Just One Baby – Why We Vaccinate

For me, 5 February is Dana McCaffery Day. I originally wrote this in 2010 to explain how much her brief time in this world meant to me, even though I had never met her. I stand by every word, and even more so by every feeling, still today. I also choose to remember Dana’s birthday – the remembrance of her coming into her own being – as a celebration of a meaningful life, though I so desperately wish her life could have been as mundane as the rest of us.

Just One Baby

from Bad Astronomy
Today is the first anniversary of Dana Elizabeth McCaffery‘s birth. Unfortunately, Dana cannot join us in celebrating her birthday. Dana was killed by pertussis, or whooping cough. At under a month of age, Dana could not be vaccinated against pertussis and had to rely on herd immunity. Unfortunately, thanks in large part to the efforts of the anti-vaccination movement, immunity levels in Dana’s region of Australia were far below the herd immunity level necessary to protect those who cannot be vaccinated, like newborn children.

Prominent anti-vaccination advocates consider Dana’s death an acceptable cost for their cause.  According to Meryl Dorey the long-time head of the anti-vaccine Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), Dana was “just one baby.” Anti-vaccination spokeswoman Jenny McCarthy has gone on record welcoming back vaccine preventable killers in order to support her agenda:

I do believe sadly it’s going to take some
diseases coming back to realize that we need to change and develop
vaccines that are safe.

Jenny McCarthy (April 2009)

For the anti-vaccination agenda, an acceptable cost equates to the preventable suffering death of a one month old infant.

People look at the cost-benefit analyses of scientific medicine and claim that scientists and doctors do not care about “just one baby”. Certainly, there is a level of benefit that can outweigh a certain amount of cost, on average. That “on average” is important. There are rare reactions to vaccines, but we often do not know how to identify those individuals ahead of time, and we are trying very hard to figure that out. These events are unfortunate, but extremely rare, chance events.

Dana McCaffery’s death was not a chance event. Sure, that Dana was the victim was a chance event. That, however, is like saying that killing someone by throwing a bowling ball off the Empire State Building is an accident because you did not know exactly who it was going to hit. We know without a shadow of a doubt that, when infectious diseases like measles, mumps, haemophilus influenza B, and pertussis are spreading, people die. These are not extremely rare deaths.

When I give my daughter a vaccination, I know that there is a one in a million chance of a serious negative reaction. I still give her the vaccine because I know that the risk posed by the infectious diseases is far, far greater. But, I am not only protecting her, I’m protecting your child or your elderly parent, by increasing the rate of herd immunity. What I am not doing is selfishly foisting all the risk onto someone else’s child for no benefit other than to sit smugly in the delusional satisfaction of having supported my completely unfounded belief that I am saving the world. 

Cost-benefit analysis in scientific medicine can hurt people, but it does so due to probability and bad luck, not with intent. If only so much could be said for the anti-vaccination movement. Unlike the spokespeople of the anti-vaccination movement, this cold scientist’s hear bleeds every time it hears about that “just one baby”.

Even though Dana is not with us, the world is bringing her gifts. Lancet has fully retracted Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 study purporting to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The General Medical Council has labeled Wakefield as “irresponsible and dishonest” and is considering further actions. Meryl Dorey’s AVN is under intense pressure in Australia and appears to be rapidly losing support.

Happy Birthday, Dana. Toni and David, my heart goes out to you. There are not words to express my admiration for your courage in speaking out in order that no parents would ever have to needlessly suffer as you have.

Author: Josh Witten


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