VACCINE UPDATE….Noting that Barack Obama has joined John McCain in pandering to the notion that vaccines cause autism, Megan McArdle says:

I know: it’s straight-up public choice theory. Parents who think that vaccines cause autism will vote on the issue, while people who think that this is bunk will not. But couldn’t they just keep quiet?

Unfortunately, probably not. After a couple of recent posts about vaccines I discovered something: the anti-vaccine crowd is really, really obsessed on this subject, and I doubt that they’d accept silence as an answer. I don’t generally get a huge amount of email, but my vaccine posts generated the second biggest chunk of email I’ve ever gotten on an issue. (Ron Paul remains in first place by a mile, though.) So it’s my guess that there’s more than just vote pandering at work here: basically, a brief suggestion that “we need to investigate everything” gets these folks off your back. Conversely, a straightforward acknowledgment that thimerosal doesn’t cause autism will bring down the forces of hell. Votes aside, who needs the grief over an issue that most people have never even heard of?

That said, I’ll confess that I learned a few new things from all the email. The biggest one is also the most obvious: namely that vaccines are different today than when I was a kid. It’s not just a matter of half a dozen shots for polio, measles, etc. Today’s children get a years-long course of several dozen vaccines, and the sheer size of the standard vaccine course is sort of scary to some parents. I get that. What’s more, it’s a bipartisan fear: a lot of conservative parents have been taught to distrust the scientific establishment and a lot of liberal parents have been taught to distrust the government and the pharmaceutical industry. So it’s a twofer. Everyone figures there’s some bureacracy out there determined to screw them over and then cover it up.

Still, what struck me was that even the more reasonable people who emailed me offered virtually no evidence of any harm from vaccines. And when I surfed around some of the anti-vaccine sites, the evidence on display there was surprisingly thin too. I say “surprisingly” because everything has side effects. For something that’s used as widely as childhood vaccines I’d expect a fair amount of reaction even if they were all as safe as spring water. But there’s really not much there. A few vaccines seem to be (maybe, possibly) associated with a few rare diseases, but that’s about it. For the most part, they seem to be safer than spring water.

But there’s not much political benefit in saying that. What’s more, regardless of what you think about either the vaccine lobby or the anti-vaccine lobby, it makes perfect sense to spend a fair amount of money continuing to study vaccine safety. We don’t know everything about how the immune system develops, after all, and the outbreak of so many childhood “epidemics” in recent years (autism, athsma, peanut allergies, etc. etc.) quite naturally makes some people wonder what’s going on — and wonder whether the effect of vaccines on the immune system might be at fault. This stuff is all worth following up. Still, there’s no evidence of it so far, and it would be nice if our future leaders could promise to keep up the funding and the investigation but also make it clear that current vaccines seem to be safe and effective and kids are way better off getting them than not getting them. Deal?

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