Haunted by memories of the consequences of not vaccinating

Whenever I refer to an anti-vaccine activist as an “anti-vaxer” or an “anti-vaccinationist,” I can always count on outraged and self-righteous denunciations from the the person who is being labeled as “anti-vaccine.” “Oh, no,” she’ll say, “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine.’ I’m pro-safe vaccine.” or “I’m a vaccine safety activist.” Of couse, over the years, I’ve learned that the vast majority of such people are deluded in that they probably do really believe that they aren’t anti-vaccine, but everything they do and say is pretty much always anti-vaccine. It’s easy enough to tell just by asking a couple of simple questions. Often only one will suffice, and that question is: “What would it take to reassure you that vaccines are sufficiently safe that you would vaccinate your children?” Quite often, the answers will be levels of safety that are not feasible in the real world, such as demands for absolute safety, often slathering on a variant of the “toxins gambit” in the process. Alternatively, they’ll demand something like a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial that demonstrates that vaccines don’t cause autism, even though such a study would be completely unethical. When I see either of these things, I know I’m almost certainly dealing with a hardcore anti-vaccinationist, and if I see conspiracy mongering sprinkled on top of it all, then I’m close to 100% sure. Sure, I’m occasionally mistaken–but only very occasionally.

One aspect of hardcore anti-vaccine activists is a certain callousness towards those who promote child health through vaccination, so much so that I often suspect that when anti-vaccine activists accuse me or other defenders of vaccine science of callousness towards them it’s a massive case of projection. Take, for instance, this article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, near ground zero for anti-vaccinationism in California. Entitled Decades later, doctor still remembers the unvaccinated child who died, it’s the story of a pediatrician named Dr. Elizabeth Baskerville who’s been in practice 40 years and remembers an unvaccinated child who ultimately died of meningitis and blames herself for not having been more effective at assuaging the mother’s fears and persuading her to vaccinate her child. Indeed, the article ends:

“They’re trying to do their best, and what we have to offer them is our caring, our education, our personal experience and our desire to help them make good decisions,” she said. “We can’t make the decisions for them. And if we push, then why would they listen to us?”

Still, she never loses her sense of urgency about vaccines – or her memory of the diseases they prevent. And she never forgets that little girl.

“I thought, ‘is there something different I could have said?'” she says, her voice dropping to a whisper as she starts to cry. “All these years. It never stops hurting.”

Dr. Baskerville sounds like exactly what a good pediatrician should be: science-based, caring, and understanding of the fears of parents. So naturally, when the anti-vaccine activists descend, you’d think that, even though they disagree with her, they’d at least be respectful of her sorrow for not having been able to persuade that child’s mother to vaccinate, wouldn’t you?

I wouldn’t. Not anymore.

For instance, check out Ed Arranga in the comments:

Baskerville is the worst type of know-nothing pediatrician who believes one size fits all and 36 vaccines by the time a child is 5 is fine. Baskerville, try shedding a tear for the hundreds of thousands of vaccine-injured children and you would never stop weeping. Don’t you dare lecture me about hurt.

Then there’s Trudy Snyder:

I thought, “Is there something else I could have said”? I also thought, “Is there something else I could have been told”? My voice dropping to a whisper…”All these years. It never stops hurting”. The fact that my son is vaccine injured and lives with constant pain from the very thing I was told would save his life. That fact that I have to look my child in the eye every single day and KNOW that *I* didn’t research and believed everything that the doctor spoon fed to me. Have you shed any tears for MY child Dr. Baskerville? I know I have, many.

I bet that Dr. Baskerville would shed a tear for Ms. Snyder’s child if she met him, but not because vaccines caused his autism. They didn’t. The evidence is quite clear that they almost certainly do not. Of course, that doesn’t stop Michael Kohloff from chiming in:

Transparent pro-Vax propaganda. As if they really care.
Shoot the Drs.
With their own vaccines.

Stay classy Mr. Kohloff. Stay classy.

Naturally, when the anti-vaccine contingent descends, you can count on the fact that it won’t be long before Anne Dachel, from the anti-vaccine crank propaganda blog Age of Autism, won’t be able to resist weighing in, either, that is, after promoting the awful paean to vaccine pseudoscience Vaccine Epidemic and referring Dr. Baskerville to one of the oldest anti-vaccine groups, the National Vaccine Information Center. Then Dachel starts spewing the same old nonsense about an “autism epidemic”:

Dr. Baskerville has been a pediatrician for 40 years and over that time the vaccination schedule as grown exponentially. (The number of vaccines our children receive has more than tripled since 1983.) During the last 25 years, the autism rate has grown to epidemic proportions, now affecting one percent of children, including almost two percent of boys. No health official can explain this. The cause of autism is officially unknown. The only thing they’re sure of is that the ever-expanding vaccine program isn’t at fault and they’ve got lots of pharma-funded studies to prove it.

This is, of course, nonsense. While it’s not entirely certain that there hasn’t been a modest increase in autism prevalence over the last 20 years, expanded screening, broadened diagnostic criteria from the early 1990s, and diagnostic substitution can account for most, if not all, of the apparent increase in autism prevalence. In the meantime, there are mountains of evidence demonstrating that vaccines are safe and do not detectably increase the risk of autism.

The bottom line is that Dr. Baskerville comes across as a caring, competent pediatrician who’s been haunted by the memory of a child whom she could have saved if she had simply known what to say to the child’s mother to persuade her to vaccinate. From my perspective, she’s probably being too hard on herself. As Dr. Baskerville herself says, “We can’t make the decisions for them. And if we push, then why would they listen to us?” Given that she believes that, there’s no rational reason that she should blame herself for that child’s death. But she does, and that says everything you need to know about her as a pediatrician and a human being, no matter what sort of abuse anti-vaccine activists pour on her story.