Type “vaccines” into the search engine of Amazon.com. In the blink of an eye, you will be presented with a list of titles. Bob Sears’ exercise in hubris comes top of the list and is, perhaps, the most dangerous of them all. He is, for those of you on my side of the pond, a paediatrician who instead of educating parents that vaccines are, for the most part, safe and effective, has come up with his own “alternative schedule” to pander to the fear that too many vaccines are given in too short a time frame. His schedule leaves children vulnerable to potentially deadly vaccine preventable diseases for longer than the recommended schedule and exponentially increases the stress of children subjected to his by their fearful parents.
Sears’ book flatters the confused parent. Buying his book was a wise decision, he implies, because those fears have a much stronger foundation than what any “ordinary” paediatrician, infectious disease specialist or epidemiologist will tell you. Your Baby’s Best Shot takes a rather different tack. Herlihy and Hagood acknowledge that parents having to make the decision of whether or not to vaccinate their children may well have misgivings. They explore the origins of those doubts and rather than commend or condemn parents for fostering them, attack the doubts themselves, tearing them out by their very roots. More, this is a manual on critical thinking and the insights into psychology and behaviour that Hagood, a community college psychology professor, brings to the work are applicable to countless other issues and situations parents face and decisions they have to make everyday.
This is a writing duo to be reckoned with. Hagood announces early on that she is not a parent. Her analysis of the vaccine manufacturversy is a wholly objective one. Herlihy, a writer of wit, charm and experience and a mother, recounts her tale of paranoia following her daughter being vaccinated, effectively demonstrating the power of anecdote and the human propensity to empathy. Combine these two women and you have a book that sticks like glue to the evidence that “vaccines are safe and save lives” but has huge amounts of heart and a conversational but never flippant tone that conveys a deep understanding of the toll fear and information overload can take on frazzled, possibly sleep deprived parent’s critical faculties.
Vaccine scares are put into context. The methods used to whip up a frenzy and spread fear are dissected. The individuals responsible for starting and perpetuating the current anti-vaccine myths are discussed at length. The chapter on the Geiers and their hideous chelation protocols involving chemically castrating autistic children with lupron, and that evaluating Andrew Wakefield’s abuse, lies and financial jiggerypokery are superb. Though the language is measured, the reader is left with no doubt that the authors of the book find these characters utterly despicable. I’d love to read a “gloves off” version of those chapters. The anti-vaccine propaganda is juxtaposed with the reality that vaccines are the greatest medical advance in the history of human kind. The case is stated perfectly with regard to small pox, “No mother today mourns the loss of her children because of this once-dreaded disease.”
If I were to level one criticism at the book it is that, though autism is discussed in some depth in relation to vaccines, the effect of the anti-vaccination movement on the lives of autistic people is only really touched upon in terms of the treatments the Geiers et al encourage parents to put their kids through. The movement has not only shifted the way in which parents view health care professionals, vaccines and even disease itself, autism has been used as a device to instill fear of vaccines and generate revenue for quacks who claim they can “recover” children from it. The suffering of autistic children because of this modern era fear mongering is disproportionate to their number. Their parents are coaxed into and then trapped in a cycle of anger and grief and adults with autism are sidelined in discussions of their condition by these parents of the next generation of autistic adults.
Your Baby’s Best Shot covers a lot of ground and a fair bit of history with forty pages of notes and references at the end. Never, though, does reading this book feel like a slog. There are no inches of footnotes at the end of each page as the research discussed and the sources referenced are cited seamlessly in the main text. Even the science heavy chapters relating to how vaccines and the immune system work are somehow imbued with the same warmth of tone of the chapters preceding and following them. Tricky concepts are related in concrete terms of everyday experience. One can almost imagine going for a coffee with the authors and them moving salt shakers and sugar bowls around the table to demonstrate what happens when a vaccine is received. In these passages their love of science and its discoveries are clear to the reader. These authors are passionate about this subject.
This is not a book that gives equal weight to both sides of the vaccine debate, nor should it. The weight of evidence is well and truly on the side of vaccines being very safe and very effective at protecting against the diseases they are designed to prevent. This isn’t a book encouraging parents to make up their own minds. It is a book written not to persuade but to demonstrate that vaccinating a child who can be vaccinated is a loving act of a responsible parent.
Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines are Safe and Save Lives by Stacy Mintzer Herlihy & E. Allison Hagood is published by Rowman and Littlefield. ISBN 978 1 4422 1578 8