Frontline: The Science and Politics Behind the Vaccine War

I consider myself to be a skeptic. For me this means that I generally don’t believe something without empirical proof. When I have questions or doubts I find myself compelled to research, research, research. One of the issues about which I have many questions and doubts is the current vaccination schedule. My children, who are now 11 and 12, were vaccinated as infants and toddlers without much questioning on my part. I hadn’t had my consciousness raised to this issue and didn’t even know I should be questioning it (as well as being much less skeptical at that point). Now I’m both skeptical and aware of the issues surrounding vaccines which means I want to know the EVIDENCE so I can make a more informed decision as the recommended  teen vaccination schedule looms closer. Which is why today I decided to watch Frontline: The Science and Politics Behind the Vaccine War on Netflix Streaming.

Throughout the 54 minute program I kept waiting for someone, anyone, to speak in terms of measurable data. Instead phrasing such as low risk, high risk, rare, etc. were being used without ever quantifying how those labels were being assigned. To be fair, statistical data was presented on one occasion; several large scale, independently funded, peer-reviewed studies were cited disproving the Autism/ MMR vaccine link. But I was still left feeling unsatisfied. Autism seems to be the Kanye West of vaccination side-effects, jumping on stage to be the center of attention, grabbing the mic from everyone else. In fact there are MANY side effects attributed to ALL vaccines, as reported by the CDC as well as the data given to parents by the manufacturers every time their child receives a vaccination. Empirical evidence was not offered from either side pertaining to these other risk factors. There was also no empirical evidence provided from either side to prove or disprove the benefits of the many vaccinations now recommended for children.

A lot of the information presented from the pro-vaccination camp focused on the dangers of contracting some of the more dangerous diseases for which inoculations are currently available. However no data was presented about the risk of contracting the disease in the first place.  Diseases that have been nearly eradicated are still being touted as major public health risks. For example, statistics about the mortality or side effects of polio is not compelling evidence that the current risk of contracting the disease is greater than the risks posed (as defined by the manufacturer and the CDC) by the vaccination. The same argument might be made for measles, chicken pox and more. It is impossible to know the true risks these diseases pose because a lot of the information out there is simply about contraction of the disease without further empirical data about mortality and long term side-effects. By the same token the data concerning the risks of vaccinations is equally confusing because it isn’t clearly quantified. I found myself increasingly frustrated with the amount of talk in the film about the risk of disease outweighing the risk of the vaccines while no hard data comparing the two was ever presented. The pro-vaccination scientists (some of whom worked for pharmaceutical companies and directly profited from the proliferation of vaccines) simply offered a hand wave to such inquiries.

On the other hand the anti-vaccination camp fared no better in their statistical offerings. Again, I wanted to see empirical evidence on the dangers of vaccines but none was offered. I do believe this was partially due to their overall smaller resources but some of it was just as willfully one-sided as the pro-vaccine crowd. One parent was shown discussing the need for children to get sick and simply declared it as part of our evolutionary process. While I do believe our immune system has evolved to be extremely remarkable that doesn’t mean that it is infallible. An immune system that kills a disease 85% of the time still leaves 15% of the population at risk- which isn’t a lot from a survival-of-the-species, evolutionary standpoint, but it seems like a lot when we’re talking about my child.  I kept waiting for a direct comparison to show if vaccination risk outweighed the risk of disease but it never came.

Instead of the empirical evidence I was hoping to find in this film I saw a lot of anecdotal evidence from both sides of the argument. Anecdotal evidence will never be convincing to a skeptic. I can find stories to support either side of an argument- as was demonstrated in this short film. A pro-vaccination doctor presented extremely disturbing pictures of a child who nearly died from a staph infection contracted through chicken pox lesions. An anti-vaccination parent shared the story of her child’s horrifying reactions to a routine vaccination. Both of these stories were heartbreaking and I found myself teary eyed for both of these children. However, both were extreme circumstances and in order for me to make an informed choice as a parent I need data, not emotional ploys.

The film ended with a philosophical argument concerning a parent’s right to choose vs. the greater good. This argument seemed oddly misplaced since we DON’T KNOW (or at least haven’t been presented with compelling evidence) what the greater good is. I generally fall into the camp of an informed public making their own choices but there are a few notable exceptions where I choose the greater good (usually pertaining to the environment). The current evidence neither leaves me swayed to support a compulsory schedule nor feeling informed enough to make a sound decision.

In the end I felt that this film raised more questions than it offered answers and left me asking, “Where is the science?” My search for unbiased, empirical data continues.

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One response to “Frontline: The Science and Politics Behind the Vaccine War

  1. I, too, watched that documentary recently and was incredibly disappointed. When I first started researching vaccines 12 years ago, I was troubled by the lack of information available (on both sides). Unfortunately, it hasn’t gotten much better.

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