Sunday, May 6, 2012

Mayim Bialik's "Personal Decision"

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 vaccines.

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 legitimate.

Mayim Bialik has made a mistake by refusing to vaccinate her children, and she has done so based on bad information and erroneous logic.

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. (  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.

Bialik next claims that she studied each vaccine and discussed them with her pediatrician.  Her pediatrician may or may not have also discussed the diseases these vaccines prevent.  I do hope that pediatricians discuss with their patients the 222 measles cases in the United State last year, including the third of those patients who were hospitalized due to various complications. (  I also hope they discuss the 27,550 pertussis cases ( ) in 2010 and that they include the stories of Everlee (, Kahlia (, and Brady ( Sadly, these are no longer isolated cases. Because she is trained as a neuroscientist, one would hope the Mayim Bialik would factor the real risks of disease into her decision not to vaccinate. 

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.  (  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. (  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 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.

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