Browsing Tag

Language Matters

Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism, But That’s Not the Point

By March 7, 2016 27 Comments

 When I was studying vaccine safety communication in grad school, I didn’t really think about autism as being a part of the conversation. That correlation had been disproved so thoroughly time and time again, I thought about autism only in a statistical sense. I thought of it in terms of t-tests and chi-squares.

Yes, I had loved ones that were on the autism spectrum or had children that were to varying degrees and I appreciated the challenges they faced, but vaccines were never part of our conversation, and why would they be?  Hundreds of studies with hundreds of thousands of data points both retrospective and prospective, and the correlation had been disproven.

At times when we’re faced with a parent or a friend that has a concern about something, we try to allay their concerns instead of addressing whether those concerns were valid to begin with.  In a clinical setting providers have a short period of time to address parents’ concerns and having a larger conversation about risk and what it means to have a child with autism really means just isn’t feasible.  The conversation gets shortened to simply “vaccines don’t cause autism.”  I cringe to admit it now, but I was once part of that problem.

As Julia and I say over and over again on this site, language matters, and I didn’t realize how much my comments could have hurt some people. But as Julia and I also say, it’s OK and important to change your mind with new information. This is the story of how I came to change how I think about vaccines and autism.

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Categories: Disability + Disability Advocacy, Infectious Disease + Vaccines

Ladies, Don’t Drink and Don’t Have Babies: When Public Health Messaging Fails

By and February 8, 2016 1 Comment


We strive to be evidence-based communicators here at The Scientific Parent, and sometimes we collectively wring our hands at public health messaging by our counterparts at other organizations. After all, the public health nerd core tends to be made up of nerds, and while we love nerds (seeing as how we consider ourselves members of that tribe), sometimes nerds can get lost in health data and forget that it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Data may be objective in the eyes of researchers and statisticians, but in the real world and life, those numbers have context.

That’s why over the last two weeks we’ve found ourselves squirming over recent public health campaigns. For example: common sense would suggest that telling women in Texas to simply not get pregnant due to the threat of catching the Zika virus is utterly unhelpful. First, because of the lack of universal access to free contraceptives for both sexes, and also because the messaging places an undue burden on women with no equivalent advisory (i.e.: ‘don’t get anyone pregnant’) for men. Also, family planning and expansion usually doesn’t stop because viral outbreaks, as public health officials in every other country on the planet can tell you (including those in Brazil who are seeing women avoid mosquitos that carry Zika, not pregnancy).

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Categories: Policy, Politics, + Pop Health, Pregnancy, Birth + Family Planning

December blooms in NYC - courtesy Bronx 12 News

Climate Change is A Big Picture Trend, Not an Event, or Phenomenon like El Nino

By January 20, 2016 No Comments


The sun was shining. Flowers were beginning to bloom. And families curled up inside their homes for warmth during a brutal winter began to emerge into the warm, mild air that signaled to them that it was the beginning of Spring.

The only problem was it, it wasn’t Spring at all – it was the end of December.

What was going on?

If you had told me on Thanksgiving, when my first child, Thomas Hunter was born, that come Christmas, our new family of three would enjoy a comfortable walk around the neighborhood in short sleeves, I would have said that you were crazy. But there we were, sweating as we pushed our newborn around in 70-degree weather.

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Categories: Science 101 + Mythbusting

Just Because You Disagree, Doesn’t Make it Child Abuse

By January 11, 2016 1 Comment

Humans are terrible judges of risk.  We are all awful at it, and it’s not our fault, our brains are hardwired to struggle with risk.  In addition, our risk thresholds are all different.  For example, there is a pine tree in our neighborhood that kids love to play under.  One mother won’t allow her daughter to touch the needles out of fear that she’ll prick herself and will then be afraid of the tree.  I’m OK with my son touching the needles on the tree.  I’ve judged the risk that he will injure himself and the associated trauma as low, and the other mother has judged the risk of injury and trauma as high.

Neither of us are right and neither of us are wrong.  Neither of us are bad parents.  Neither of us love our children any less than the other.  We’ve each simply made an assessment of risk and our threshold is different.

When I told a friend about the pine needles her response was, “that’s child abuse.  She’s not letting her have a full childhood, she’s teaching her kid to live in fear of nothing.”  The other mother may have been what others consider to be over protective, but it was far from child abuse.

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Categories: Accidents, Injuries, + Abuse

Hey Huffington Post! Tuberculosis is Serious, but it isn’t the Plague…

By March 19, 2015 No Comments

There are very few things that set me ablaze quite like overly dramatic journalism or people chewing loudly with their mouths open. As a recovering journalist and longtime health policy and communications junkie, I shake my fist heavenward when I see articles with poorly chosen graphics like this recent Huffington Post piece on the Tuberculosis (TB) outbreak at a Kansas city-area high school.

I’m about to become a stepmother and after a few years working on maternal and perinatal health policy and implementation, I know the last thing a parent wants to see in relation to an infectious disease affecting children is an outbreak slideshow beginning with “The Bubonic Plague.” It’s essentially the fire-and-brimstone promise of certain death, and frankly, it sits in opposition to what is a managed and benign situation.

If you went to school in the 70s and 80s you likely remember getting TB “shots.” Yes I know, even in ye olden days, we cared/we were crazy enough about infectious disease and vaccinations enough to protect ourselves without protest (clutches pearls). But those TB shots weren’t vaccinations, they were actually harmless skin tests to see if we’d ever been exposed to Mycobacterium tuberculosis (the bacteria that causes TB) and were carrying it in a latent (read: dormant or inactive) form. These shots offered no protection, they were diagnostic, not protective.

After 72 hours, if a test was positive and it was determined that the patient hadn’t gotten a TB vaccine in another country that would cause a false positive, there was an intervention plan to stop it from progressing into a full-blown disease. Which is to say, most Americans like myself have been walking around blissfully unprotected from TB, and some may even carry it latently without knowing it. And frankly, that’s ok. Latency in this case means the body has isolated and cocooned the bacteria well enough via a healthy immune response that it hasn’t progressed into the actual disease, which is a slow-moving bacterial infection.

What spurred the recent testing in Olathe, Kansas was a singular student who presented with an active infection and actual symptoms – coughing, fever, and fatigue. In its earliest stages, TB isn’t always the movie-inspired hacking, choking, bleeding lungs disease we might imagine, so it’s no surprise that this student did not get in to a doctor sooner. While Tuberculosis is certainly a highly fatal disease when left both active and untreated, according to the CDC, a majority of people who have been exposed remain in the latent stage and never actually develop the disease as this student did.

This recent TB scare is a good reminder for why this shouldn’t trouble most parents. Tuberculosis is spread through the air via coughing, breathing, singing, etc., not by physical contact, and it typically takes extended exposure to a symptomatically infectious person to spread (unlike the measles). Of the nearly 350 individuals who had contact with the sick student, only 27 so far have tested positive for exposure, and many more have not been tested or alerted since the school’s currently out on spring break. Now nearly two weeks since the first sign of a TB case, and Johnson County officials, where Olathe is located, are now switching from mailed notices to phone calls to initiate preventative testing in the rest of that population. It says something about the urgency at which any of us should be considering this scenario.

Which is why the word “outbreak” is a bit of misnomer here. Only one person actually has Tuberculosis, and the 27 others have only tested positive for exposure to it. The student in question has already been isolated and will be cleared for contagiousness within a few weeks, and cured in the coming months. The rest are only positive for latent TB, but are not contagious, and do not feel sick. These individuals will take an up to 9-month course of antibiotics to insure that they’re never infectious, and that the dormant bacteria never develop into the full-blown disease.

If you are wondering why we don’t vaccinate for Tuberculosis, as other countries do with the BCG shot (bacille Calmette-Guerin) – to sum it up, it’s simply not the threat it once was, exposure is treatable, and the disease is curable. And of course, if you have concerns about your own child and a possible exposure, ask your pediatrician if the TB skin test is advisable.


KCTV 5 News. State: 27 at Olathe High School Tested Positive for Tuberculosis Infection. Updated March 18, 2015. Retrieved March 18, 2015.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tuberculosis (TB)9. Last updated December 16, 2014. Retrieved March 18, 2015.

Almendrala, Anna. Tuberculosis Outbreak at Kansas High School Infects 27. The Huffington Post. March 18, 2015. Retrieved March 18, 2015.

Johnson County, Kansas. Case of Active Tuberculosis Identified at Olathe Northwest High School. Released March 4, 2015. Retrieved March 18, 2015.

Olathe Public Schools. Tuberculosis Information. Retrieved March 18, 2015.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Core curriculum on tuberculosis: what the clinician should know. Retrieved March 18, 2015.

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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health