Photo courtesy of Flickr, under creative commons license

Photo courtesy of Flickr, under creative commons license

I’ve been asked for my opinion on vaccinations on numerous occasions, as it’s been a hot button topic for the last several years.

As my husband and I cope with the challenges of raising our children, we have certain friends -- more politically enthusiastic than ourselves -- try to rope us into their arguments over public health and individual rights. We know that vaccines have helped to nearly eradicate several diseases, but fears around the safety of vaccinations have created an anti-vaccination movement, one that has been linked to outbreaks of contagious diseases that were previously controlled. Even at work, the offering of a free seasonal flu vaccine sends my coworkers into debate mode as they discuss the merits and failings of this option.

I’ve listened to these debates. I’ve put up with my friends arguing, and I’ve done my best to look into things myself and be a responsible parent. But if you want my opinion on vaccinations, you may not like the answer.

Because my opinion is: my opinion doesn’t matter. And yours doesn’t either.

More Questions Than Answers

As with any remotely political issue, questions about vaccinations tend to be answered more by a person’s biases than by the facts. If you hang around on an anti-vax website, you are likely either an anti-vaxxer yourself, or a troll toying with the sincere visitors and writers trying to make sense of the issue. Even when a person with no particular agenda, either way, tries to research the issue and come to scientifically sound conclusions, there is little hope for finding clarity.

And It’s not just about making decisions for kids; adults are also having to make decisions for themselves on vaccines - booster shots, flu vaccines, shingles, and more. New specialty vaccines are being developed for adults to treat cancer or treat cocaine addiction, but how do we know how safe those are, especially when there are conflicting reports everywhere.

As far as I can tell, the problem isn’t even the vaccinations themselves. Whether flu season is coming, new children are joining the family, or it isn’t clear yet if a case of the sniffles might actually be something more serious, it is hard to find reliable, objective medical information.

According to Pew, more than 61 percent of patients research their symptoms online--a number that has grown constantly as internet access expands and more people of all ages get smartphones or computers. While this makes it easier to ask questions and find information without spending the time and money it takes to go to the doctor’s office, it also makes it easier for false alarms to go viral, for science to be undermined by paranoia.

Trying to do your own research may provide confidence and clarity, but for me it only shrouded everything in uncertainty. The more I looked for answers, the more questions I had: why hadn’t I heard about the risks of vaccinations before? Why did some random celebrity I’ve never heard of get so much attention for talking about vaccines? If the science is settled (as so many doctors claim) then why does the question keep getting raised?

Who is WHO?

There is, of course, the old-fashioned alternative to Googling everything. But talking to doctors wasn’t the final word I was looking for.

Doctors, apparently, hate that their patients are using the internet to become more informed about their health: they are annoyed by patients using online reviews and research to choose their providers; they are irritated at having to compete with celebrity doctors whose fame and visibility is amplified online; they’ve even come up with a diagnosis for those patients who come into the doctor’s office already armed with an internet-backed diagnosis: cyberchondria.

Reactions like this are part of the problem with finding clarity in the vaccine debate. Doctors being so quick to dismiss the source of patient information--rather than the content--doesn’t do much to sate the appetites for facts we all have when our health (or our family’s health) is in question. Doctor visits are expensive, and the internet is cheap or free. If we think we can find answers online, we will.

The issue of cost opens up a whole new can of worms: agendas. In reality, a random blogger or social media personality is just as likely to have a hidden agenda as a doctor, but it doesn’t always look that way. We know doctors are sometimes paid to promote certain drugs or treatments; the idea that some “Big Pharma” is pressuring doctors to promote vaccines fits right into the narrative.

But online, anonymity can lend a lot of courage to people, and can obscure the pathway that money follows from interest groups to resources. It is all but impossible to tell who is “real” online. As a millennial, I’m no stranger to the need for reliable sources (no, Wikipedia is not generally accepted as authoritative) or to the risk of catfishing (when people deliberately hide their identity to prank, manipulate, or extort others online). But at the same time, I’m also conditioned to go online to find my information.

So where can I go, and who can I trust?

A Trusted Opinion

Whether you are trying to make a decision about vaccinating your kids, looking for a way to deal with a chronic condition, or even just trying to stay healthy while saving money, it is hard to make an informed decision with or without the advice of a doctor, because there always seem to be questions about whether anyone’s “advice” is wisdom or self-interest.

And this is the real problem I have with the whole debate over vaccinations.

I, like everyone else, am expected to have an opinion on an issue over which experts disagree, the science is under constant scrutiny, and where taking a side will almost certainly cost me respect or even relationships. Growing numbers of doctors are refusing outright to treat patients whose parents refuse to follow the standard vaccination schedules. Having the wrong opinion on this issue could cost me--or my family--access to a preferred doctor.

I’m not interested in coming up with an opinion on an issue of medical science--I’m interested in knowing exactly what the facts are and what is best for me and my family. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be enough trust or respect going around for that to happen.

Doctors don’t trust their patients to do online research. But patients can’t always trust doctors to be objective when money is involved with decision-making. On the one hand there are questions about the authority of online resources, on the other, questions about how authorities in society use their status and position.

In the absence of trust, we come up with our own, inexpert opinions. Today the issue may be vaccinations, tomorrow diets, the next day exercise, maybe after that it will be the merits of replacing our organs and limbs with robotic substitutes--I don’t know. But I do know that anytime I or one of my kids has to see the doctor, it is already a scary, stressful experience. I don’t need the added stress of having to develop opinions on health topics, present them to my doctor, and potentially have to fight for them or even for my right to have them.

I want enough trust in this environment that when I express a concern, my doctor not only listens, but helps me understand the problem and the solutions available to me. I want enough trust that my husband and I don’t have to constantly fear whether we are making the right choices for our children. I want enough trust that when I meet another patient or parent online, I can actually take their advice.

Our problem isn’t that we don’t have enough--or even the best--information; it is that we either cannot or will not trust one another to use it.