Tag Archives: public health

Fighting Anecdotal Fire With Anecdotal Fire

This article in Slate, written by a woman whose mother did not have her vaccinated and thus suffered through mumps, measles, rubella, etc., is an excellent piece of thinking about the current hubbub related to vaccinations. I like this part in particular:

I find myself wondering about the claim that complications from childhood illnesses are extremely rare but that “vaccine injuries” are rampant. If this is the case, I struggle to understand why I know far more people who have experienced complications from preventable childhood illnesses than I have ever met with complications from vaccines. I have friends who became deaf from measles. I have a partially sighted friend who contracted rubella in the womb. My ex got pneumonia from chickenpox. A friend’s brother died from meningitis. 

Anecdotal evidence is nothing to base decisions on. But when facts and evidence-based science aren’t good enough to sway someone’s opinion about vaccinations, then this is where I come from. After all, anecdotes are the anti-vaccine supporters’ way: “This is my personal experience.” Well, my personal experience prompts me to vaccinate my children and myself. I got the flu vaccine recently, and I got the whooping cough booster to protect my son in the womb. My natural immunity—from having whooping cough at age 5—would not have protected him once he was born.

(Bold emphasis mine)

There are a lot of things that frustrate me about the vaccination debate, not the least of which is that someone else’s decision to ignore science and logic might adversely affect other peoples’ health, but what really gets my goat is the trend the author points out of people refuting evidence with anecdote.

Recently I saw a post on Facebook in which someone shared an information piece of dubious origin that said something like: “Number of deaths from measles last year: 0. Number of deaths from measles vaccines: 106” There are so many things wrong with this, but here are the most obvious:

  • First of all, if you’re going to share this kind of data then please share the source so it can be verified as legitimate.
  • Second, if it is legitimate then please share whether or not that’s in the US or the world. Why? Because if it’s the world then I can flat out tell you it’s BS. From the World Health Org.:
    WHO warned today that progress towards the elimination of measles has stalled. The number of deaths from measles increased from an estimated 122 000 in 2012 to 145 700 in 2013, according to new data published in the WHO Weekly Epidemiological Report and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The estimated number of measles deaths in 2013 represents a 75% decline in mortality since 2000, significantly below the target of a 95% reduction in deaths between 2000 and 2015.
  • Third, if it IS true and it is just the US then use percentages rather than raw numbers. One reason so few people would have died from measles is because so many people were vaccinated! What percentage of people who got the vaccine died? Vanishingly small. And while the percentage of people who die after contracting measles would also be vanishingly small, that doesn’t mean the disease doesn’t wreak havoc by making people very sick.

So here’s the point, and I’m going to type it really slowly so the anti-vaxxers can keep up: You are entitled to your opinion. You are also entitled to ignore science and generally do stupid things. Your entitlement ends where others’ well being begins, thus if you decide to not vaccinate your children then your family should NOT be allowed to partake in any public activities or enjoy any other societal benefits that would put you in direct contact with the vaccinated population. No schools, no restaurants, no stores, no swimming pools, no movie theaters, no malls, no amusement parks, no public parks and no places of business (okay, maybe Walmart). Nada. Nothing. Don’t want to participate in 21st century public health programs? Fine, then don’t participate in 21st century public gatherings.

Some Things Shouldn’t Be Left to the Market

North Carolina’s freshman senator, Sen. Thom Tillis, is getting some pretty bad press today for saying that he has no problem with restaurants not being required to make their employees wash their hands after using the bathroom. Of course that’s the headline version that’s grabbing everyone’s attention, but when you see it in context it’s not quite that bad. Here’s what he said:

Tillis said his interlocutor was in disbelief, and asked whether he thought businesses should be allowed to “opt out” of requiring employees to wash their hands after using the restroom.

The senator said he’d be fine with it, so long as businesses made this clear in “advertising” and “employment literature.”

“I said: ‘I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says “We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom,” Tillis said.

“The market will take care of that,” he added, to laughter from the audience.

In that context the quote’s not nearly as bad as the headlines and social media posts would lead you to believe, but even so his stance is terrible public policy. First of all, just because you require a sign doesn’t mean it’s going to be seen. More importantly, how do you propose to deal with all the people who get sick or die before the word gets out that a restaurant is toxic?

I’m all for letting the market decide in many areas of our lives, but public health ain’t one of them.

Risk Assessment

If you need proof that the American populace is terrible at assessing risk, then look no further than the current ebola hysteria. Is ebola a serious disease? Yep. Is it scary that it’s spreading like never before? Yep. But is it worth all the hysteria that we’re seeing, what with the CDC holding press conferences seemingly every half hour to calm America’s nerves? Well, let’s put it in perspective:

# of people in America who die each and every day from the flu or pneumonia: 147

# of people in America who have died of ebola in the history of the country: 1

Yeah, I’d say we’re over reacting just a tad.