Monthly Archives: June 2013

Vaccines work…and you should get them all.

Vaccines work, and you should get them all. Your children should also have them all. This, of course, assumes that you and your kids are not in the rare category of people who should not, or cannot, be vaccinated (the very old, the very young, people with leukemia and a few other cancers, certain heart problems, and sometimes severe asthma). But, assuming you’re like 99% of the population, you and your kids should get all of the vaccines recommended by your doctor.


This is my opinion, but it isn’t “just” an opinion. It’s my educated opinion, and my education in this and related areas is actually quite a bit more in-depth than that of the general public. This is an opinion where I admit – I don’t have respect for dissenting opinions. 


In many areas of parenting, my opinion is that no particular choice is “right” or “wrong”. Whether or not to co-sleep, to sleep train, to breastfeed or not, when to start solid food, to wear your baby or use a stroller…I have opinions in all of these areas, and in no case do I think my opinion is “right” – it’s just right for me. I chose to sleep train my daughter, but if you think that’s the wrong choice, that’s cool. (Unless you spend an hour every week complaining to me, over coffee, that your 20-month-old doesn’t sleep through the night, and use it as an excuse to be late for meetings and unable to get to work before 9:30…but that’s another rant.)


However, on vaccinating your kids (and yourself), there IS a right answer. There is measurable, demonstrable harm done by not vaccinating your children. Vaccines prevent childhood illnesses that used to kill children by the millions. I’m not going to provide links to every “this is the evidence vaccines work” study, but if you want to start doing your own research, this is a good place to start. (And if you’re going to try to argue that the CDC is evil and deliberately trying to get us to poison our children, be prepared for me to use the kitten setting on you.)


NOT vaccinating your kids puts them at risk. Low risk, in the modern (post-vaccination) era, but, still, at risk. Ask English parents how they feel about their kids’ “low risk” of measles right now. Worse than that, though – your choice not to vaccinate your kids puts MY kids at risk. The reason vaccines are so remarkably successful (so successful that parents are willing to forego them because they’ve never seen a child with polio or the mumps) is because of a phenomenon called “herd immunity”. The short version is this: the rare person who can’t be vaccinated, or whose vaccine was ineffective, is protected from the disease by the fact that everyone else is immune to the disease. Herd immunity requires a high percentage of the population to be immune (that is, vaccinated) in order to be effective. This number is above 90% for most diseases.


So, every parent who chooses not to vaccinate their child increases the risk of the herd’s immunity breaking down. This is almost certainly what happened in England – parents who had never seen a child with measles, but who were terrified of autism, bought into the fraudulent claims of a doctor who told them the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine causes autism (it doesn’t). Enough parents stopped vaccinating their children to allow the virus back into the population, and the current outbreak is the result.


Okay, so…I know the five or so people who read my blog already vaccinate their kids. So why am I all vaccine-ranty today? Well, because I got an e-mail from another mom at my daughter’s preschool last night. It seems she deliberately didn’t vaccinate her son against chicken pox, and has been trying, instead, to expose him to the virus so he’ll catch the disease and gain immunity that way. She e-mailed to ask if anyone who doesn’t mind exposing themselves or their kids to chicken pox wants to come over for playdates this week, because they’re under quarantine for a week and can’t go out for social gatherings. She finished her message with a note that she didn’t want to discuss her choices about vaccinating her kids.


ARGH! (Pretty much sums up my reaction.) Okay, then, I’ll discuss that choice here. This mom isn’t anti-vaccination for all things – just chicken pox (and possibly the flu). I don’t know her reasons, so I’m going to address the likely reason – the one most similar people seem to use. To sum it up: “I had the chicken pox, it wasn’t that bad, and I think it’s better to let the immune system do its job than to vaccinate for harmless things.”


This argument is…just so very poor. First, vaccines MAKE your immune system “do its job”. That’s how they work. Second, chicken pox is not harmless. Yes, those of us of a certain age all had it, and we survived. Chicken pox is not typically lethal. It can, however, have serious medical complications, which are particularly risky if you’re pregnant, immune-compromised, or an adult who has never had the pox. In addition, the immune system doesn’t always do its job with regard to the virus that causes chicken pox. The body fights off the acute infection, but many people (if not everyone) carry the virus in their nerve cells for the rest of their life, and people over the age of 60 or with compromised immune systems, who have had chicken pox, are at risk for a much nastier disease (Shingles). 


So…this is a wrong choice, in my opinion. Yes, we all had it. But this isn’t a fun memory – I would much rather have been vaccinated, personally. You’re putting your child at risk of complications, both now and in their future. In addition, you’re putting everyone else at risk – everyone who is an adult but didn’t have the chicken pox or the vaccine (in my day, we didn’t all actually have it – most of us did, but not all). Anyone who can’t be vaccinated. Anyone whose vaccine didn’t work for whatever reason.


As my friend Shannon says, quoting her daughter’s pediatrician, it’s tantamount to child abuse. It’s an immoral choice. That’s my opinion, and, in this case, it’s not “just” an opinion. I have charts and graphs to back me up.


(Note: I really like this woman, and respect her. She’s not a bad person – she is, in fact, a really wonderful person. But, in this one case, she’s making a choice that I find morally reprehensible…and since she doesn’t want to discuss it…well, I can’t decide whether I hope she finds her way to this blog or doesn’t.)


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On the discomfort of agreeing with Antonin Scalia….

So, twice in recent weeks I have found myself in the uncomfortable position of agreeing with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in cases involving DNA (my actual area of expertise). The first example, ten days ago, the SCOTUS decided that it was acceptable for the police to collect DNA samples from individuals who have been arrested (not convicted, mind you, but arrested) for “serious crimes”. Antonin Scalia dissented, as did I. In the second case, decided just this morning, the SCOTUS unanimously decided that human genes cannot be patented. And, again, I concur.

So…in the first case: the majority opinion reads, in part: “When officers make an arrest supported by probable cause to hold for a serious offense and they bring the suspect to the station to be detained in custody, taking and analyzing a cheek swab of the arrestee’s DNA is, like fingerprinting and photographing, a legitimate police booking procedure that is reasonable under the Fourth Amendment. . .” The entire ruling is available here.

It’s this part that bothers me: “like fingerprinting and photographing”. DNA is NOT like fingerprinting and photographing. For a start, your face and fingerprints have never been assumed to be private, based largely on the fact that, to be a human interacting with other humans, you leave images of your face and fingerprints everywhere. Having people see you, and touching things, these are not assumed to be private acts by reasonable people.

In addition, if we assume that DNA is similar to fingerprints, in that it is a unique personal marker that, when used correctly, can be used to positively identify a specific human,  it is also true that DNA is a far more powerful “identification tool” than fingerprints. DNA can be used to tell what race a person likely is…to identify their relatives…to tell whether they can digest lactose…to tell if they are at high risk for a variety of diseases…I could go on. And on. But the point is, NONE of this is true of fingerprints, which can be used for one thing: to match a suspect with a piece of evidence. DNA is much more than that, and can reveal much more inherently private information.

And Justice Scalia agrees with me. (I get chills just writing that, and not the good kind.) In his dissent, he wrote: body searches at the time of an arrest are valid because police are looking for evidence relevant to the crime that a person is suspected of committing. DNA sampling takes that a step further by attempting to find evidence of other wrongdoing that is not related to the crime the person has been arrested for and “Solving unsolved crimes is a noble objective, but it occupies a lower place in the American pantheon of noble objectives than the protection of our people from suspicionless law-enforcement searches. The Fourth Amendment must prevail.”

He’s right. The majority are wrong. And the only comfort I can take in that is the fact that Justice Scalia must be equally horrified to find himself in a minority opinion with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

On to today’s far less controversial (but upsetting to lots of local companies) decision: you can’t patent human gene sequences. Because they’re products of nature, not human inventions. Seems like a no-brainer, right? Many biotech companies will disagree, however, stating that not being able to patent gene sequences to prevent their use by competitors will remove the incentive for identifying and characterizing those sequences in the first place.

I find that argument pretty weak, largely because the decision still allows for “use” and “synthetic variants” – meaning if a company develops a test using the sequence, that test is patentable. Or any synthetic alteration of the gene made in lab (say a specific mutant version, or potentially even a cDNA sequence) may still be patentable. It’s just the gene itself, made by natural selection, not human invention, that isn’t patentable. You can’t tell the company next door that the BRCA-1 gene is “yours”, essentially.

This was a unanimous decision, so it’s a bit easier for me to swallow being on the same side with Scalia here. After all, there’s only one side, it seems. Legally.


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