‘NOVA’ takes science’s side in vaccine debate

TV show dissects concerns and sets facts straight about vaccinations

STAYING HEALTHY  This infant in Australia might have avoided whooping cough if vaccination rates in the surrounding population had been higher.

Courtesy of Genepool Productions

In some quarters, vaccines have become victims of their own success. Having suppressed the diseases they target, vaccines have left room for people to worry more about the shot than the illness. In response, the TV series NOVA offers an engrossing, evenhanded documentary, one that would never have been made 55 years ago, when people were happily lining up around the block to get polio shots.

Distrust of vaccines means that California today has an epidemic of whooping cough and Britain and France have faced bouts with measles. Some parents delay or skip vaccines mistakenly thinking they’re protecting their kids from autism or other problems. “Vaccines — Calling the Shots” dispels this nonsense.

Building the science from the bottom up, the filmmakers use nifty animation to show how a shot whips the immune system into action, putting memory cells on layaway in case the real disease shows up. Other dazzling graphics track a measles outbreak among unvaccinated people in Brooklyn.

The documentary then turns to the doctor’s office.

Viewers watch from a discreet angle as an Oklahoma City pediatrician asks a mother and teen daughter about vaccinating the girl against sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which can cause cancers of the cervix and throat. The mother demurs, voicing concerns about teen sexuality and stressing abstinence. They skip the shot. 

In the next scene, a woman across town breaks down describing how her 37-year-old daughter died of cervical cancer, having grown up before the HPV shot was available. She would give anything to have vaccinated her girl.

NOVA doesn’t hide the fact that all medicines, including vaccines, carry risks. About 1 child out of every 1 million vaccinated will have a serious reaction. It’s a question of risk versus benefit, one scientist says, and it’s not even close.

Perhaps the program will get through to people who still doubt vaccines. Published science hasn’t fully done the trick, and pediatricians are left to tussle with resistant parents. A better approach might be to focus on the next generation: Show this first-rate documentary to middle school kids. 

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