Acceptable Level of Risk

I was chatting on Facebook the other day with a fellow traveler, Jeanne Dee.  She made a comment that left me speechless, horrified, and quaking in my boots.  Her daughter has not been immunized.  Against anything. Ever.

“People get sick because their immune system is weak,” she told me.  “My daughter is very healthy.”

Now here’s the thing:  I think not immunizing your child is way too high a risk to take.  She thinks biking around the world is dangerous.  Who’s right?  We both are.

“You see the world through lenses tinted by your experience,” someone once said.  And it’s that experience that guides us in making decisions about what’s dangerous and what’s not.

Jeanne has seen more people harmed by vaccines than by the diseases.  I’ve seen way too many people crippled by polio.  Her experience leads her to make the decision not to immunize – it’s too high of a risk.  My experience led me to get vaccinations for my sons as soon as I could – not doing so was simply an unacceptable level of risk.

“I am so scared for you,” Jeanne tells me frequently.  “What you are doing is so dangerous!”  Her experience tells her biking is full of danger.  Her brother was killed by a car while taking a break from biking and standing on the side of the road taking off his shirt.  Jeanne hit a trash can while biking one night and seriously broke her arm which led to major surgery and nerve damage.

And yet my experience tells me biking is fine, and biking around the world is no more dangerous than biking back home.  I’ve cycled thousands of miles; John many thousands of miles more. As a family we’ve pedaled nearly 24,000 miles.  In all that time, we’ve had four accidents.

  • In 1993 I headed out for an early morning training ride in Alexandria, Egypt (where we lived at the time), hit an oil spill, and fell.  I broke my hand.
  • In 2005 John and the boys were cycling the bike path along the Boise River when Davy took a slow motion tumble and ended up with the handlebars in his belly and an injured pancreas.
  • In 2007 I was riding home from work one afternoon when a car inched out of its parking spot and hit me.  I ended up with nasty road rash on my arm and leg.
  • In 2008 John and Daryl were riding home from a bike store in Albuquerque, NM (where John lived for 9 years) when a driver turned and ran into them.  John ended up with two sprained wrists.

Our experience tells us that most accidents happen near home and the accident rate is very low – in other words, it’s an acceptable level of risk (4 out of many thousands of miles for our family).  I’ll happily jump on my bike and pedal from one end of the earth to the other, but take an unvaccinated child out traveling?  Uh uh.  No way.  Not in a month of Sundays.

We all have those ideas – some things simply appear more dangerous to us than to others.  I shudder to think about kids riding motorbikes, yet many of my students regularly suited up and hit the tracks in races.  Jumping over barriers on horses terrifies me.  And don’t even get me started on car racing.  And yet there are many parents out there who, based on their many and varied experiences with those activities, deem them fine.  Who am I to judge?

What lenses are you seeing the world through?  What things will you allow your children to do that other parents won’t?  What activities have an unacceptable level of risk to you?

Edited to add:  I wrote this post a few days ago and now need to add one more accident to the list – Davy hit a rock in the road yesterday and tumbled down, yanking out his fingernail in the process.  That makes our family accident rate 5 out of hundreds of thousands of miles.  Still an acceptable rate for us.

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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10 Responses to Acceptable Level of Risk

  1. Yvette September 20, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    Um, ok. The vaccination one actually annoys me because the only reason your kid doesn’t get sick when you decide not to vaccinate them is because OTHER FAMILIES DO SO. They are without question the greatest breakthrough in modern medical science to the point where many people don’t even realize it like the case in point- it gets easy to forget how MILLIONS of children used to die from these diseases, and the only thing stopping it now are vaccination programs- does anyone really want polio to make a comeback?

    So I suppose I take an exception to the vaccine thing because I don’t see it as much a personal choice as much as a public health hazard when kids aren’t vaccinated. I mean no one thinks twice about banning secondhand smoke which kills thousands a year, but people worry about vaccines even though there’s no link to autism in studies and only a handful of deaths. By contrast, it’s estimated we have 14 million fewer infections a year thanks to immunizations, so it’s definitely more effective at prolonging your life than secondhand smoke bans are.

    Of course, back to the original topic I guess it’s important to note that I’m in school for astrophysics so I tend to take things into perspective with a healthy dose of analytical thinking- I didn’t think skydiving was dangerous as the odds of an accident in the USA were over one in a million for example. But I do think there’s a discernible difference between a choice like that or my choice to bike to work every morning as if something goes wrong my choice would only effect me- Typhoid Mary’s insistence a century ago that she wasn’t sick ended up killing dozens of people firsthand.

  2. Helen September 20, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    Whether not vaccinating is a personal health hazard or public health hazard depends one’s point of view. There are complicated facts on both sides of the debate.

    One such fact, since you mentioned Typhoid Mary, is the existence of subclinical disease in vaccinated people. It has long been believed that vaccinated prevents infection. But what is well documented, though not well known, is that in many cases, vaccination does not prevent infection, but only prevents symptoms. What you have then, are a bunch of symptom-free vaccinated people who are unknowingly infecting others–a bunch of Typhoid Mary’s if you will. Here is an example (one of many):

    I am not bringing this point up to pursue a vaccination debate, but to point out that reality is much more complicated than any one side of a debate. We have to remember this when judging others for taking risks we won’t take. In most cases, they simply have a different viewpoint supported by a different set of facts.

    In a manner of speaking, we are all proverbial blind men certain that our view of the elephant of risk is the correct one.

  3. DC September 21, 2010 at 12:12 am #

    I have to side with Helen on this one. As for my child, I let her know why I don’t vaccinate myself. My wife gets every one that floats by unless she sees something messed up in the development of it (anthrax…) I suport my wifes choice and she suports mine. We don’t get sick much and we are both in at risk locations alot.

    To each their own on this one…

  4. Ellen September 21, 2010 at 1:36 pm #

    I find this discussion very interesting and timely, since there has been some evidence in San Diego county in the past two years that withholding of childhood vaccines has caused serious illness, and in some cases, death.

    There was the measles outbreak in 2008, when ONE unvaccinated child brought measles with him from Switzerland, and spread it to 839 people (73 were unvaccinated children). Why this outbreak did not become a widespread epidemic or caused any deaths is because the county spent $10,000 for each of those cases in order to keep the virus from spreading more widely. It also helped that 95 percent of the general population was immune to measles.

    This summer in San Diego county alone there have been over 550 outbreaks of whooping cough, and at least nine infants have died in California. The infants either had not been vaccinated or only partially vaccinated due to their age.

    I understand parents’ concern about the harm that they believe vaccines may cause, but I am old enough to have lived through the pre-vaccine era polio epidemics when swimming pools and schools were closed and parents dreaded taking their children outside the house. Any child was vulnerable, and polio was an awful disease. My own parents considered polio vaccine developer Jonah Salk one of the great heroes of their time.

    Public health officials say the general vaccination rate must be above 95% in order to prevent more serious outbreaks. It is the most vulnerable among us who suffer when the rate goes below 95%: the infants, the elderly, the people with weakened immune systems.

  5. nancy September 21, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    I really don’t have an opinion one way or the other about vaccines at this point. I do agree that, if we reach that critical mass of people who do not vaccinate then we will be in trouble, but as long as it remains a small portion of the population I doubt it’s a serious problem. That being said, there is no way we would be doing the things we do if our children were not vaccinated. (We only got them the basic childhood ones – don’t bother with cholera and typhoid and all those as they are not very effective anyway. We also don’t take malaria medicine.)

  6. Elle September 23, 2010 at 10:59 am #

    Folks who don’t do basic immunizations are taking advantage of herd immunity and free-riding on society as a whole. Unless there is a serious health risk from the vaccination (and this applies to only a very small population of people), vaccination should be compulsory. They are safe. They don’t cause autism or other disorders. And even if there is low-level disease without symptoms from them, it is generally our bodies’ reactions to disease (the symptoms) that kill us — not the viruses and bacteria themselves.

    So, while it’s useful to understand why some folks might not want to get immunized, it is NOT OKAY. They are putting entire communities at risk.

  7. Jeremy November 18, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    I don’t understand the argument that an unvaccinated child places vaccinated children at risk. If a person believes so strongly in the effectiveness of vaccinations, then you have nothing to worry about in regards to the unvaccinated child. People who disregard the fact that Big Pharma is incestuously tied to many of the politicians responsible for passing health legislation in this country are quite honestly not being objective. It is one thing to say vaccines are a good thing for the public in general. But any parent that tells me they are more concerned with the good of the public over their own child is lying. These decisions often come down to a gut instinct of the parent, which statistically speaking is often more powerfull than the instinct of an “outside” individual. Whenever I hear an arguement devoid of reasonable concerns from the other side, I immediately close my ears. It is not as black and white and pro vaccination proponents will have you believe. Since when have the majority of individuals in positions of power valued the health of the American public over their own pockets. I often think pro vaccination proponents are blind to the ills of human nature.


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