The Perils of Vaccinations


I think we may all be making a mistake in our interpretation of the anti-vaxx “movement.” I don’t mean that you shouldn’t vaccinate your kids (or yourselves) of course. Anti-vaxxers are wrong about that! But they’re not wrong if they say that vaccination is not 100% harmless. Before you send me a bunch of links and hate mail, let me see if I can persuade you.

Let’s look at some of the things that can happen to you if you drive your kid to the doctor to get vaccinated. You might skid off the road, pinwheel off a cliff, and perish in an explosion (kid dies too). You (or your kid) might catch a disease at the doctor’s office (a well-established vector for diseases). Your child might scratch at the pinprick wound left by the needle, and it might get infected. Your child may be allergic to vaccines—hey, it happens!

Pinwheeling coffins of fiery death, colds, infection, and anaphylaxis are clearly not 100% harmless. If you knew you were going to die on the way to the vaccination, you would be (I hope it’s clear) better off not getting a vaccination at all.

Obviously, nothing or almost nothing is 100% harmless. There’s always a risk involved. Skydiving is more dangerous that walking to the mailbox, but you could get hit by a meteor doing either. And any time you stick a needle in your body, it’s probably more dangerous than not sticking a needle in your body.


Except sometimes.

Everyone knows this. When do you put a needle in your body? Only sometimes put a needle in your body. Put a needle in your body when the risk of not putting a needle in your body exceeds the risk of putting a needle in your body.

Maybe the car accident thing is ridiculous, but the allergy or the infection or some mysterious third thing we don’t know that might somehow be bad about vaccinations—these aren’t ridiculous. Vaccinations might be dangerous, and if we say anyone who thinks vaccinations might be dangerous is crazy, we’re lying.

People who say vaccinations are dangerous aren’t crazy or wrong. They’re just bad at math.

Whatever bad thing might happen to you when you get a vaccination is actually better than the disease the vaccination is preventing. Even if the worst thing happens, even if the vaccine kills you because of some combination of allergy, bad luck, and medical incompetence, this is VERY MUCH FAR LESS LIKELY to happen than that you will die from the disease you didn’t get vaccinated from. Measles, pace a certain recent mendacious children’s book, is not marvelous. Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles. Before mass-vaccinations, measles killed several hundred people a year in America. It killed millions of people worldwide.

Whatever the risks of getting vaccinated for measles, the risks are lower than the risk of getting measles. The fatality rate for measles (in a developed country, with medical attention available) is somewhere around .05%. The serious-complications rate of the measles vaccine is lower by several orders of magnitude.

(If you think the fatality rate for the measles vaccine is higher than that, you’re welcome to muster your evidence.)

The point is that we spend all our time lamenting, “How could our educational system have failed us so royally that people can’t understand vaccines are harmless?” when we should be lamenting, “How could our educational system have failed us so royally that people can’t compare two risks and see which one’s greater?” But of course this latter failure is a failure we see everywhere. I remember a coworker saying he had no need to quit smoking because he could die getting hit by a car; the presence of other ways of dying made smoking comparatively harmless, because you die either way. This is an error so many of us make all the time.

The problem with anti-vaxxers so-called is the same problem we all have. We don’t consider the odds. They make the same math mistake most Americans make, they just choose to apply it to vaccinations.

Speaking of mistakes we all make: We all know that making fun of people for their beliefs only makes those beliefs more entrenched, and yet we cannot stop ourselves. Making fun of anti-vaxxers just makes them more anti-vaxxy. I keep calling these people anti-vaxxers as though it were some kind of identity; as though they were a demographic. This is the worst thing to do to your opponents, to give them an identity. Clinton called Trump supporters a basket of deplorables and they started wearing deplorable T-shirts; Trump called Clinton a nasty woman and her supporters started wearing nasty woman T-shirts. If Trump won, could it not be because he gave a rallying identity to only half as many supporters as Clinton did?

What if, the next time we heard an anti-vaxx argument, instead of saying, “You ignorant tree-dweller, science proves you wrong,” we said, “Yeah, there’s might be some danger inherent in vaccination—I mean, you could drive your car off the cliff on the way to the doctor or something—but it turns out the danger is so much smaller than the dangers from preventable diseases. Makes sense to play the odds.”

I have no idea if this will work or not, but I probably won’t do it because it’s less fun than calling people tree-dwellers.

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