A small but very vocal group of progressive types — people who are affronted by MAGA-wearing climate change deniers and those who question evolution — are embracing some heavy-duty science denial of their own.
They are the anti-vaxxers.
Yes, in our own backyard. In own playgroups, classrooms, and neighborhoods. People are shunning vaccines. They are “opting out” and their reasoning is that “there are too many,” “the body can’t process that kind of assault on the immune system,” “big pharma is only doing this to make money.” They are denying hundreds of years (Edward Jennings developed the smallpox vaccine in 1796) of proven research that vaccines work. What do they have in common? Most of these people are well educated, liberal and middle class. While there has always been people who have shunned science, the internet, with its immediacy combined with the fraudulent Wakefield study, brought the argument to the masses.
The topic is in the news again as the NJ State Assembly advances legislation “to limit what some believe is excessive use of the religious exemption that is part of” current state law governing vaccinations.
How have parents, who have good education, and have the options that come with wealth, come to the conclusion that vaccines are bad? Aren’t “good” parents always concerned for the health and wellness of their child. Of course. Don’t they want to do the best for their children? Of course. Why have they decided that vaccines are now “bad”? Most if not all of these parents have been vaccinated as children themselves. Is this a proxy war with vaccines standing in for something else?
The anti-vaxxer’s concern of too many vaccines doesn’t hold up when you consider our everyday exposure. Our bodies are assaulted daily by bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. Inside your home, germs can be found on counters and doorknobs. They can be found on money, library books, door handles to stores, railings, anyplace you can touch. People sneeze and cough and don’t cover their mouths. Germs are everywhere and when you unconsciously touch your face, eat a french fry without washing your hands, you have just inoculated yourself with whatever was on money you paid with for those french fries. But your immune system works and you don’t get sick.
Too many vaccines?
Are there too many vaccines? Not according to the American Academy of Pediatrics which came out with this site that lists the results of nearly 50 research studies in support of vaccination and that is no evidence to support the “too many vaccines” retort. In New Jersey, the state mandates 7 vaccines, in multiple doses, for school aged children. Some anti-vaccine supporters note that thimerosal, a type of mercury, is poison and shouldn’t be injected into children. While mercury is poison, there are different types. Methylmercury, the type found in fish and a very dangerous neurotoxin, is not in thimerosal. Thimerosal breaks down into ethylmercury, which is less toxic and has a shorter half life. And it hasn’t been in any childhood vaccines since 2001.
“The drug companies are making money off vaccines.” Are they? And if so, so what? It’s hard to say. Research can take up to 15 years for a new vaccine. That’s 15 years of paying scientists, for machines, for labs, for testing, for retesting…all of which won’t be paid back if the vaccine doesn’t make it out of the trial phase. People tend to look at the big number without drilling down into the minutiae of what makes the number so large or the amount of time invested. Also, it seems that there is money to be made as an anti-vaxxer — disgraced doctor and anti-vaxxer Andrew Wakefield teamed up with a lawyer who was suing a vaccine producer.
Prior to vaccines, life was different. You can listen to a polio survivor here. You can read about them here. Measles is not just red dots. The measles outbreak in Disneyland in 2014-2015 killed one woman and sickened almost 150. Measles is highly contagious and people infected are infectious before showing any symptoms. Measles can cause brain damage, deafness, and pneumonia. Chickenpox can cause brain damage, pneumonia, and birth defects in unborn children as well as painful shingles in later years.
Public health is everyone’s concern. It is herd immunity that allows the anti-vaxxers to exist without consequences — for now. However, if the herd immunity rate falls below 90%, we will be in trouble for two reasons. First, this will allow disease to gain a foothold in the community. Second, there is growing resistance to the antibiotic of last resort. There is now bacteria resistance to colistin. That means when you combine people not vaccinating against what were once common and deadly viral diseases that often lead to deadly secondary bacterial infections, the drugs that once worked, won’t. We are entering the post antibiotic era. People will die. And not just a few. A TEDtalk from Spain (in Spanish with English subtitles) detailed how herd immunity is where a specific percentage of a population has been vaccinated against a specific disease. It works because if someone in that population is exposed to the disease, the disease doesn’t get a toehold into the community and fails to spread. This protects those too young to be vaccinated or those who cannot medically be vaccinated. In 2015, NJ had a rate of 92% for kindergarteners.
You are protecting real people. Here is Penn and Teller’s take on herd immunity (NSFW).
With all this science, why do well educated parents shun vaccines for their children?
Is it because they can? Because they can afford to doctor shop to find a pediatrician that will support their desires? Is it because they think they know best for their kids because they are well educated (even though they may not be well educated in the sciences)? Are they so focused on their own children’s best interests that they don’t care about other’s children? Is it that they don’t trust doctors?
Or is it a reaction to the world at large? That life feels so out of control that they choose to micro manage what little they think they can control? A proxy war with their own children, their friends and families’ and complete strangers, caught in the middle.
Whatever it is, it doesn’t add up. And it’s a danger to us all.
Joy Yagid is a writer and artist, living in Maplewood NJ.