Bill Maher is risking his credentials as critical thinker with his continuing rants against vaccines — he’s questioned the safety of vaccines on two episodes in a row. Worse, he’s risking the health of those who listen to him — and even worse still, the health of those they infect by not getting vaccines.
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How’s that? Well, folks with compromised immune systems cannot get vaccines; they must rely on herd immunity to protect them from dangerous but easily preventable diseases. For example, my toddler daughter was in this situation when we had to temporarily suspend her vaccinations during her 2-1/2-year course of chemotherapy to treat leukemia. If she had been exposed to some disease like measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria or pertussis by some unvaccinated kid whose parents were misinformed that the vaccines cause autism, she would have gotten very sick or even died in her compromised state. We completed our daughter’s vaccination program as soon as her immune system recovered enough to allow it.
On this week’s episode of Real Time, Maher even went so far as to say vaccinations are not “settled” science. He’s completely and totally wrong. Michael Shermer explains why in an open letter to Maher (emphasis mine):
Vaccinations are not 100% effective, nor are they risk free. But the benefits far outweigh the risks, and when communities in the U.S. and the U.K. in recent years have foregone vaccinations in large numbers, herd immunity is lost and communicable diseases have come roaring back. This is yet another example of evolution at work, but in this case it is working against us. (See www.sciencebasedmedicine.org for numerous articles answering every one of the objections to vaccinations.)
Vaccination is one of science’s greatest discoveries. It is with considerable irony, then, that as a full-throated opponent of the nonsense that calls itself Intelligent Design, your anti-vaccination stance makes you something of an anti-evolutionist. Since you have been so vocal in your defense of the theory of evolution, I implore you to be consistent in your support of the theory across all domains and to please reconsider your position on vaccinations. It was not unreasonable to be a vaccination skeptic in the 1880s, which the co-discovered of natural selection—Alfred Russel Wallace—was, but we’ve learned a lot over the past century. Evolution explains why vaccinations work. Please stop denying evolution in this special case.
It’s really a simple risk-benefit analysis. Vaccines have saved millions of lives, with small risk (and developing autism is not one of those risks).
All medical treatments carry risks — my daughter’s chemotherapy treatment carried risks for her, but the cost-benefit analysis showed that the risk of problems from chemotherapy was far outweighed by the risk to her life from letting her leukemia go unchecked. Similarly, the tiny risk of allergic reactions to vaccines for a tiny percentage of those who get them is far outweighed by the risk of contracting easily preventable but deadly diseases oneself and of spreading those diseases to others.
As a long–time Maher fan — and one who sometimes disagrees with him — I hope he will change his hypocritical position on vaccines very soon and very publicly before more damage is done on this key public-health front. And before he becomes a wingnut like those he’s made a career of exposing.