By Brett | August 11, 2012
Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series pertaining to granola moms and public health.
Granola is the new Wheaties.
From the now-infamous Time Magazine cover featuring a four-year-old boy breastfeeding to endless baby-board discussions about the alleged perils of vaccines and the merits of co-sleeping, the so-called “granola mom” movement has made it mainstream.
Before I begin, let me say that I’m no hater from Decatur. I admire how dedicated granola moms are, and I’m in heartily favor of some aspects of granola motherhood (healthy food, breastfeeding, the environmental consciousness of the movement, among others).
With that said, the granola movement is also seemingly predicated upon the notion that mother always knows best, even when it comes to matters of fact. But facts aren’t flexible; sometimes even granola moms can be wrong. Specifically, I’m troubled by two dangerous practices that are common to the granola movement—foregoing vaccination and a penchant for co-sleeping.
Now before I go any further, let me say that I’m not going to tell you how to live your life—or how to raise your kid. If you want to make a bad decision for yourself (watching Battleship, say), go ahead. If you make a bad decision on behalf of your kid (insisting on purchasing only those folders covered in kittens and flowerpots), well, that’s lame.
But if you make a bad decision for your kid and it affects the public health at large—including my kid’s, or anyone else’s—that’s where I have to object.
Vaccination is perhaps the best example of this. Granola moms often distrust vaccination (at least more often than non-granola moms). Some question the efficacy of vaccines, while others worry about rumored side effects or allege that vaccines cause illness rather than prevent it. Granola moms also often argue that they know which diseases “are OK” for their kid to contract. Measles, mumps, chickenpox—granola moms often suggest that these diseases “aren’t so bad” and therefore not worthy of vaccination.
There are many reasons for such beliefs, but I’d argue that the main problem is a lack of context. Ironically, the vaccination effort in this country has been almost too successful, as we’ve literally forgotten the diseases we once feared. When the only references our kids have about diphtheria and measles are vague notions from Oregon Trail—a video game!—it’s no wonder that people can begin to question the necessity of vaccines. When the disease isn’t readily apparent, it’s easy to suspect the cure.
Thankfully, in the States, we’ve kept good public health records, and it’s pretty easy to remember just exactly what we’d be up against were it not for vaccines.
Polio is one of the best examples of the benefit of vaccines. A viral disease, polio is often asymptomatic, but active cases of polio are devastating. It attacks the nervous system, often leading to paralysis and respiratory failure. (Iron lungs—basically primitive ventilators—were once the only way to keep children breathing until their body recovered—if it did.)
Like many other diseases, polio is seasonal. Polio was most common in the summer, and prior to the vaccine, summers were absolutely dreaded. In the ‘40s and the early ‘50s, there were tens of thousands of cases each summer, with thousands of deaths.
Here are the numbers (via the CDC). A quick note: the number of cases for 1950/1949 were not available, but given the deaths were in the thousands, there were surely on par with the other years with similar death tolls. I also couldn’t find specific data on polio deaths for 1960, but I know that there were very, very few cases by the early ‘60s.
As it was so dreaded, there were attempts to prevent the disease. In fact, the March of Dimes started as an anti-Polio campaign. (The dime features President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a prominent polio victim, though he may not have died of polio after all).
Thankfully, after years of development, Jonas Salk announced the creation of an effective polio vaccine. After extensive human testing, in which it was deemed safe, a mass inoculation plan began.
Soon thereafter, the polio rate plummeted, and within five years(!) deaths were almost unheard of. Salk instantly became a national hero—New York City offered to throw him a ticker-tape parade, but he declined. (Can you imagine a ticker-tape parade being held for a scientist today? Today, we only hold them for far more important figures, like the New York Giants.)
Even more importantly (for this purposes of this post), Salk refused to patent the vaccine, saying, “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
That is to say, the polio vaccine was not created to turn a profit; on the contrary, it was created simply to save lives.
Other Diseases to Worry About
As if polio weren’t enough, there were dozens of other maladies that the populace had to worry about. Measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, the names are largely unfamiliar today, but in 1949 alone they combined to kill over 5,000 American citizens.
By comparison, during the entire Iraq War, 4,486 U.S. soldiers were killed in action. All of these diseases have now been practically eradicated thanks to vaccines.
Here are the numbers:
Deaths in 1949
And that’s one thing to remember—these are just the deaths, not the total number of cases; before vaccination, there were thousands of cases of hospitalization for these diseases each year. (While your kid might survive a bout with measles or mumps—or the chickenpox—why would you take the chance that could have to be hospitalized?)
For instance, prior to the vaccine, chickenpox killed about 150 kids annualy, and there were 10,000 cases that required hospitalization each year. According to the CDC, now that the vaccine’s here, hospitalizations are down 71 percent.
Of course, granola moms aren’t all to blame (and again, I’m only going after the granola moms who are anti-vaccination). People believe shoddy arguments all the time, for a variety of reasons.
First, the status of our science education is pitiful; when one is scientifically illiterate (as most of us are, granola moms included), it becomes quite difficult to understand what science has accomplished, let alone whether that accomplishment is praiseworthy.
Scientists haven’t done a good job either. Science speaks a different language (really, several different languages, one for each branch of science), yet there are very few capable translators. We’re lucky to have Neil Tyson Degrasse and Phil Plait, but they are far and few between.
Accessing the data isn’t either easy. From the paywalls that block access to elite journals to the labyrinthine nature of government websites, finding what should be basic historical data is more difficult than it should be. (For example, the CDC’s page is a nightmare. It took me three hours to find and compile the data I’m using for this post.)
Finally, the sources that granola moms rely on—forums of likeminded moms, websites that hawk natural supplements, and the like—all have something directly to gain. In these venues, ignorance becomes a literal sort of currency, as the proprietors’ of such sites have a reason to be persuasive: they have books and supplements to sell; their livelihoods literally depend on it.
Given all of these factors, it’s no surprise the movement has found such wide currency.