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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Why Do Some People Refuse to Get Vaccines?

By Phil Plait

There’s been a lot of discussion in the media (both mainstream as well as social) about vaccinations, spurred because of the current measles outbreak in the U.S. I’m unhappy about the cause, of course, but I welcome the discussion. I’m just sorry it took an outbreak from Disneyland to get this conversation rolling.

A lot of people are blaming anti-vaxxers for the outbreak, but the truth is more complicated than that. Certainly Jenny McCarthy, Andrew Wakefield, and the organized groups spreading dangerous misinformation about vaccines have their share of it, but their influence isn’t almighty. There’s more to this story. 

That’s why I’m glad my friend Hank Green has made an episode of SciShow explaining why people choose not to vaccinate.

Hank’s overview is pretty good, and very well laid out! But I want to add a few things.

One is that this is not just a hippie, liberal thing. Very conservative people, including libertarians, don’t want the government telling them what to do, so state-required vaccinations for children to allow them in schools is anathema to them. I’m not saying they’re right—in fact, they’re very, very wrong—just that this is what they think. Anti-vaccination sentiment is well distributed throughout the political spectrum.

Another is that overall in the U.S., vaccination rates haven’t fallen in recent times. But that casts a mighty wide net. If, instead, you look on smaller scales, you see pockets of low vaccination, regions where rates have dropped dramatically. Sure, some are liberal bastions like Northern California, but other places are affected for other reasons, like the Texas town influenced by a megachurch.

And, as always, I want to point out that I understand how parents feel here. I have a daughter myself, and my wife’s and my concerns for her health were and are strong. So I want to distinguish between parents out there trying to figure this all out, and the people who are actively and vocally trying to confuse them over this issue.

I know how important vaccines are, and my entire family is up-to-date with their vaccinations. I’m walking the walk

Hank’s audience for SciShow tends to be younger folks, and I hope they take this lesson home (literally as well as figuratively). This issue of bias and evidence goes well beyond vaccinations, into the very trust we have of science itself. That’s something I’d love for younger folks to understand. Science is pretty cool, and the most important tool humans have to understand everything around us.

It also saves lives.

Addendum: Germany is facing a large-scale outbreak of measles as well, with nearly 600 cases since late last year (the population of Germany is one-fourth that of the U.S.). One boy, an 18-month-old, recently died from complications due to measles. My heart aches over this, which is why I write so frequently about vaccination. My thanks to Mat Johnson for alerting me to this.

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