Americans are really bad at assessing risk. Many, for example, fear flying but don’t give a second thought to driving to the airport — even though the risk is greater of dying in a car crash than an airplane. And parents fear stranger abductions, even though it’s more likely children will be hurt by someone known to them.
There are many reasons for these misjudgments. People fear what they can’t control, such as a 737 or an unfamiliar person. Some fears have been ingrained for thousands of years — think snakes versus mosquitoes. And we’re bad at math — what does a hundred-year storm mean anyway?
The problem is that our collective misjudgments often result in bad public policy and avoidable negative consequences.
Take vaccines, for example.
The childhood vaccination rate, in Maine and the nation, has dropped in the past decade. As a result, childhood diseases that were rare are now showing up more often. This should be enough to spur lawmakers to action. A place to start would be tightening Maine’s immunization opt-out provisions.
In the 2012-13 school year, Maine ranked 9th in the country for the percentage of kindergarten children who were not vaccinated because their parents had opted out of a state vaccine requirement. While the number seems small — 3.9 percent of kindergarteners — statistics are not on their side.
Last month, the Maine Center for Disease Control warned of a pertussis, or whooping cough, outbreak in Washington County. In 2012, there were more than 700 cases of pertussis. This is the most since the 1960s.
The rise of childhood illnesses harms not just children but leads to higher health care costs and lost earnings as parents need to miss work to care for sick children.
Those who refuse to vaccinate their children often cite the negative consequences of the shots, particularly a link to autism. Numerous scientific studies have shown there is no link between vaccinations and autism, and a much-cited study that purported to show a link has been refuted.
To attend school in Maine, students, by law, must be vaccinated against: diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus; measles, mumps and rubella; polio; and varicella or chickenpox.
Maine is one of 22 states that allows parents to opt-out of vaccination requirements for philosophical reasons. All parents have to do is sign a form.
Some states that have seen outbreaks of these diseases have tightened their opt-out requirements. Vaccination rates have subsequently increased.
Rep. Ann Dorney of Norridgewock, a family physician and Democrat, says more public education, perhaps through sharing stories from unvaccinated children who have gotten preventable diseases, is part of the answer.
Dorney helped care for a young patient who contracted meningitis, for which there is a vaccine. The child survived but had brain damage from the illness. The child’s mother threatened to sue doctors because her child was not vaccinated. Records showed, however, that the mother was offered the vaccine but declined it. The mother said she wasn’t aware of the severity of the risks of not vaccinating her child.
This is too harsh a way to learn that the risks of not vaccinating a child outweigh the risk of giving the child a shot. But it is a cautionary tale in need of sharing.