When I was one month old, my parents took me on my first trip to India to visit my grandparents and extended family. I was a healthy baby, but a vulnerable one as I had not received most of my vaccinations yet. Thanks to herd immunity – a result of most people around me on the flights, in the airports and in my extended family being vaccinated – I was safe. The recent outbreaks of easily preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough have frightened me because I think of all the people who cannot be vaccinated, including babies or people with compromised immune systems or allergies. They rely on the rest of us getting vaccinated to stay safe. Unfortunately, even when armed with facts, it can be frustrating to argue one’s case with members of the anti-vaccine movement. But sometimes a (moving) picture really does speak a thousand words.
This past summer, I served as a preliminary judge for the Biomedical Sciences category at the 2014 Jackson Hole Science Media Awards. When I saw that one of the finalists was entitled “Jabbed – Love, Fear and Vaccines,” I panicked, assuming that this documentary was going to promote the spurious link between autism and vaccines. I was pleasantly surprised to find that “Jabbed,” produced by the Australia-based Genepool Productions, excellently illustrates the science behind vaccines while also addressing fears about vaccination. The documentary went on to win the best Biomedical Sciences program at the Jackson Hole Science Media Awards (note: while the original “Jabbed” documentary is unavailable for viewing outside of Australia, you can view a trailer for the program here). Genepool Productions also collaborated with NOVA to produce an American version of this program, entitled “Vaccines – Calling the Shots,” which utilized some of the same footage in “Jabbed” and can be viewed in its entirety here (it originally aired in September). While I found the latter to be jumpier in its editing, it is also better tailored to an American audience. Both “Jabbed” and “Vaccines” pack a lot of punch, interspersing interviews with prominent researchers, anecdotes from several different families from around the world and graphics to illustrate how the immune system works (if you have only two minutes to spare, watch this short video because it’s both adorable and accurate). While this could have ended up being an information overload, the stories are balanced to provide insights into not only the spread of infections, but also the spread of misinformation and fear.
The most effective and most heartbreaking visual in “Vaccines” is the first: an infant struggling with whooping cough. Whooping cough is caused by the bacteria Bordatella pertussis, which targets epithelial cells in the lungs. It is highly contagious and particularly dangerous for infants. Half of all babies under age 1 who contract whooping cough will need to be hospitalized and of those, about 1 in 100 will die. Unfortunately, due to a combination of lower-than-necessary vaccine rates and a relatively weak vaccine, whooping cough incidence is the highest it’s been in fifty years. The baby shown in the documentary was only 7 weeks old when he contracted whooping cough from an undetermined source – too young to receive the diptheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTaP) vaccine. While he thankfully survived, this story shows just how scary it can be for those who cannot be vaccinated to live in a world where herd immunity is dampened.
One of the interviewees who is surprisingly effective is a psychologist who discusses risk perception and tolerance. He argues that while it is not surprising to be fearful of vaccines, those who reject vaccination have a distorted notion of how invulnerable they are. That is, they believe the vaccine poses more of a risk than the disease it prevents. He suggests thinking of herd immunity as a series of concentric circles of contact (visually depicted in the documentary in the always bustling Grand Central) – if most people are vaccinated, what are the odds of becoming infected with an illness affecting one person? Choosing to vaccinate is, in fact, good risk management.
The documentary addresses concerns about vaccines in several different stories. In one, a family talks about how their previously healthy baby boy started having persistent seizures hours after getting his six month vaccinations. While it might appear that the vaccinations caused the seizures based on their timing, it turned out that their baby had Dravet Syndrome – a rare form of epilepsy that typically starts in young infants and can be triggered by fevers, sleep deprivation or stress. Many people experience mild side effects after getting vaccinated, including fevers, and for most of us these are short-lived and unmemorable. In this boy’s case, the fever post-vaccination was a trigger for a genetic disorder he already had, but any fever (including one that resulted from infection) would have initiated seizures. Since he cannot receive additional vaccinations, he needs those around him to be vaccinated in order to stay healthy.
Ultimately, the documentary highlights that we live in a global and interconnected community in which both infections and information (correct or incorrect) can spread easily. There are no symptoms for successful vaccines and as we forget what measles and mumps look like, there are many who dismiss the importance of vaccines. “Vaccines – Calling the Shots” is a short, but ambitious and approachable narrative that addresses not only how vaccines and herd immunity work, but also presents and allays common fears surrounding vaccines. Additionally, when viewed online there are a number of links on the same web page that can provide further information (You can virtually make your own vaccines!). If you have a friend and/or family member who is concerned about vaccines but open to learning about them, I strongly recommend sharing this documentary.