Mandates, Ben Franklin, and Vaccine Injury

On Monday (President’s Day), I flew to Philadelphia to be part of a panel at the Franklin Institute discussing whether or not we should mandate vaccines. The other panelists were Dr. Paul Offit (you may have heard of him) and Dr. David Ropiek. It was an exciting conversation, I learned a ton, and I was grateful to the good people (both for and against mandates) who drove through the evening’s sleet and snow storm to attend.

As you can imagine, before the event began, it was the sources of some controversy. One chiropractor/blogger went to great lengths to explain why the esteemed Franklin Institute should not provide a forum for such a discussion. Most of her letter, of course, was an exhortation about how awful Paul Offit is and how much she disagrees with his science-based approach to vaccines. Her letter, of course, had no effect on the evening at all, but I mention it because we knew going in to the evening that the audience would include people who were not only opposed to vaccine mandates but also opposed to the very existence of vaccines at all.

As a side note, as much as Paul Offit is vilified, he really does deserve none of it. He is as kind a person as you could imagine, spending the time before the event asking how my children were doing and providing updates about his children. He truly cares about children not in the abstract, but about your children and mine (and his).

Because we were prepared for backlash, no questions were taken live. Instead, people used the Twitter hashtag #TalkFI to submit their questions. And that brings me to the one question I want to answer more completely.

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Tweet: What do you say to parents who do have a vaccine injured child?

To provide a little bit of context, the question was presented to the panel as “What do you say about mandates to parents who say that their child is vaccine injured?” Phrased that way, the question really could have come from anyone–pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine, vaccine-ambivalent. I did not know that I was answering someone who found what we were saying offensive.

So my answer was, in essence, “Vaccines don’t cause autism.” And why was that my answer?

  1. Vaccines don’t cause autism.
  2. 90% of the time, when someone asks me about “vaccine injury,” they mean autism. Parents whose children have had adverse reactions to vaccines that match what the science tells us to expect usually do not refer to their children as “vaccine injured.”

From there, Dr. Offit took up the question and gave a fantastic explanation about what a true adverse effect from vaccination entails and how honestly rare it is. His answer was far more eloquent than my blunt response, and I think it provided parents some real insight into why it really is okay to require that children who attend school are vaccinated.

But what about mandates? The problem with a panel discussion is that often one panelist brings up a point that launches a new discussion before the answer can be completely discussed. So here is what I would say to a parent whose child suffered a real and debilitating adverse event after vaccines.

I am sorry that your child had a reaction to a vaccine. In an attempt to protect your child, a medication caused harm, and that was certainly both unintended and unfortunate. Because your child cannot receive this vaccine, or potentially any vaccines, a medical exemption will keep him in school. I will work very hard to make sure all the children around him who can be vaccinated are vaccinated because if a vaccine can injury your child this way, it is possible a disease can do something much worse.

That’s my complete answer. It’s important to note that parents whose children have suffered real adverse effects confirmed by science and evidence often agree that other children should be vaccinated to protect their children. David Salamone is one such child. He contracted polio from the Oral Polio Vaccine and has been permanently disabled since. And yet, he says:

I’m not against vaccinations. I’m pro-vaccinations. We had thousands of people contracting polio prior to the vaccination. We came out with the vaccination, and that number decreased significantly. So less people are getting sick, less people are getting affected, and that’s a good thing.

None of this, of course, will make any difference to the people who came out to the Franklin Institute to confront Dr. Offit or who wrote letter to them ahead of time protesting the forum at all. At the end of the evening, after trying to refute on Twitter the points we were making, Carol had one last point:

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Tweet: It’s more than one in a million. Don’t allow them to keep lying.

Could I have given any answer to appease her? No. I look at the evidence about vaccines and think, “This makes sense, and we must shape our policies based on what we know and how we can best protect children.” Vaccine opponents like her look at the evidence about vaccines and say, “This evidence doesn’t line up with what I believe, so there must be other evidence people are hiding. We must make policies based on the evidence we cannot see.”

Policies made to appease people who have beliefs that fly in the face of evidence or who have fallen prey to the misinformation of the anti-vaccine movement are unwise. They are policies that appease the fears of adults rather than protect children against the real and dangerous threat of disease. And while fear can be a powerful motivator, protecting our vulnerable must be more powerful.

P.S. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #BeLikeBen this week to highlight Ben Franklin’s commitment to public health. And if you’d like to watch the entire panel discussion, here you go: