Tuesday, August 30, 2011

You’re one-year old now…time for some more shots!

I vividly remember being terrified of shots when I was growing up.  Seriously terrified. 

As a young child: Vaccination boosters? Nooooo, mommy, why are you doing this to me?  A little whooping cough never hurt anyone, has it?  None of my friends have ever had smallpox, so why do I need a shot against it? 

As a rambunctious teenager: Sure, I just stepped on a rusty nail that went all the way through my sandal and into my foot.  But please no Tetanus shots, that’d hurt too much!  I know you have to drill deep into my tooth to get at that cavity, but I’d rather deal with the pain than get a shot of Novocain in my gums.  As a high school football player, I had absolutely no problem banging my bare head against the metal locker to show the other kids how tough I was.  But, stick me with a TB shot?  Eeeekkkk!

Honestly, I have no idea why I have such an irrational fear of shots.  In reality, they never hurt that much.  But it seems as if this is a pretty general trend…people hate shots!  Maybe it’s some innate fear that we have embedded in our genes, like our fear of snakes and bad 1990s movies with Pauly Shore.  Maybe deep in our evolutionary subconscious, our fear is evoked by some ancient extinct needle-like predator of early humans that would dart out, inject us with a toxic serum that would digest us from the inside-out, and then use its capillary-like tongue to lap up our oozing juices.

Why all this talk of shots, you ask?  Well, Jack (and his parents) had a bit of a traumatic day yesterday.  The day after his first birthday—a great day with wonderful toys, his first ever cake, and playgrounds with splashy fountains—he had his one-year appointment at the pediatrician.  When Jack first met his pediatrician, she drew blood from his foot and cut the foreskin of his penis; not a very nice welcome into this world.  And every time he’s been to her office since, he gets stuck with a bunch of needles for his vaccinations! It’s a good thing his long-term memory hasn’t kicked in, or he’d start screaming the second he saw her.

The vaccination schedule is relentless.  MMR, Hep A, Hep B, Prevnar, DtaP, IPV/OPV, HIB. You down wit OPP? Yeah you know me.

Jack’s mom and I get more upset by the whole ordeal than he does.  First, he doesn’t know what’s coming to him, and after he gets stuck, he only cries for 30 seconds or so, and then seems to forget it. But, we’re traumatized for the rest of the day.  It’s so painful knowingly having your little baby hurt, especially when he has a fever or some other reaction afterwards. 

This got me thinking of the whole ‘controversy’ surrounding vaccinations.  For example, Whooping cough is making a comeback in California. WTF, seriously?  Whooping cough?  This isn’t 1700s London.  We’re talking northern California, bastions of good wine, good food, beautiful scenery, cultural enlightenment….Seriously, check out this article from this past weekend’s newspaper in Santa Cruz, CA.    And measles are taking off in Europe.  Who gets measles anymore? 
Honestly, being a scientist, I never really understood the controversy behind vaccinations; they are important for the health of society (herd health, they call it) and have minimal risks.  Remember the other day when I was talking about how Google has changed the way we do research?  Do a Google search on Vaccinations.  Go ahead, I’ll wait here for you…  Did you do it?  You’ll see that out of the first 10 entries—the ones with the highest Pagerank—most of them discuss vaccinations as a controversy.  Several of them suggest that they’re giving equal discussion to both sides of the controversy, and 2 of them are completely against vaccinations.  Now, go over to Google Scholar and do the same thing (Google scholar is where most of the scientific articles are).  You won’t find more than 1 in a 100 studies that finds any significant negative associations with vaccines.  Now don’t get me wrong, big pharmaceutical companies are certainly out to make a buck, and they have to be regulated.  And science isn’t infallible, nor are scientists (and those who want to profit from science) always right.  But I do find it fascinating how different the ‘public’ perspective on science is relative to the science itself. 

One of the most well-known ‘controversies’ surrounding vaccinations is that of the link between vaccinations and autism.  This appears to have been sparked when a paper published in an important medical journal in 1998 suggested a link between autism and the MMR vaccination.  Turns out this study was immediately discredited, the author was accused of scientific misconduct, most of the authors of the paper retracted their names from the study.  And since, dozens of much more carefully designed studies have found no evidence whatsoever of a link between autism and vaccinations.  But the idea just won’t go away.  For a great overview of the science and public perception of the link between vaccinations and autism, check out this article from PloS Biology (it's freely available and easy to read).

But let’s put my scientist hat down for a minute.  Now that I’m a parent, I get why vaccinations and other medical treatments are scary and even why they are controversial.  Although the risks are minimal, there are risks.  And, our little baby has to feel instantaneous pain, and then gets sick for awhile afterwards.  As parents, our primary mission in life is to protect our children, no matter what.  While vaccines might do that in the long-term, in the short-term, they are scary.  And, God forbid, what if your child does have a serious reaction to the vaccine, or develop a neurological disorder like autism, regardless of the cause?  I can only imagine the heartache and pain that any parent dealing with this must go through.  I’d want to lash out, I’d want to blame the pharmaceutical companies.

In the end, our poor little baby ended up with 4 shots--two in each arm, covered with two Mickey Mouse Band-Aids.  He screamed bloody murder for about 20 seconds, nursed, went home, took an extra long nap, and woke up just fine.  We truly believe that vaccinations are extremely important, will follow the recommendations of the doctors, and will of course advocate that everyone else do the same.  But this parenting thing has really opened my eyes.  A dogmatic perspective on science is easily trumped by my unconditional love and desire to protect this helpless baby—and a continued irrational fear of shots.

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