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Are immunizations harmful? Search carefully for answers

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12 2013 12:00 a.m. MST

Holly Ann Haley, 4, gets vaccinations at the doctor's office in Berlin, Vt. Vermont continues to be embroiled in a debate over ending the philosophical exemption that allows parents to have their kids skip the immunizations required for most children to attend school.

Toby Talbot, AP

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A recent “news” story circulating on the Internet said children who receive routine childhood vaccinations on schedule are more likely to go to the doctor. It’s presented in a way that indicates the immunizations themselves are sickening kids and sending them for help, citing a specific study to bolster its case.

It’s somewhat accurate, but it has been skewed to drive an agenda. It could be presented this way and its point would be more clear: People who don’t take their children to a doctor are probably not parents who get their children their vaccinations, either. It has nothing to do with making children sick. It’s about whether or not you avail yourself of a service, preventive or otherwise.

That changes the perspective a bit, doesn’t it? But that’s not the impression the story leaves.

There’s a great deal of debate, still, on whether childhood immunizations are good for kids or bad. I hear often from people who believe that autism is caused by immunizations, even though the study that first raised that specter has been debunked.

A former British surgeon and researcher, Andrew Wakefield, had linked the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine with autism and later investigation found that his research lacked scientific rigor, there were conflicts of interest and some of the data was falsified. Lancet withdrew it. Still, people who blamed vaccines for problems continue to do so.

We’re a pretty entrenched species once we make up our minds, especially now that we can send our views out across social media sites. We’re not naturally reticent, nor are we typically slow to decide what we think and spread it to the masses.

The same social media sites that allow us to find that girlfriend who was a constant companion a decade or so ago, to forge ongoing friendships with the guy you worked with at a department store while you were in college and with your first friend in grade school can also spread news — good, bad, true or fabricated — faster than you can run down the driveway to get your mail.

Add political agendas and animosities and personal self-interest, largely unfiltered, and it’s getting harder to figure out what science really says and how reputable an information source actually is.

I don’t want scientific findings shaped to suit someone’s politics. When two sides on a highly polarized issue do “research” that “proves” opposite conclusions, each one reflecting that personal bias, I think it’s important to be skeptical. And to seek out more than one opinion.

The point is not whether you think vaccines are bad. It’s the hazard of believing everything you read. Plus, if you think that just because something’s online, it’s true, you’re wrong. There are a lot of blogs and other sites out in cyberspace that use the word “news” to promote whatever it is they’re selling, whether it’s a message or a product or a myth. Sound science can be wretchedly presented.

When politics and personal preferences mix with pure science — or pretend to — it becomes anything but pure.

It’s also, sadly, not as uncommon across types of sciences as one might wish. We can all think of medications that passed through studies and were allowed into the marketplace, only to be shown later to be ineffective or even harmful, probably without intent to misrepresent them. We’ve all seen social science studies that completely contradict each other, whether the topic is how children fare in certain demographic households to the impact of religion on long-term development. You have to look at who’s doing the study, who is reporting on it and why they might be interested in it, as well as what people who might have different agendas are saying about it.

Something is true. But you may have to search for it.

Deseret News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by email at lois@desnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at loisco.

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