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Monday, October 8, 2018

Vaccine Hesitancy

To understand vaccine hesitancy, we need to understand how parents and providers navigate from the facts as they exist to a vaccination decision, a path that is influenced by surrounding culture (Figure 2). The Internet, and especially Web 2.0, are starting points for many: we cannot ignore these accessible sources of information and misinformation. One must assume that by now virtually all parents have heard that vaccines cause autism. How would this “fact” play out on Vulcan (Spock’s planet of origin, where logic is venerated and emotion vilified)? Parents would view the data through a probabilistic lens and conclude that the purported link is extremely unlikely. On Earth—where antiscience, fake news, and “alternative” facts have free reign—many people cannot differentiate the misinformation mash-up from scientific consensus. (Are there Vulcans who would see glaciers disappear before their eyes and deny that their planet was warming?) Science is under attack, and science agencies are degenerating. It is difficult to refute the fact that vaccines cause autism for parents who sense that (mainstream) science is not always right.
The final arbiter of decisions for Earthlings is, of course, the human mind—a computer that retains ancient algorithms that were responsible for its evolutionary success . One hears about a particular outcome (autism) in an exposed (vaccinated) person, and that is where the thinking stops: the association is confirmed. (Actually, the thinking never starts—our tendency to form snap judgments is innate, and we instinctually err on the side of false positives.) The end result: One case of autism in a vaccinated child is enough for me. No vaccines! Parents who think that vaccines can have serious side effects (Figure 2) are, technically, correct (Table 2).

Parents who color their interpretation of this fact through the they can’t prove vaccines are safe lens are also, technically, correct—science cannot rule out associations between vaccination and adverse events with absolute certainty. However, this is not a failure—it is the way science works. Science seeks evidence to reject or fail to reject the null hypothesis—that being, for example, vaccines do not cause autism. In failing to reject this null hypothesis, we run the risk of making an error (believing that vaccines do not cause autism when, in fact, they do). Our chances of making that error may be very, very small, but they cannot be zero (unless we test every single person who ever did or did not receive a vaccine, which is, well, every single person). This is a difficult concept for people to understand, especially those educated in the United States, a country where math and science education may soon qualify for life support.