
Attachment Parenting or from my book.”
What is a parent supposed to think when this sort of
information is presented without challenge? After all, a parent might assume that since Bialik is
well educated in the sciences, she knows what she is talking about. And when a respected science journalist
like Ira Flatow does not question any of her ideas, they seem all the more
Mayim Bialik has made a mistake by refusing
to vaccinate her children, and she has done so based on bad information and
First, she relies on doctors who are not experts in the
field of vaccines, immunology, or epidemiology. While Attachment Parenting International does not take a
position on vaccination, they are not a medical organization like the American
Academy of Pediatrics. As Ira
Flatow pointed out when introducing the question, the AAP supports
breastfeeding, as well as on-schedule, full vaccination of children. Bialik also misconstrues the position
of Dr. William Sears, who, in The Baby Book, explains that our “present
vaccine schedule carries very little risk. The benefit of preventing these diseases, all of which are
potentially fatal, far outweigh the tiny risk of the vaccines.” This sound risk-benefit analysis
clearly promotes vaccination.
Bialik relies on other M.D.s who have made careers out of
catering to wealthy non-vaccinating clientele, and much of the rest of her
explanation on Science Friday comes from their books. She mentions the “pros and cons” of vaccinating. The pros of vaccinating are preventing
disease and its possible accompanying complications of hospitalizations,
disability, and death. The cons
are uncomfortable but not dangerous: pain, swelling, and
fever. Very rarely, a serious side
effect can occur, such as an anaphylactic allergic reaction. These reactions occur in one of of
every half million or million injections, depending on the vaccine. (http://www.chop.edu/service/vaccine-education-center/vaccine-safety/#Are_vaccines_safe) When presented with this information,
most parents realize that the benefits of vaccinating are indeed worth the
potential but unlikely risks.
These are not the cons Bialik is considering. She is considering cons that have long been discredited by
peer-reviewed, replicable studies that have been published in the most
prestigious science and medical journals around. The cons she is considering exist only in the imaginations
of people writing books against vaccines and promoting them on their websites.
One of Bialik's rationale for skipping her children's
vaccines centers on a fear of newer vaccines. Rather than seeing vaccines that prevent more diseases as a
triumphs of science, she fears exposing her children to something she didn't
have as a child. Forget for a
moment that she did not have the Internet, cell phones, five-point harness car
seats, and various other scientific advances for a moment. Bialik makes the assumption that
because she did not have these vaccines, the diseases which they prevent are
not dangerous. She is dead wrong.
For example, before the vaccine, approximately 20,000
children in the United States suffered Haemophilus influenzae B. Between
2-5% of these cases were fatal, and up to 30% of cases result in permanent
disability, including blindness, deafness, and serious neurological
damage. (http://www.vaccineinformation.org/hib/qandadis.asp). Pneumonia is another disease my
children are protected against when I was not.
In fact, as an infant, I was hospitalized with pneumonia. I was lucky to escape without permanent
damage since pneumonia is the leading cause of death in children under 5
worldwide, killing 1.4 million children every year. (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs331/en/index.html) These are only two of the diseases that
our children are lucky enough to escape.
The other part of Bialik's longing for the vaccine schedule of the
1970s and 80s hints at the “too many, too soon” argument popular in the
anti-vaccine movement. Parents
should rest assured that the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices
(ACIP) reviews the vaccine schedule every year to make sure vaccines are given
at times and in combinations that are safe and that offer children the best
protection against disease possible.
Parents should also rest assured that the vaccine schedule has been
studied (through studies like On-time Vaccine Receipt in
the First Year Does Not Adversely Affect Neuropsychological Outcomes
and found to be safe. The science
is clear: today's vaccine schedule prevents dangerous disease as safely and
effectively as we can at this time.
Lastly, Bialik asserts that everyone should make his or her own decisions about vaccines. In a
sense, I agree with her. Parents
should understand and agree to the vaccines their children receive. However, asserting that the average
parent can reach a conclusion about vaccines that is different from the
ACIP/CDC recommendations, all while believing it is equally valid, is
misguided. The members of ACIP
have spent their lives studying disease, epidemiology, virology, microbiology,
and the like and have far more expertise on vaccines, disease, and the vaccine
schedule than even a mother with a doctorate in neuroscience, and certainly far
more than the average parent walking into an office. It is perfectly reasonable for parents to present their pediatricians
with their concerns about vaccines. It is unreasonable to choose not to believe pediatricians, infectious disease specialists, and vaccinologists, choosing instead to "do your own research" to prove them wrong. The suggestion that they should do their own research and
reach their own conclusions is unreasonable and unwise, especially coming from a woman who knows what kind of work goes into a Ph.D. in the sciences.
Asking parents to go rogue with the vaccine schedule also
puts our community health at risk.
This blog is based on the concept of “living by the social contract and
protecting our kids and yours.”
Pockets of vaccine refusal create opportunities for disease to invade our
communities. The aforementioned
measles and pertussis outbreaks are examples of the unvaccinated bringing
diseases into the community.
Oftentimes, the people who catch those diseases are parents of children
who did not want to be exposed to disease and who were relying on other members
of the community to maintain herd immunity. Julieanna Metcalf, who has been featured on Moms Who Vax http://momswhovax.blogspot.com/2011/10/story-by-story.html)
did not know that she had a problem with her immune system, and caught Hib
meningitis from an unvaccinated child. She almost died--her mother has the pictures of those days in the ICU. Other people in our communities are too young to receive vaccines or
have immune systems compromised by leukemia or chronic conditions, and they
depend on us to stay vaccinated and keep disease away.
So the decision about vaccinations is actually not just a personal
decision, as Bialik claimed, but a community decision.
As such, it should be made using the best science from the best experts
in conjunction with a pediatrician who follows AAP guidelines. I find it deeply troubling that a woman
of science would misuse her education in order to justify her decision not to vaccinate, and I
remain terribly disappointed that she was not challenged on that decision. However, let us not allow her
unchallenged fallacies to sway our decisions to protect our children and our
community through vaccination.