Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Anti-Vaccination and the Fear of Disability

With the recent controversy surrounding vaccination rates and a large number of parents opting to risk their children's exposure to deadly infections I believe a significant part of the discussion has been left out. While I am confident that  a certain percentage of these parents have been seduced by the all-organic, natural-pathic movement over the past two decades but I think there is another motivator that is otherwise divorced from these factors. Potential parents across North America are weighing a false risk in their minds. On the one hand is the tried and tested vaccine that they themselves received and almost everyone they have ever met and then there is the myth that vaccines are connected to autism.

I believe that the anti-vaccination movement plays into a fear deep in the heart of every parent - that their child may not turn out "normal". The cliché of wishing for "ten fingers and ten toes" belies a much more serious fear that parents have of having a child with any disability, regardless of how severe it may be. While physical handicaps would no doubt give a child a more difficult life they are far more socially and culturally accepted than cognitive, learning or communicative disabilities.

A considerable amount of time and energy is dedicated to avoiding any potential birth defects or complications. Eventually one has to wonder when this crosses the line between prudent precautions and phobia. It's an understandable fear as no parent wants a difficult life for their child but there is a question on whether or not physicians are adequately preparing potential parents for the possibility of having a special needs child rather than coaching them to avoid it all costs. This movement is likely tied to similar trends such as having children later in life, prenatal vitamins and all the other interventions used to "ensure" a healthy child.

This is where our culture's stigma against those with disabilities and irrational skepticism against science collide. The fear of having a child with autism (or some other condition) outweighs the more realistic and plausible risk of infectious disease. The calculation is easy enough to understand. Measles, a disease most parents nowadays have almost no experience with, associated with a "risky" vaccine is more desirable than a permanent disability.

Aside from being wrong-headed and that measles and other childhood infections can be deadly I think this much more than anything else highlights our society's fear of having children with special needs. I work for a school board, and in fact have been working with a colleague on professional development to better serve our students with autism spectrum disorders. I have a sense of difficulties involved and why parents will do whatever they can to avoid it, but vaccines are not tied to them so children are being put in real danger out of fear. Of course, there are a contingent of parents who might vaccinate if, as Tabatha Southey suggested, measles contained gluten,. But for most, It's the fear of the possibility rather than a grim reality that we will increasingly go through until this trend is reversed.

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