My latest read was Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. This is a short book, written for the layman, about the anti-vaccination movement that has seen growing media attention in recent years. The book is written by a Dr. Paul Offit, a well-known pediatrician who specialises in infectious diseases and has worked heavily in virology and vaccine development. As such, it is no surprise that the author is strongly in favour of vaccination, and that is the angle taken by the book. Although his opponents argue that his credentials make him a biased source, they also make him an expert in the field.
Offit walks us through the history of vaccination up to the outspoken celebrity opponents of childhood vaccinations we see in the news today. Although the book is not completely linear in chronology, it covers all the major issues surrounding the vaccinations beginning with smallpox, through polio, to pertussis, hib, chickenpox, and measles-mumps-rubella, and other lesser-discussed vaccines.
The book is not just limited to coverage of the vaccines themselves and their opposition, but also covers the topic of vaccine scheduling in children, the history and function of the vaccination courts, relevant studies, the major players and events in the modern movement, and provides information on the diseases themselves.
As he moves through history, Offit presents the anti-vaccination position and reasoning and then proceeds to dismantle it. Although Offit fiercely opposes the movement, he makes effort to fairly represent the perspective he is arguing against. He then explains very clearly why that position is wrong or why the reasoning is flawed or why their evidence is questionable. He points out logical fallacies and the frequent confusion of correlation and causation. He uses rational explanations in clear terms with ample scientific evidence as support. You will not find appeals to emotion here, confusing science buzzwords or attempts to obfuscate the information.
Offit also analyses the studies that the anti-vaccination movement use to support their position. Although there have been numerous studies done discounting a link between vaccines and particular injuries like brain damage or autism, the few that have suggested a link have been very high profile and gotten a large amount of media attention. Deadly Choices discusses these study in depth and is not shy about critiquing them to explain why they (falsely) resulted in the data they did. Offit does not just dismiss them because he disagrees; we are told explicitly why they are faulty and should not be considered valid sources.
Offit puts considerable time into dispelling the common arguments presented by the anti-vaccine movement, many of which are false or misleading. For example, the claim is often made that vaccines contain toxic ingredients. Offit goes through each of the commonly named “toxins” and discusses them. Some haven’t been included in vaccines for years, some never were, some are included in amounts less than already exists naturally in a baby’s body or in their food, some are exaggerated or skewed to sound like something they aren’t. To the claims vaccines overload the system, Offit explains how vaccines interact with our immune system and offers compelling evidence that even with the number of vaccines increasing, we’re actually putting in less now than a single vaccine of old. To the anecdotal evidence, Offit explains why we might see illness timing that makes coincidences seem causal when they are not. To the conspiracy theories that Big Pharma intentionally poisons children to make money, Deadly Choices shows us that vaccines have not been historically profitable and even with government subsidies, still make very little comparatively.
Offit also goes into great depth on the topic of herd immunity. He explains why these diseases we are trying to protect against are so dangerous, complete with real figures of both infection, injury and death. He explains why we need to maintain a certain level of vaccination in the population to prevent outbreaks from devastating the population. Although people like to think of themselves as protected because they live in a developed nation with many vaccinated people, Offit makes it clear it only takes one foreign traveler to spread the disease, where it can explode through an undervaccinated population (and this has already been demonstrated). Diseases that today are mostly forgotten because of vaccines are now requiring us to return to the days of fear and quarantines as outbreaks occur in pockets of unvaccinated children and schools. He makes a case for children who cannot be vaccinated due to their age or medical condition, and how their very lives depend on our responsibility.
Although no person who vehemently opposed childhood vaccination would call this a balanced book, as an outsider without an emotional investment in the issue, I felt that Offit was very fair in his coverage of the issues. He does not just dismiss his opponents as simply crazy or stupid without evidence. He obviously sympathises with how emotionally charged the issue can be for parents with sick children who want to understand. He was also direct and honest about the instances in history when vaccines did prove to be dangerous, and also suggests ways that particular vaccines could be improved for safety. He did not have to include that kind of information and could have chosen not to mention it to make his position seem stronger. His choice to include these instances and examples earns him credibility in my eyes.
Finally, the book is so overstuffed with sources and citations that I find it hard to believe anyone who makes the claim that Offit is inventing information. Literally half of this book is bibliography, and Offit is very thorough and aggressive throughout Deadly Choices with providing the sources of all the information he gives.
I found the book to be both educational and a little scary, but I would recommend it to anyone who is curious about the debate, is unsure whether to vaccinate their children, or those who simply want to know more about the movement. The book is not going to convince anyone who has their mind thoroughly made up that vaccines are unsafe but for the rest of us, it’s a very good read.
Buy the book on Amazon: Hardcover