Mass Evidence

Hey Anti-Vaxxers, Here’s a Prescription: Watch ‘NOVA: Vaccines—Calling the Shots’

‘NOVA: Vaccines—Calling the Shots’ lays out the clear, unambiguous case for why it is so important for everyone to be vaccinated.

“There comes a point where there is so much evidence, none of which shows any link between vaccines and autism, that you have to say ‘enough.’”

So says Alison Singer, president of the Autism Science Foundation. Singer, the mother of an autistic daughter, is one of many people featured in the PBS NOVA special Vaccines—Calling the Shots, which aired Wednesday. An in-depth exploration of the science behind vaccination, the documentary examines the phenomenon of vaccine refusal and the effect it can have on the health of both individuals and communities.

If I could have every single parent in the United States watch this program, I would. Pause the binge-watching of those shows you’ve got stored on Netflix. Modern Family is a rerun anyway. Whatever else may have been on the viewing docket, this is more worthwhile.

Tonight’s NOVA special lays out the clear, unambiguous case for why it is so important for everyone to be vaccinated.

Before we are introduced to Singer and her daughter, the program takes us to a playground in San Francisco. There we hear the concerns of another group of mothers, all of whom seem conflicted about immunizing their kids. “There is no such thing as an unbiased source,” laments one of them.

I cannot pretend to be unbiased on this particular issue. Given the extensive writing I have done on the subject of the benefits of vaccination and the potentially catastrophic consequences of failing to do so, it would be absurd for me to assume a pose of neutrality.

What the NOVA special makes clear is that to believe strongly in the importance of vaccination isn’t really an indication of bias. It’s merely to be aware of the mass of evidence that points to their safety and effectiveness. While the program does acknowledge that there are very rare occasions of severe reactions to vaccines, it doesn’t take one of those infuriating stances where both sides of the debate are treated as equally meritorious merely because they both happen to exist. Instead, viewers are given the facts about how valuable vaccines have been since they first became available for disease prevention.

From a pediatric ICU in Melbourne, Australia, to an elevator in Brooklyn, we see just how harmful refusing to vaccinate can be. An infant too young to have received his first round of shots gasps for air after having been infected with pertussis. Measles spreads within a religious community that doesn’t support the use of vaccines. A mother cries as she remembers her daughter lost to cervical cancer, and wishes the vaccine to prevent it had been available in time. The documentary doesn’t pretend that leaving populations susceptible to otherwise preventable illnesses is a low-cost proposition, even as it shows how long the history of vaccine refusal really is. (People feared the first vaccine against smallpox, derived from a related illness called cowpox, would literally turn them into cows.)

No doubt those elements who continue to assert that vaccines are harmful, that they cause autism or all manner of other ills, will find reason to reject this new show. They’ll lump PBS with all the rest of us as “shills” for the pharmaceutical industry, right along with the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics. (Welcome to the deep end, PBS. I think you’ll find the water’s fine.) Even though the program’s sponsors included Boeing and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, I’m sure somehow a murky connection with Merck will be insinuated. The program won’t convince everyone.

For anyone who may be on the fence but willing to be convinced, this special is well worth their time. It lays out in understandable ways how and why vaccines work, and why we cannot afford to do without them. There is no reason that people in New York City or Paris or London should be coming down with measles. If tuning in will change a few minds and stem the tide that is causing entirely preventable outbreaks within the developed world, the producers will have done the country an enormous good.