They say that ignorance is bliss, and until I started checking the news feeds this morning, I was indeed blissfully ignorant that anti-vaccine madness had spread to pet owners as well as parents. In hindsight, it seems naïve that I would have thought otherwise. Bad ideas are more contagious than the most easily spread virus. The truth is, I hadn’t really given any thought to the matter.
What ended my ignorance and thereby eroded a little bit of my faith in human nature (and I really don’t have much of that to spare) was this article on ABC News about dog owners who refuse to vaccinate their pets. It focuses on Rodney Habib, a blogger and pet nutrition activist who refuses to vaccinate his three dogs beyond the original cluster of shots for parvovirus, distemper, hepatitis, and rabies. Habib claims that booster shots are dangerous and unnecessary, and that the original shots should keep his pets immune for years, if not their entire lives. Scientific research says otherwise, of course.
The current hysteria around vaccines originated with a 1998 study published by a grossly incompetent and unethical researcher named Andrew Wakefield. The study claimed, based on a sample of 12 children, that there was a link between administration of the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine — known as MMR — and development of regressive autism. Not only was Wakefield’s sample tiny, but much of the data that he did collect was fraudulent. Although he claimed that nine of the children in the study developed regressive autism after receiving the MMR vaccine, later investigations revealed that only one of the subjects was actually diagnosed with the disorder, and three of them definitively did not have regressive autism. Other children had pre-existing medical issues that Wakefield reported as having first presented after the vaccine. The results could not be replicated by other scientists, and it was later revealed that Wakefield was being paid to testify in a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers at the same time that he conducted the study.
So extensive were the procedural and ethical problems with the paper that in 2010, Wakefield’s license to practice medicine in England was revoked, and The Lancet retracted the paper. But by that time, the damage had been done: For 12 years, Wakefield and his followers had been building up hysteria, not only around the MMR vaccine, but around vaccines in general. The cost to our society hasn’t been merely an abstract one of truth vs. falsehood. Just last week, the CDC announced that measles cases are at a 20-year high in the United States. This is not a trivial thing that means your kid stays home a few more days from school. Thanks to successful vaccination campaigns, most of us have never seen why measles was once such a feared part of childhood. Its consequences can include brain inflammation, permanent deafness, and death.
Which brings us back to dogs. To Habib’s credit, he’s not one of the extreme vaccine denialists, who would rather risk disease than the minuscule chance that some problems might result from the vaccine. But the fact that this argument is considered credible among pet owners at all is a problem. As with humans, canine diseases that were previously well-controlled, such as parvovirus, are making a comeback. Just last month, Los Angeles County officials announced a highly increased rate of parvovirus infection in the first four months of this year. The same problem is happening in England. Last year, the Britsh charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals issued a release urging owners to get their dogs vaccinated after they saw 1,800 cases of the virus show up at their hospitals in the first six months of 2013 alone.
The ABC story also quotes Kate Berger, from the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who lays out the facts simply: “Abnormal responses occur so infrequently, and more unvaccinated animals die from the diseases the vaccines prevent, that the benefit of vaccination outweighs the minimal risk of the abnormal immune response.”
The majority of arguments against vaccination are based not on long-term research, nor on broad-based studies that are subjected to peer review, but anecdotal accounts of individuals. People such as Rodney Habib are getting their ideas from what a friend of a friend has said, and selectively choosing what to listen to through confirmation bias. We are all biased in the direction of things that confirm what we already believe to be true; that’s why real science has checks and counterbalances built in to account for confirmation bias.
The preponderance of scientific evidence backs up what Dr. Berger says. When you get your dog or your child vaccinated, it’s not simply to protect them; it’s also to protect the people and pets around them. There are people and animals who, for whatever reason, do have adverse reactions to vaccines. When those of us who can get vaccines do so, we’re also helping to keep those most vulnerable around us safe by creating what’s called “herd immunity.” Herd immunity happens when a significant majority of a population is vaccinated against a disease, giving it fewer and fewer avenues of transmission. As herd immunity diminishes because of lower rates of vaccination, those who can’t get vaccinated themselves are at greater risk.
We owe a lot to the fact that vaccination for some of the most horrible diseases known is now cheap, easy, and common. We cannot afford to throw that away.
Ignorance might be bliss, but only for a while. In the end, it can kill you or someone you love.
What are your thoughts? What’s your vaccination strategy with your dog? On what do you base decisions on health and care for your dogs or other members of your family?
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