Anti-Vaccine Parents Are Less Dangerous Than Low Flu Vaccination Rates
We are far more worried about the problem of parents not vaccinating their kids than low general vaccination rates for flu, which will sicken and kill way more of us, including WAY more kids.
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
You’ve heard about the big vaccines problem, right, that some parents aren’t vaccinating their kids? Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent trying to solve this threat to public health. But resistance to childhood vaccination isn’t close to the most worrisome category of vaccination reluctance in the United States. Yes, it’s tragic that hundreds of children are getting sick from measles or dying of pertussis (whooping cough) in communities where vaccine refusal has allowed what should have been isolated cases to spread. Yes, it’s infuriating that some parents are, by protecting their kids, putting other kids at risk. But this problem is nowhere near the health threat Americans face because of the astoundingly low number of people getting vaccinated each year against the flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that since the 1970s influenza has killed between 3,000 and 49,000 people each year (the severity of each flu season varies), most of whom were 65 or older. An average of 200,000 a year get so sick they have to be hospitalized, 20,000 of whom are kids under 5. Influenza sickens and kills far more children than do measles and pertussis outbreaks caused by childhood vaccination hesitancy.
Between 5 percent and 20 percent of the entire U.S. population gets the flu every year. The health and economic costs of this are staggering. A 2007 analysis in the journal Vaccine reported;
Based on the 2003 U.S. population, we estimated that annual influenza epidemics resulted in an average of 610,660 life-years lost, 3.1 million hospitalized days, and 31.4 million outpatient visits. Direct medical costs averaged $10.4 billion annually. Projected lost earnings due to illness and loss of life amounted to $16.3 billion. The total economic burden of annual influenza epidemics using projected statistical life values amounted to $87.1 billion.
(Population growth since 2003 suggests these numbers are roughly 10-15 percent higher now.)
The Centers for Disease Control recommends an annual flu vaccination for anyone over 6 months old (annual, because flu vaccines target only one strain and new strains arise all the time). Herd immunity for flu vaccine — where enough people are vaccinated so if one person gets sick the disease can’t spread — would be achieved if roughly 80 percent of us, four people out of five, are inoculated ... 90 percent for those 65 and older, the age group most at risk. There isn't a single age group that meets any of those targets.
Why are these numbers so low? Nearly half the respondents in one study said either, “I don’t need it,” or “I didn’t get around to it.” This translates to, “It’s only the flu. I’m not worried.” That’s the same selfishness those parents who don’t vaccinate their kids are accused of. People with flu spread can spread the disease to others. If you get the flu, you might only get sick — REALLY sick — but that grandparent or baby who visited could get it and die. Fourteen percent said, “I don’t believe in flu vaccines.” (Flu vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective, but even the lowest efficacy rates significantly reduce your chances of getting really seriously ill.) And 14 percent said “I might get the flu from the vaccine.” (Like the association between childhood vaccines and autism, this common myth is incorrect.)
In addition, other surveys also suggest that general public worries about vaccine safety may also be contributing to low flu vaccination rates.
The public health authorities working so hard on the childhood vaccine problem have to do much more to increase flu vaccination rates, such as;
Such programs would undoubtedly be cost effective. They certainly would protect public health — including childhood health — far more than efforts to increase childhood vaccination rates (work that should continue). A CDC report in December 2014 found that;
If influenza vaccination levels had reached the Healthy People 2020 target of 70 percent (for the 2013-14 flu season), an estimated additional 5.9 million illnesses, 2.3 million medically attended illnesses, and 42,000 hospitalizations associated with influenza might have been averted.
It’s understandable that the childhood vaccination issue is getting more attention. We worry more about risks to kids than risks to adults. We worry less about risks that are familiar — like the flu — and less about risks if we feel like we have some control, as in “I can protect myself if I want to. I can always go get a flu shot.” We also worry more about risks that are in the news, like the childhood vaccination issue, than those we don’t hear about. And unless there is a huge epidemic of influenza, or a new variety of flu going around, or a shortage of flu vaccine, this huge health threat doesn’t make news.
So far, this flu season (which runs from December to May) has been a quiet one; only roughly 2,000 pneumonia and influenza-related deaths, 11 of which were kids. It will be great — and not so great — if things stay that way. Great because fewer of us will get sick or die. Not so great, because without greater public awareness, we’ll slide though yet another flu season without sufficient public concern to press our public health officials to do as much to increase influenza vaccination rates as they’ve been doing on childhood vaccination for years. Which leaves us all at much greater risk.
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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:
"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."
Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.
Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.
The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?
Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression
In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.
It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.
Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.
Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.
The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.
It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.
In their findings the authors state:
"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.
Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."
With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.
Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner
As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:
- Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
- Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
- Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
- Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
- Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
- Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
- Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.
It's interesting to note the authors found that:
"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."
You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.
Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:
- 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
- 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
- 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
- 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
- 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
- 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.
Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement
Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:
- Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
- Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
- Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
- Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
- We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
- If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.
Civic discourse in the divisive age
Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.
There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:
"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.
Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."
We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.
This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.
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