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Other View: Reality check on vaccine shows tiny risk of tiny risk

It’s easy to assume from reading the news that scientists have reflexively pooh-poohed concerns about a vaccine-autism link. Here’s the BBC: “Medical experts have overwhelmingly rejected any link between vaccines and autism, warning that promoting such a theory endangers public health.” The Wall Street Journal said that the preservative thimerosal was “wrongly accused of causing autism.” This glosses over an important sequence of events. Scientists didn’t reject the idea out of hand, when the theory was first floated. They conducted a mountain of research, and then the wrongness of the theory became clear.

This old accusation about vaccines is back in the news because of President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets claiming that children became autistic after receiving “massive shots.” He is said to have discussed vaccine safety not with any scientists but with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a lawyer who has written books arguing for a link between autism and thimerosal, which is used in some vaccines.

Some news accounts dismissed these concerns by stating that there’s no evidence for a link between childhood vaccines and autism. But parents want more than just absence of evidence; they rightly expect evidence of absence. That’s accepted public policy. Even if there’s no evidence of danger, new drugs can’t be unleashed on the public until they pass a series of safety studies.

Childhood vaccines have undergone dozens of studies on four continents conducted by hundreds of researchers. That’s yielded evidence that the potential risk of autism is so small that it’s dwarfed by the risk of the diseases the vaccines protect against. The diseases may be mild in some cases, but not always. There’s a measurable risk of permanent brain damage from measles, for example.

The saga of vaccine fears is compounded by the erroneous idea that scientists should be able to prove that vaccines are safe. What is “prove”? What is “safe”? Science deals in probabilities. The best that we can hope for is what we have: reasonable certainty that these drugs are reasonably safe.

People on both sides are spreading confusion, said UCLA epidemiologist and statistician Sander Greenland. Those who oppose vaccines by demanding absolute proof of safety are asking more than science can deliver. They should take a philosophy class on epistemology. And scientists who claim they’ve proven vaccines safe are expressing overconfidence. They should join the class. As Greenland said, “the only thing science can do is establish a margin of safety.”

Science can offer risk-benefit ratios. And here, the bottom line is that any potential risks in taking the vaccines are much smaller than those posed by skipping them, said Stanford epidemiology professor Steven Goodman. There are some documented risks, which are rare, and then there’s autism, which is probably a non-risk, or at worst a very unlikely one. Think of it as a small risk of incurring a small risk: Science can’t absolutely rule out the autism link, but it can show that the risk, if there is one, is much lower than that the risk of death or brain damage posed by remaining vulnerable to measles, pertussis and other preventable diseases.

Goodman has served on an Institute of Medicine panel examining vaccine risks, as well as another panel on drug safety. The vaccine panel, which met from 2001 to 2004, took autism concerns so seriously, he said, that they produced nine reports to address different hypotheses. Those included the notion that the preservative caused harm, which has been raised by Kennedy, and the fear Trump has expressed in his tweets — that doctors might be putting kids at risk by giving them too many vaccines at once. The reports all concluded that vaccines can’t be more than a very small risk factor.

Goodman said he’s met with activist parents who were worried their autistic kids were harmed by vaccines, and was impressed with how much they knew about science. The problem, he said, is that many hold a very narrow view of what science entails. To them, science included only laboratory tests that could give specific information on individual kids. The science of studying large populations … well, he calls it epidemiology, but they call it junk science.

The term “junk science” is so ill-defined that it can be invoked to dismiss anything people happen to disagree with. Still, he said he’s sympathetic to the fact that science can’t explain why their kids developed autism. Before anyone raised suspicion of vaccines, some researchers promoted another wrong and pernicious idea known as the “refrigerator mother” theory, blaming women for working or just not being attentive enough.

Recent work in genetics has tied some cases of autism to combinations of common genes, and others to “de novo” mutations that can occur in eggs or sperm and are therefore not carried by the parents. But genes don’t offer a full explanation, and scientists haven’t ruled out the possibility that genes make some people more vulnerable than others to environmental triggers.

No potential trigger has been explored as thoroughly as vaccines. It would be nice if scientists could give us proof that they are 100 percent safe, but that’s not realistic. In discussing the trouble with proof, physicist Richard Feynman once explained that he couldn’t prove that there were no flying saucers; he could only argue that they were very unlikely. Scientists took vaccine safety seriously. They found that an autism risk is extremely unlikely. Now it’s time for Kennedy and Trump to take science seriously.


Mailbag
Letters of Thanks

Appreciation for emergency response

We would like to publicly thank our local emergency response team, life flight, GCSO and Twin Falls St. Luke’s emergency room for their awesome care and transport when we desperately needed them Monday evening. We are extremely grateful to each of you. The caring response to my scary situation is appreciated. Thankfully, I was blessed with a good outcome.

Very sincerely — thank you.

Sherry and Robert Aja Hagerman

Travelers thank

those who helped

This letter is in thanks to the wonderful woman and gentleman who helped us “unstick” our car on the evening of Thursday, Jan. 5. We got stuck in the driveway of the Super 8 there in Twin Falls, where we had stopped during our trip home from Boise due to the unsafe road conditions.

My 72-year-old husband is being treated for two different cancers, facilitating weekly trips to Boise for chemo. We live in the Idaho Falls area, where we have been unable to find treatment for him, and have had to travel back and forth weekly. Our car is 16 years old, so that has been a scary drive in and of itself. This crazy weather is not helping the issue.

This lady saw our predicament, and immediately came to our rescue. She was driving a red SUV, I believe. She was incredibly strong and we cannot thank her enough for her selfless act of kindness. She just dug right in, no questions asked. Wow! There was also a gentleman who stopped his pickup in the lane behind us and got involved. He kept traffic from smacking into us and then started pushing. With his added strength, we were able to get the car into the parking lot.

A heartfelt thank you to both of you. Your kindness has restored our faith in people.

God Bless You,

Chayce and BJ Michaels-Swan Ammon

Local community pulls together

Just a word of thanks to the city, county, highway districts, law enforcement at all levels, school bus drivers, mail and newspaper carriers, neighbors who helped neighbors and others for a tremendous effort this past week. Work is still ongoing to keep the storm drains open and the water moving in a safe direction. You are to be commended.

Charles Brumbach Twin Falls

Filer takes care of citizens

We live in Filer on Main Street. I walk with a walker and my husband is 90 years young. We park our cars next to the alley because we don’t have to get up on the curb.

We were really socked in, the snow had buried the car and we couldn’t get to the garbage cans.

The city of Filer police and maintenance guy came and cleaned all the snow out. Even cleaned off the cars and moved them and cleaned that out too.

Proud to live in Filer.

Thanks to city and police department.

Neal and Mary Jane Gibson Filer

Hospice Visions thanks volunteers

At Hospice Visions Inc., we help you every step of the way, with comfort, care and love. One of the very special way’s we do this is through our remarkable volunteers. Everyone at Hospice Visions Inc. would like to express our most sincere thank you to our volunteers: Judy Anderson, Sarah Barker, Jade Browne, Rachel Cawley, Kim Clark, Hunter Cunningham, Kristi Douglas, Frank & Jeanene Ellis, Sammaria Fitzpatrick, Kelly Feng, Jenny Harmon, Gayle Kemp, Mark Lewis, Brett and Sandy Millar, David Palmer, Caitlyn Rail, Linda Rockne, Bob Rynbrand, Randy Slickers, Joed Steinberg, Jim Stevens, Sharon Sullivan, Matt & Carol Tombre, Gary Westra and Kathy Williams for your selfless, exemplary service to our patients and their families. Each of you are truly inspiring and we simply would not exist without you. You complete us!

Nora Wells Volunteer Coordinator Hospice Visions Inc.

Thanks for a Magical Christmas

To this wonderful community who made Christmas special for many senior citizens. Willow Brook Assisted Living and Cedar Draw Assisted Living had a fantastic Christmas thanks to so many including Applebee’s, Family Health Services, Xavier School, and many individual families. The gifts, the treats, the cards, the visits. Oh my, what a great time we had! We have so many folks that make this a great community and why we call this valley the “Magic” Valley. Thank you again from the bottom of our hearts for the blessings we received Christmas morning. Stop by for coffee and a visit. All the staff and residents at Cedar Draw and Willow Brook Assisted Living.

Cathy Lynch

Filer

Stockings for vets a success

Thanks to all that made Christmas 2016 stocking for veterans so successful. Clif Bar, McDonald’s and Willamette Dental Groups donated at 100%. And a big thanks to Costco and Smiths for having such great prices and goods. We were able to give out 100 stockings to veterans around the magic valley.

Delores Silcott President Richard Silcott Adjutant Twin Falls American Legion and Auxiliary Organizations thanking contributors or supporters.

Individuals thanking public agencies and businesses for extraordinary service.