Being a geek, I’m a big fan of the TV sitcom, “The Big Bang Theory”. It is well written and does a good job of reflecting real science. Several of the characters are scientists. Amy Farah Fowler is Sheldon’s sort of girlfriend. The character is portrayed by actress Mayim Bailik, a neuroscientist who holds a PhD from UCLA .
Here’s the problem; Amy the character, appears to be more scientifically literate than Mayim the real life scientist. Mayim is the spokesperson for a group with views that go far beyond main stream medicine, such as recommending homeopathic treatments and not following scientifically accepted vaccination schedules for infants. The former would substitute ineffective sham medicine (homeopathy) with scientifically proven, efficacious drugs. In the case of the latter, rejecting vaccinations or even delaying an appropriate vaccination schedule puts not only the person or their children at risk of unnecessary illness, but also society at large.
The effectiveness of vaccinations depends on so-called herd immunity. To stop communicable disease does not require absolutely everybody be vaccinated, just a high enough percentage to disrupt transmission. Some individuals can’t be vaccinated for certain diseases for example neonates and pertussis- whooping cough.They are protected from this once common disease by virtue of the fact that those around them have been vaccinated and therefore don’t carry the disease. If an older unvaccinated child gets pertussis s/he can transmit the bacterium to an infant with fatal results.
A real problem with getting a vaccination is a misperception of risk. A person may known of someone who got a flu shot, and had a bad reaction or had the shot and still got the flu. This knowledge introduces a bias. It doesn’t however change the fact the the overwhelming odds are in favor of getting the shot. Depending on the vaccine, the strain of influenza, and several host factors,
“ …How well a flu vaccine works is challenging, in general, recent studies have supported the conclusion that flu vaccination benefits public health, especially when the flu vaccine is well matched to circulating flu viruses” – Centers for Disease Control statement. The odds of a severe negative outcome, usually to an allergic reaction to the vaccine are in the one to millions range.
Back to the bias of knowing someone for which a flu shot didn’t work, or had a reaction. Does knowing someone who won the lottery make you more likely to win the lottery? Most folks would say of course not. But this is the same kind of bias. You think of just one outcome among many, many. But that doesn’t change your odds.
We all know someone who doesn’t wear a seat belt. S/he frequently justifies the self-endangerment by claiming that they know of a case where someone died due to the seat belt. The same bias. Evidence from literally billions of passenger miles shows seat belts save lives.
Vaccinations are generally safe and are generally efficacious. Vaccinations protect not only those vaccinated but also others through the herd immunity. Participate in society, get the shot.