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November 20, 2012

What level of risk will you accept?

bike touring argentinaI was chatting on Facebook one day with a fellow traveler.  She made a comment that left me speechless, horrified, and quaking in my boots.  Her daughter had not been immunized.  Against anything. Ever.

“People get sick because their immune system is weak,” she told me.  “My daughter is very healthy.”

Now here’s the thing:  I think not immunizing your child is way too high a risk to take.  She thinks biking around the world is dangerous.  Who’s right?  We both are.

“You see the world through lenses tinted by your experience,” someone once said.  And it’s that experience that guides us in making decisions about what’s dangerous and what’s not.

She had seen more people harmed by vaccines than by the diseases.  I had seen way too many people crippled by polio.  Her experience led her to make the decision not to immunize; it was too high of a risk.  My experience led me to get vaccinations for my sons as soon as I could – not doing so was simply an unacceptable level of risk.

“I am so scared for you,” she told me frequently as we cycled the length of the Americas.  “What you are doing is so dangerous!”  Her experience told her biking is full of danger.  Her brother was killed by a car while taking a break from biking and standing on the side of the road taking off his shirt.  She hit a trash can while biking one night and seriously broke her arm which led to major surgery and nerve damage.

And yet my experience told me biking is fine, and biking around the world was no more dangerous than biking back home.  I have cycled thousands of miles; my  husband many thousands of miles more. As a family we’ve pedaled nearly 27,000 miles.  In all that time, we’ve had four minor accidents.

Our experience tells us that most accidents happen near home and the accident rate is very low – in other words, it’s an acceptable level of risk.  I’ll happily jump on my bike and pedal from one end of the earth to the other, but take an unvaccinated child out traveling?  Uh uh.  No way.  Not in a month of Sundays.

We all have those ideas – some things simply appear more dangerous to us than to others.  I shudder to think about kids riding motorbikes, yet many of my students regularly suited up and hit the tracks in races.  Jumping over barriers on horses terrifies me.  And don’t even get me started on car racing.  And yet there are many parents out there who, based on their many and varied experiences with those activities, deem them fine.  Who am I to judge?

What lenses are you seeing the world through?  What things will you allow your children to do that other parents won’t?  What activities have an unacceptable level of risk to you?

Nancy Sathre-Vogel is the “Mom” to Family On Bikes. Family On Bikes is just your everyday, American family who happens to be following their dreams and chasing rainbows. They are adventure-seekers and modern-day explorers who are limited only by their imaginations—and they have very vivid imaginations! They learned early to grab life by the horns and live it to the fullest—to, literally and figuratively, enjoy the ride. The Vogel Family’s most recent adventure was cycling 17,300 miles from Alaska to Argentina.

Posted by | Comments (4) 
Category: General


4 Responses to “What level of risk will you accept?”

  1. appalled Says:

    “What lenses are you seeing the world through? What things will you allow your children to do that other parents won’t? What activities have an unacceptable level of risk to you?”

    This whole post is written as if these random anecdotal approaches to life are accurate. We have really good statistics available on exactly what risks we’re taking by ignoring or getting a vaccine, or riding a motorcycle, or riding a horse, or racing cars. Random personal opinions about risk are worse than wrong – they’re made up, usually incorrect, and taking them seriously denies all the really smart things humans have done to study, avoid, and survive risks. There is no definition of “right for yourself” that can make personal anecdotes more right than scientific study.

    As a “for example”, her kids are benefiting from herd immunity, so they’ll probably be fine. Though if they do manage to catch any one of a dozen diseases that vaccines have made rare, they’ll probably just be dead.

  2. Aaron Says:

    Not vaccinating is like not buckling your kids in the car because major car accidents aren’t /that/ common or feeding poorly coked chicken because only 100 people die from Salmonella a year. The anti-vax movement is mostly just too many bored people who are making random statements based on bad understanding of statistics and science. I don’t think it parallels with the other examples.

    However, I know when I started travelling years ago it sent my own mother into a panic about how I was probably going to die somewhere in the wilds of Europe. Now though, she only worried a tiny bit when my younger sister started travelling, so even your personal lenses change with you over time.

  3. DEK Says:

    I agree that vaccinations and bicycle-riding raise different issues, mainly because we are better able to judge the consequences of one than the other. Also, statistics represent aggregates and we individuals are not taking aggregate risks but highly individualized ones in which we know more about our own skills and behavior and the peculiarities of our circumstances and can therefore more realistically judge how far they diverge from the common run of the statistical sample and how accurate, therefore, are published statistics to our own safety.

    And it is human nature to give preference to the evidence of our own senses and anyone who argues against what we think we have seen with our own eyes has an uphill struggle. And often rightly so.

  4. Nancy Sathre-Vogel Says:

    It’s a hard issue, for sure. I know I can’t imagine not vaccinating my children, yet many people feel the risks from the vaccines outweigh the benefits. I try not to judge…

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