Monday, January 8, 2018

The Anti-Vax Rabbit Hole

I always said I wouldn't get into politics on this blog but there is something that needs to be said. 

So here it goes...

The first time I heard about vaccines maybe being unhealthy was back in about 1994 when I was in college.  I double-majored in English and Political Science and at the time was taking a class in regulation and regulatory protocols.  The entire class was about how regulations begin and are administrated and adjusted.  It was actually something I found interesting.  Back then, I was a bit of a policy wonk, and loved diving into public policy issues. 

As a project, each of us had to pick a topic regulated by the government, dive into it, and give a presentation on our progress.  Obviously there were several throughout the semester.  This way the professor could keep tabs on who was doing the work and who needed some help staying focused.  It was a graduate-level class and it was so easy to flood the poor prof with information that the core essence would get lost. 

My topic was on the growing interest in, and eventual reality of, internet regulations.  Three of the students were mothers and the smartest of the group had chosen the regulations of vaccines since her child had just recently been given one and had plenty more coming. 

She didn't go into this project thinking she would find people saying vaccines were bad.  She didn't go into the project with that sort of bias.  For her, she was focused on whether or not she was doing what was best for her child.  It felt like she was killing two birds with one stone:  First, she was educating herself as a parent and second, she was doing the easiest topic for her to get through this class. 

In her first presentation, she went over some of the basic information she had found but at the end, she pointed out she had just found a series of articles and some information stating vaccines might not be what we're told.  She said there were people arguing against the need for vaccines.  It was clear she was looking forward to diving into those articles and whatever she had found because she was a parent worried about her child. 

A few weeks later, her whole demeanor had changed, and she was going through all kinds of stats and information and connections.  She had entered The Rabbit Hole.  As a person who loves Rabbit Holes, I can tell you nothing quite compares to that high you get when you realize you've picked up the scent of something new and interesting.  Sure, she was excited, but there was something else. 

She had The Fear. 

The Fear is that unshakable thing that grabs onto you and refuses to let go.  For her, The Fear was stated in one simple, terrifying sentence:  "Did I just put my child in danger?" 

In recent years, the scientific and medical community has fought back against those who speak out against vaccines.  I'm not a member of either community and I don't even remember what information she found all those years ago.  All I remember was how afraid she was and how other mothers in the classroom were hearing her and they, too, were beginning to feel The Fear. 

The professor suggested she talk to some people in the science department.  Perhaps they could offer some perspective.  I thought that was a great idea and I did the same on my end, in my own social circle, amongst people I knew to be knowledgeable (one was a biology major and another agricultural mechanics). 

The next week, all of us reported similar results:  We were scoffed at, laughed at, and spoken down to like we were idiots.  There was a lot of eye-rolling and our heads were patted and we were told that while the science was obviously too complicated for us to understand, we were wrong and we should just know that.  Then we were dismissed. 

It was at that time I learned a valuable lesson about life--never dismiss somebody who has an emotionally-driven question about something you know about intimately.  They came to you with a question and that means it's important to them.  Be patient.  Take your time.  Explain it until they get it. 

Dismissing a terrified mother because she doesn't understand something complex the way you do will only fuel her distrust of what you say and further her efforts down the wrong path.  We call it "mansplaining" now, which is a terrible word because it really doesn't convey the arrogance as well as it condemns 47% of the population because of their chromosomes. 

I will say, with all sincerity, that the dismissive and arrogant attitudes of the scientific and medical community when answering the concerns of these parents fueled the anti-vax movement into something it should have never become. 

Nobody likes being talked down to and nobody likes being treated like an idiot.  When somebody has a genuine fear of something they don't understand, you have an obligation to help them understand, and not dismiss them with a shrug and a roll of the eyes.  It's rude and it makes a person question the legitimacy of your answers. 

This student I was in the class with was shaking.  Her hands were shaking.  Back then, they were just starting to question if autism and vaccines were connected somehow and she was asking herself, "What did I just do to my child?"  The other mothers were afraid, too.  As one said, "I feel like we're not being told all of the information and it pisses me off." 

That's was patronizing, dismissive answers will get you. 

This was before Google.  This was before much of the scientific data was put online.  Back then, a few of us had Netscape Ver 1.0 on a floppy disk, and that's what we used to get on Lycos and look for stuff.  So it meant library time and complex data many of us just didn't have the scientific understanding to comprehend. 

At some point in the last five or six years, things changed.  Members of the medical and scientific communities both realized that in order for this anti-vax movement to be stopped, people need to understand the science behind it.  And in order to communicate this information effectively, you need to be able to address people as human beings with empathy and kindness.  Instead of blowing them off as crazy or stupid because they don't have the education in science you have, take the time to explain things in a way they will understand. 

This pattern has fueled a lot of the various things labeled "pseudo-science" and "snake oil"   Is it any wonder why so many of these fields of alternative medicine are lead and practiced by women?  Often the patterns of patriarchy are reflected in the fields of medicine and science so no wonder patronizing sighs and pats on the head just don't reassure anybody. 

Homeopathic remedies are often rooted historically in the practices of women who were once burned at the stake for witchcraft.  Once again, the same pattern is repeated over and over again.  These so-called witches were known as "Wise ones" and were educated better at healing for centuries than the best doctors of the day.  It's only in the last 100 years or so our species has seen a change to where those educated in medicine reliable people to look to for healing and recovery. 

And it's clear modern medicine still has a long way to go.

The homeopathic practices are still challenging the medical field.  I have a good friend who is struggling with a thyroid condition and she's had to educate herself on some very complex subjects.  Part of the reasoning is just how expensive medicine and medical treatment has become and the other is just how successful homeopathic remedies can be, when administered properly. 

Sure, I don't agree with much of what Gwyneth Paltrow puts out there, and it seems a bit like snake oil mixed with cultish devotion, but some of the attacks on her fans comes close to misogynism. 

I'll admit I questioned the validity of vaccines for a while.  Part of it was how I simply do not trust those who dismiss others when they come with honest questions.  It often felt like I was a kid again, telling my dad about a problem with the car.  He would nod his head and go back to drinking his beer, then a week later I would be stranded someplace, because that problem got worse and nothing was done about it. 

The other reason I questioned vaccines was because of how much I knew the pharmaceutical companies manipulated our government.  As I said, I was majoring in Poli Sci.  I knew how much money these companies were spending in Washington and I knew how much money they were flooding into elections.  I also knew the underhanded tricks they employed against anybody who questioned them.  How can anybody trust information coming from somebody like that? 

I've noticed how recently more and more people from the scientific and medical communities have come forward with more personal and editorial articles about the need for caution when seeking out alternative treatments.  Instead of flooding the articles and videos with facts and stats, they've put a personal face out there, and stopped treating the public like a bunch of potatoes. 

These people are still demeaning anybody who uses homeopathy but at least they're not calling all of us stupid, which is a nice start.  

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