The Littlest Victims of Anti-Science Rhetoric

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July 29 2014 7:30 AM

The Littlest Victims of Anti-Science Rhetoric

vitamin K
Vitamin K is a critical compound in our bodies that allows blood to coagulate. Infants are naturally low in it and are at risk for terrible problems that can be otherwise prevented with a simple shot.

Photo by Shutterstock/Natalia Karpova

After all these years advocating for science, and hammering away at those who deny it, I’m surprised I can still be surprised at how bad anti-science can get.

Yet here we are. Babies across the U.S. are suffering from horrific injuries—including hemorrhages, brain damage, and even strokes (yes, strokes, in babies)—because of parents refusing a vitamin K shot. This vitamin is needed to coagulate blood, and without it internal bleeding can result.

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Vitamin K deficiency is rare in adults, but it doesn’t cross the placental barrier except in limited amounts, so newborn babies are generally low in it. That’s why it’s been a routine injection for infants for more than 50 years—while vitamin K deficiency is not as big a risk as other problems, the shot is essentially 100 percent effective, and is quite safe.

Mind you, this is not a vaccine, which contains minuscule doses of killed or severely weakened microbes to prime the immune system. It’s a shot of a critical vitamin.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Nevertheless, as my friend Chris Mooney writes in Mother Jones, there is an overlap with the anti-vax and “natural health” community. As an example, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the Nashville, Tennessee, area, more than 3 percent of parents who gave birth in hospitals refused the injection overall, but in “natural birth” centers that rate shot up to 28 percent. My Slate colleague Amanda Marcotte points out that vitamin K levels in breast milk are very low as well, and that’s the preferred technique for baby feeding among those who are also hostile to vaccines. In those cases, getting the shot is even more critical.

But the anti-vax rhetoric has apparently crossed over into simple injections. Chris has examples in his Mother Jones article, and there’s this in an article in the St, Louis Post-Dispatch:

The CDC learned that parents refused the injection for several reasons, including an impression it was unnecessary if they had healthy pregnancies, and a desire to minimize exposure to “toxins.” A 1992 study associated vitamin K and childhood leukemia, but the findings have been debunked by subsequent research.
“We sort of came to the realization that parents were relying on a lot of sources out there that were providing misleading and inaccurate information,” said Dr. Lauren Marcewicz, a pediatrician with the CDC’s Division of Blood Disorders. 

By “sources,” they mean various anti-science websites and alt-med anti-vaxxers like Joe Mercola (who has decidedly odd things to say about the vitamin K shot, which you can read about at Science-Based Medicine). Despite the lack of evidence of harm, some parents are still buying into the nonsense, and it’s babies who are suffering the ghastly consequences.

These include infants with brain damage, children with severe developmental disabilities, and more, because of parents refusing a simple shot for their infants. The irony here is extreme: These are precisely the sorts of things the anti-vaxxers claim they are trying to prevent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a great Web page about Vitamin K: what it is, why we need it, and why babies need it even more so. It will answer any questions you have about this necessary vitamin.

If you’re about to have a baby or have had one recently: Congratulations! It’s one of the most amazing things we can do as humans, and I will always remember watching and participating in my daughter’s birth. I would have done anything to make her ready for the world, and for me—for every parent—that includes getting the real facts about health.

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