Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Does Climate Change Have to Do with Vaccines?

I come from a family of science-loving, science-minded people. While none of us went into the sciences as a profession, some of us have gone into professions in which science literacy matters. One hot-button issue in our family is climate change—specifically, climate change denialism. We’ve seen the damage done by these anti-science zealots whose aim is to create enough doubt in the minds of the regular citizen to thwart legislation that could help halt the relentless march toward global disaster. We’ve watched as journalists, for many years, decided to present the climate change issue as a controversy requiring equal air time for both the climate change scientists and the denialists, prolonging this period of doubt. The result? While more than 98% of scientists are in agreement that our planet is warming, people in the United States are split about 50/50 on the issue. This will have devastating impacts on our future, and it deeply bothered members of my extended family, as well as myself. Several members of my family are particularly vociferous about how damaging denialism is in the climate change discussion, rivaling perhaps only me in my drive to counter anti-vaccine rhetoric. They do not let any opportunity pass them by in which they don't speak up in favor of the science. It's one of the many things I admire about them.

So what does this have to do with vaccines? Well, there is an interesting parallel between the climate change “controversy” and the vaccine “controversy.” Namely, that the so-called controversy was manufactured in both cases despite the fact that there exists remarkable scientific consensus; that this resulted in doubt sown in the minds of the public that was not backed by science; and that the results will be harmful to human beings. The parallel is so complete that even the media’s handling on both of issues is strikingly similar. Nowadays, the media does not, for the most part, feel that journalistic balance is achieved when a climate change story features a denialist. If anything, it puts the whole story out of balance. Over really the last year or so, the media has stopped featuring anti-vaccine activists in every vaccine story published or produced. But the media has been complicit in both cases of misrepresenting science. This parallel is something we talk about with some regularity in my family.

Then this happened: one of my "climate change guru" family members went to the doctor after contracting pneumonia. In the exam room, she decided to ask the nurse her advice regarding vaccines. She tells me that the nurse replied: “I think there are too many.” I'm not sure what else the nurse said, because Climate Change Guru immediately realized this was about to turn into a "conversation." I was sick to my stomach that a health professional would sow fear and doubt about vaccines in an exam room. I was sick because I knew exactly how powerful this nurse's doubt about vaccines could be. I'd been in that position before--a scared new parent with a baby, looking to any and all medical professionals in the clinic for information about vaccines and vaccine safety. I know a great deal more about vaccines and the lies of the anti-vax movement now than I did as a new parent. I have no doubt that if a nurse had said these words to me in that lull between the doctor’s exam of my child and the administering of the vaccines, I would have been filled with fear. I know I would have delayed the vaccine in question, perhaps even skipped it altogether.

To my mind, a nurse is a member of the medical establishment, and if there is widespread disagreement in the medical establishment about the safety of vaccines, I would never put my child in what I had been convinced, by a medical professional, was harm’s way. But by walking out that door with my child left unvaccinated, I would have left him vulnerable to any number of devastating illnesses. How would I have made sense of things if my son had contracted, say, pertussis during the seemingly constant pertussis outbreaks? Or measles, during the various measles outbreaks we've experienced? If he'd been hospitalized, and the doctors caring for him asked me why I hadn't vaccinated him in order to spare him this pain and suffering, I would have said: "A nurse told me there are too many vaccines and I got scared." And I would have felt betrayed by the medical establishment I trusted. 

“This nurse speaks to countless patients,” I told my Climate Change Guru. “I am certain some of them are parents. What if a parent chooses not to vaccinate based on what this nurse says and the child contracts pertussis? What if that child passes pertussis on to an infant? What if the infant dies?” I could feel my heart racing, the anger coursing through my body. “You have to say something,” I continued. “You have to write a letter.”
            “I will not do that.”
            “What?” I sputtered.
            “I’m not going to get a nurse fired for sharing her opinion with me.”
            “You don’t get her fired. You don't even have to mention her by name. Hell, write it anonymously if you want. The head of the clinic may take it as an opportunity to clarify clinic policy. She can’t be allowed to continue saying this stuff in a medical setting. She’s entitled to her own opinion, but it is flat-out wrong for her to spout misinformation in a medical setting to patients. There is absolutely no evidence to back up her opinion, and all kinds of evidence to the contrary.”
            My Climate Change Guru abruptly ended the conversation and walked out. She would not mention this experience to anyone at the clinic, and was, I could tell, regretting even telling me it had happened.
            I’m still angry. I’m disappointed. And I’ve done a lot of thinking about this experience over the last few days. I’ve realized that the climate change/vaccine parallel continues in ways I hadn’t even considered, and it’s helped me pinpoint why, exactly, I’m still angry.
Imagine this: My Climate Change Guru attends parent-teacher conferences for her child. In that parent-teacher conference, she asks her child’s teacher about his teaching philosophy regarding the science of climate change. The teacher replies: “Well, I believe climate change is a hoax, but I teach ‘both sides of the issue.’” My Climate Change Guru would not leave that classroom until she’d given the teacher a piece of his mind. She’d likely go to the principal and complain, perhaps pull her child from the class. It’s not just about her child. It’s about all the other children this teacher is educating. In a position of power and influence, he is capable of affecting these children’s educational outcome, even their world view. His views on climate change could “infect” his students. Would Climate Change Guru walk away quietly?
Not a chance.
            Then why did she walk away from the nurse? What is different in this scenario? After all, the parallel is complete. The nurse is in a position of power and influence. What she says and does can have a substantial impact on a child’s health outcomes—and by extension the health outcomes of the entire community. If a family chooses not to vaccinate because of her opinion that there are too many vaccines, that family could contract a vaccine-preventable disease. They could then pass that disease on to others in the community. The response to this? A shoulder shrug. It was the nurse’s “opinion.” Climate Change Guru wasn’t going to make trouble.

           Of course there are anti-vaccine nurses, just as there are anti-vaccine teachers, anti-vaccine car mechanics, anti-vaccine postal workers. In fact, since beginning work in this vaccine world, I’ve come to understand that there are far more nurses who believe vaccines are harmful than I could have dreamed possible. This is one reason why groups such as Nurses Who Vax are so crucial. What bothers me most is my family member’s decision to say nothing, in her failure to see the parallel. We have a moral obligation to speak up at moments like this—which is exactly what my Climate Change Guru would have me believe about the climate change discussion. “We can’t let this happen on our watch,” is something she’s said to me before. I challenge her, and anyone else who has heard similar sentiments in the exam room: will you let anti-vaccine rhetoric echo in the halls of medicine on your watch?

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.