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Hello there, guys and dolls! We’re about to get into a topic I really didn’t want to get into. Or, maybe it’s a topic I thought I’d never have to get into. Either way, here we are, about to discuss vaccines. And anti-vaxxers, of course. And how the anti-vaccination movement is contributing to an upswing in preventable infectious diseases. This is a topic I’m pretty passionate about—as in, it tends to make me angry when I think about it.
Here’s the thing: A parent’s job is to protect their children. That includes taking necessary steps to protect them from infectious diseases when possible. Likewise, it is each individual’s job—or at least it should be their motivation—to protect others from infectious diseases. Not even Dave would breath in your face if he had Mono. Anyway, those "protect" instincts are essentially the reasons behind having vaccines in the first place—not just because scientists like people to do science on. See here:
- Infectious disease “A” is devastating to human health.
- Infectious disease “A” is preventable.
- Therefore, let’s do what we can to prevent infectious disease “A.”
When this formula happens, we get the results we saw with Polio which, in case you were unaware, was wiped out in the US. We’ve seen similar results with other infection diseases, as well. We’ll look at those later when I throw a bunch of statistics at you like a dodgeball champ.
The Spark that Caused a Movement
The problem is less of a problem and more of a shit-storm of problems—pardon my dirty mouth—starting with a theory. At a press conference in 1998, Andrew Wakefield voiced concerns that the MMR vaccine might be linked to autism via gastrointestinal issues. Susan Dominus explains:
[Wakefield’s] belief, based on a paper he wrote about 12 children, is that the three vaccines, given together, can alter a child’s immune system, allowing the measles virus in the vaccine to infiltrate the intestines; certain proteins, escaping from the intestines, could then reach and harm neurons in the brain.
Subsequent peer reviews found Wakefield’s theory unable to hold up to scrutiny. The theory was debunked. According to Dominus, the General Medical Council in Britain, “after a lengthy hearing, citing numerous ethical violations that tainted his work,” revoked Wakefield’s medical license. His funding was unethical and his research was fraudulent. Still, the damage had been done and Wakefield’s theory became the clinging dingleberry that sparked the anti-vaccination movement.
Fanning the Flames
Oh, my sweet, sweet internet. It’s just the best, right? It gives us kittens, Cracked.com, porn, recipes, and innumerable other awesome things. Yes, Dave, I included porn. Can you read or have you already gone blind!? Anyway, the internet is also the number one tool used to exacerbate fear, hate, misinformation, stupidity, porn. I mean, there’s the news to do that of course, but really… is it even a contest?
By now I think I can confidently say that we are all familiar with the phrase, "With great power comes great responsibility." The internet is a powerful tool and, as with any tool, the wielder decides how it’s used. That’s unfortunate when it comes to things like research, where you really have to work to weed out the mostly true from the moderately true and the moderately true from the questionable and the questionable from the modern day equivalent of “signs your neighbor is a witch.”
The internet is a plethora of misinformation and the platform on which anti-vaxxers can “learn” and spread the word—spread the fear—of the dangers of vaccines. Lena H. Sun explains:
One part of the anti-vaccine movement’s message is that vaccine-preventable diseases aren’t dangerous if people get modern medical care. But that’s a myth, and the failure to vaccinate can be catastrophic.
And did I mention that anti-vaxxers are not only endangering their own children, they’re endangering the children of others? The wee humans too young for their first round of vaccinations are no longer protected by the vaccinated population around them. Now, they are subject to getting infectious diseases from non-vaccinated children. And it’s costing them their lives.
Texas health data shows a steady uptick in diseases such as pertussis and mumps in recent years. A recent mumps outbreak in Johnson County, southwest of Dallas, sickened at least 167 people, mostly students. In 2013, Texas experienced the largest outbreak of whooping cough, or pertussis, since 1959: nearly 4,000 cases. Five newborns who were too young to be vaccinated died.
What’s the World Coming to?
The uptick in preventable infectious diseases since the anti-vaccination movement kicked into high gear is ridiculous. Minnesota is going through its worst measles outbreak in three decades. The 2014-15 measles outbreak in California led to the state passing one of the US’s strictest requirement laws, according to Sun. Lianna Matt with Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) explains:
Measles was declared eradicated from the United States in 2000 but has recently resurged, with 667 cases in 2014 and 189 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pertussis dropped to fewer than 2,000 US cases for several years in the 1970s and '80s before roaring back to more than 48,000 cases in 2012, a 60-year high, according to the CDC.
Outbreaks are not exclusively linked to anti-vaxxer population pockets. I’ll put that admission out there right now. Densely populated areas are higher risks for outbreaks, for example. Also a potential factor is waning vaccine immunity, which tends to happen when an individual waits too long between vaccination rounds. The CDC backs this information as well.
And yet… Highly vaccinated communities are more easily able to be rid of an outbreak. That’s a huge deal not just for individuals, but also for the economy. Outbreak intervention is extremely expensive in both dollars and man-hours. So, the elephant in the room has been addressed. The spike in preventable infectious diseases is not only due to the anti-vaccination movement. That doesn’t negate anything you read earlier. Non-vaccinated children—and yes, also adults—risk higher rates of contracting a preventable infectious disease, they risk more severe (and long-term) damage caused by the disease, and they risk having the disease longer. That last part is a detriment to those around them.
The longer you have an infectious disease, the farther you can spread it. And it will keep spreading until it has no more hosts or until it meets enough vaccinated individuals that it burns out. Along the way, there may be casualties.