I had been dreading the moment for weeks now. On the other hand, my two-month old son, who had no clue what was about to happen, smiled at me, trustingly. In a way, it made it even worse. “Just get it over with,” I thought as I sat in the lounge of the pediatrician’s office. One oral dose and four vaccine shots in his two tiny thighs. Just get it over with.
The attendant came with a tray filled with four syringes. I held my son in my arms. He looked straight into my eyes. Boom! He turned red in the face and started screaming as soon as the first one went in. I wanted to look away, but I didn’t. We were in this together. I held him and kissed his forehead multiple times as the doses went in in little body. When it was done, I rushed past the lounge. I held him and tried to comfort him as I took him back home. Now, as I write, he is lying in bed with a mild fever and his mother and I are taking turns comforting him.
I have not had much experience in being a parent, but I already understand that it involves tough choices. As a scientist I was trained to think objectively. But as a parent sitting there in the lounge, I’ll admit that felt uneasy as my son was about to be vaccinated. I understand what goes through the mind of every parent. Every parent wants what is best for his or her child. I’ve reconciled that thought with the knowledge that not every parent knows what is best for his or her child.
Parents are a scared lot to begin with. I’ve seen otherwise rational people apply a spot on a child’s forehead or cheek to ward off the evil eye and pawn off hair to a household deity for his or her well-being. “What is the harm,” they ask (and that is a column, perhaps, for another day). The situation is different when vaccines are concerned. By choosing not to vaccinate, parents put not only their own children at risk, but also the children of others. The anti-vaccination lobby feeds on the natural fears of parents by fueling the misconception that certain vaccines cause autism. Yes, some children are diagnosed with autism after being vaccinated, and presented alone this is enough to scare parents. But children are diagnosed with autism after they are born, start to feed, and leave the hospital. As a scientist, I would say that correlation does not lead to causation, or in other words, just because one event is associated with another event, it isn’t caused by it. As a parent, I do not seek the higher burden-of-proof of causation: we don’t know definitively what causes autism, but there is not a shred of evidence of even correlation of vaccine use and autism.
I bring this point up because correlation is vitally important when we can’t finger causation. In the United States, the leading cause of mortality of infants between the age of one month and twelve months is the morosely named Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). SIDS is a blanket term describing a number of situations in which the actual cause of mortality cannot be accounted for. There is no immediate, obvious cause. Therefore, in my mind, while the search for the causation is important, every recommendation (determined by correlation studies) to a parent which can lower the probability is vitally important. The overall prevalence of SIDS in a population may be low, but just by determining what epidemiological factors decrease the probability of occurrence even further, physicians are empowering parents such as myself.
I know these are frightening thoughts. I’d rather not think about them. But I have no other choice. Of what benefit is training the mind to think rationally, if I can’t use it to bear upon the events that impact my family the most?