Monday, August 9, 2010

Anti-Vaccine = Pro-Disease

It's taken me a long time to write this post, because it just makes me so very mad.  I can't even include many of the pictures I originally considered in this post, because it makes me too angry.  People who know me know that I don't get mad easily, probably not nearly as easily as I should.  If I am going to get riled up about something, it's most likely to be less an interpersonal thing and more some big, social issue.  I've touched on some already: civil rights, creationism in public schools, etc.  If you really, truly want me to get spitting mad, though, one of the best ways is to bring up anti-vaccinationists.

Smallpox vaccine
Surely you've heard about it by now, from someone, somewhere.  The story most often goes that vaccines contain some sort of toxins that cause developmental problems -- primarily autism -- in children, and that the rise in cases of autism since the early 1990s is directly caused by an increase in the number of vaccines children get.  Supporters of this idea cite their personal experience, where their children only started showing signs of autism shortly after getting vaccinated, and a 1998 study by Dr. Andrew Wakefield published in The Lancet.  They claim that children are getting too many and too dangerous vaccines, that they are being pushed on us by the pharmaceutical companies not for health reasons, which are negligible compared to the risks, but because of profit and greed.

This drives me insane.

This post is not going to scientifically attack the specific claims of the anti-vaxxers.  Others have done that already, far better than I could.  (This post on Science-Based Medicine is from last year, but it's a great place to start, as is this set of articles from Wired magazine last October.)  Suffice to say, the science is completely against them.  Wakefield's original paper was retracted by most of its authors and eventually by The Lancet itself, its conclusions were fraudulent, there were some serious conflicts of interest, and Wakefield himself was recently struck from the UK medical registry as a direct result.  Supporters claim "conspiracy."  No plausible mechanism has been proposed for causation, and even the correlation disappears under more rigorous study.  Study after study has disproved the claims, leading supporters to move the goalposts and come up with new, equally-unsupported claims.  When pressed, they claim that scientists doesn't know what they're doing, and science has nothing on their instincts and personal experiences.  Many even claim that vaccines are at best unnecessary, and that all you need is the good ol' natural human immune system.

Thinking like this is nothing new, of course.  You run into the same things in many of the aforementioned pet peeves above, and more: creationists, homophobes, Holocaust deniers, psychics, homeopaths, etc, etc.  They all, to some degree or another, willfully ignore evidence, move goalposts, or simply cover their ears and go "lalala" until you walk away.  All those things drive me crazy.  But they don't touch a nerve with me the way the anti-vaccination movement does.

Because they usually don't lead directly to children dying.

I'm not trying to sound alarmist, I'm really not.  But anyone remember smallpox?  It was among mankind's oldest and most vicious illnesses.  Some 300-500 million people died of it in just the twentieth century alone.  In the early 1950s, about 50 million people were diagnosed with it every year.  You know how many people were diagnosed with smallpox in 2009?  Zero.  The last recorded case of smallpox in the wild was in 1977.  This disease that had been with us for thousands of years was completely eradicated.  You know why?  Vaccines.  A global initiative to vaccinate enough people that the disease couldn't spread anymore, and died out entirely.  Nothing else -- no, not even proper hygiene, as some supporters would claim -- could accomplish that.  To date, smallpox is the only disease in history to be completely, intentionally beaten.

Polio victims were often confined to
an iron lung, so they could breathe.
Picture circa 1953.
Hey, when you get a chance sometime, ask someone who grew up prior to the 1950s about polio.  Ask what it was like when polio could snatch away a friend or loved one over a weekend, often leaving the survivors crippled or deformed.  Ask how quickly all that changed once a reliable vaccine was developed.  Now, due to a concentrated global vaccination initiative, polio is well on its way to extermination, holding on only in a few countries.

Of course, they're not talking about smallpox or polio vaccines.  No, the most common targets are the MMR vaccine -- measles, mumps, and rubella -- and the pertussis, aka "whooping cough" vaccine.  They often try to pass these diseases off as common, innocuous childhood ailments that everyone goes through and that presents no actual danger, or at least far less danger than the vaccines themselves.  They go so far as to say that "no one dies of whooping cough", and upon being confronted by the parents of Dana McCaffery, a four-week-old baby who was too young for vaccination and who did indeed die of pertussis, calls them liars and instigating a program of harassment against them.

It's when I hear things like that, when they blatantly ignore the statistics about how dangerous diseases are, when they ignore the history, when they dismiss the monumental achievement of this technology and the countless lives it has saved, when they trivialize the actual deaths that still, still occur due to these illnesses, that I get angry to the point of incomprehensibility.

Look.  No, I'm not a parent -- and I realize that, for many people, that will completely disqualify any opinion I might have on this whole subject -- but I know it must be hard, so hard, to have a child with a developmental disorder like autism.  Not just hard on a day-to-day level, dealing with the immediate problems and so forth, but hard on a more personal level.  You want to know what caused it, and if possible keep other parents from having to go through the same thing.  The evidence strongly pointing to genetic factors isn't very comforting, because it makes it feel like it's your fault, which isn't really true, and that it's not easy to fix or prevent, which is.  You want something concrete, something you can point at and say "That!  That caused it!  If we fix this one thing, we can put an end to this disability, so no one has to go through it again!"

The problem is that "one thing" saves lives.  And while the anti-vaccination crowd can tie themselves in knots to ignore the evidence that they are on a wild goose chase that distracts from real efforts at treating autism, preventable diseases are on the rise.  People most at risk, including those with compromised immune systems and unvaccinated children, will get sick, and many will die.

So please, please, if you are a parent, immunize your children.

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