As the number of measles cases in South Wales nears a thousand, perhaps it’s time to ask why so many parents ignored doctors’ advice to get their children inoculated. Weekend Word, BBC Radio Wales 26/4/2013
I think we must start with the painful position you find yourself in as a parent. You want, above all, to keep your children safe and would really like the world to be completely risk-free. But accidents, strangers and disease all bring threats, and even thinking about them is painful. I say this as someone who refused to watch Broadchurch because it was about a child’s death! But if you can’t think straight about risk, you can’t decide on the safest course of action.
MMR inoculations presented parents with a painful dilemma. On one hand was the risk of their child catching measles; on the other, they heard people saying that the jab itself could cause autism. The evidence linking MMR with autism has been discredited; but for some people at least, that possibility was more frightening than the chance that their child might get measles. Judgment was skewed by people’s feelings: an example of what psychologists call the ‘cognitive bias’ that occurs when we believe something for subjective and emotional reasons.
I find the Buddha a source of good counsel about how we respond to danger and suffering. We all know that we’ll experience old age, sickness and death, he said; but we tend to avoid them and minimise their importance. Instead, he suggested, we should start by acknowledging how hard it is to face suffering directly and notice the feelings it sparks in us.
Often in our lives we face two frightening and undesirable alternatives and don’t know how to act for the best: for example, the apparent danger of autism and the very real threat of measles in our children. Then we may panic, or follow the crowd, or react instinctively; and sensationalist reporting that latches on to these emotions makes things much worse. The result is that we create an extra layer of suffering over and above the initial threat. The easily avoidable measles epidemic is an example.
In an uncertain world we cannot escape suffering entirely. The best we can hope for is that we learn to make wiser decisions; and that means confronting our fears, rather than being driven by them.