Have you ever heard that your child has more of a chance of getting hit by lightning than getting measles?
Since getting struck by lightning is rare, folks like to use it in comparisons to other things that they also think are low risk when trying to make a point.
There are problems with this type of argument though.
Understanding Risk Perception
In an age when many folks are overly anxious about things, it is important to understand the difference between real and perceived risks. Unfortunately, our biases often lead us to worry about the wrong things, sometimes with tragic consequences.
“No intervention is absolutely risk free. Even the journey to a physician’s office with the intention to receive a vaccination carries the risk of getting injured in an accident. With regards to risks of vaccination per se, one has to distinguish between real and perceived or alleged risks.”
Heininger on A risk–benefit analysis of vaccination
Vaccines have risks, but they are small risks, as we know that vaccines are safe and necessary and the decision to skip or delay your child’s vaccines carries with it a much greater risk.
Comparing Lightning Strikes to Vaccine Preventable Diseases
How common or rare do you think it is to get hit by lightning?
- odds of being hit by lightning – 1 in 1,171,000 (each year)
- odds of ever being hit by lightning – 1 in 14,600 (lifetime risk)
- on average, 26 people die after being struck by lightning each year (since 2007), which is down from a recent historical average of 45 deaths per year (30 year average) and way down from when we used to see 400 lightning strike deaths each year before 1950
- on average, 252 people are injured after being struck by lightning each year
Although 26 people dying after lightning strikes sounds like way too many to me, especially since one recent death was a 7-year-old boy in Tennessee playing under a tree, with 1 in 1,171,000 odds of getting hit, it sounds like we are pretty safe.
But is it fair to use those odds to justify your decision to keep your kids unvaccinated?
Of course not!
Why is our risk of getting struck by lightning so low?
What happens when we hear thunder or see lightning?
When Thunder Roars, Go Indoors!
What happens when a thunder storm approaches and you are at your kids soccer or baseball game?
“Postpone or suspend activity if a thunderstorm appears imminent before or during an activity or contest (irrespective of whether lightning is seen or thunder heard) until the hazard has passed. Signs of imminent thunderstorm activity are darkening clouds, high winds, and thunder or lightning activity.”
UIL on Lightning Safety
Many ball fields now have lightning detectors to alert officials of nearby storms. And just about everyone has access to weather apps on a smart phone that can alert them to an approaching thunder storm or nearby lightning strikes.
The point is that most of us understand that lightning is dangerous, so we go far out of our away to avoid getting hit. The risk of getting hit by lightning isn’t 1 in 1,171,000 with folks running around outside waving golf clubs in the air during thunder storms or sitting on their roofs under an umbrella watching the storm.
The risk of getting hit by lightning is 1 in 1,171,000 because most of us go inside once we know lightning is nearby.
“Based on the media reports of the fatal incidents, many victims were either headed to safety at the time of the fatal strike or were just steps away from safety. Continued efforts are needed to convince people to get inside a safe place before the lightning threat becomes significant. For many activities, situational awareness and proper planning are essential to safety.”A Detailed Analysis of Lightning Deaths in the United States from 2006 through 2017
And the same is true with measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases. They aren’t as common as they once were because most of us are vaccinated and protected.
If you skip or delay your child’s vaccines, you will increase the risk that they will get one of these vaccine-preventable diseases. And you will increase the risk that they will get someone else sick.
“I also warn them not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR, we’ll likely see the diseases increase significantly.”
Dr. Bob Sears in The Vaccine Book
And if enough people don’t get vaccinated, herd immunity fails, and we will see a return of pre-vaccine era levels of disease.
What to Know About Vaccines and Risk Perception
Folks often misuse lightning strikes when they think about risks, not understanding that the risk of getting hit by lightning is low because we take a lot of precautions to avoid getting hit by lightning.
More on Vaccines and Risk Perception
- Statistics Canada. Table 13-10-0141-01 Deaths, by cause, Chapter I: Certain infectious and parasitic diseases (A00 to B99)Statistics Canada – Deaths by cause
- How Dangerous is Lightning?
- A Detailed Analysis of Lightning Deaths in the United States from 2006 through 2017
- Study – Changes in the Number of Lightning Deaths in the United States during the Twentieth Century
- Lightning Myths and Facts
- Lightning Safety Tips
- Lightning Safety
- U.S. Lightning Deaths in 2018
- Lightning Science: Five Ways Lightning Strikes People
- WHO – Risk Perception and Vaccine Safety
- Vaccine Risk Communication: Lessons from Risk Perception, Decision Making and Environmental Risk Communication Research
- Study – Parental risk perception and influenza vaccination of children in daycare centres.
- Study – Internet Exposure Associated With Canadian Parents’ Perception of Risk on Childhood Immunization: Cross-Sectional Study.
- Study – The benefit of the doubt or doubts over benefits? A systematic literature review of perceived risks of vaccines in European populations.
- Why safe health choices are viewed as dangerous and dangerous health choices are viewed as safe
- Book Review: Risk by Dan Gardner
- There’s Actually a Scientific Reason Behind Being #antivaxx