By Jeremy Fejfar, October 11, 2009
There are many things that irritate me in the world of woo – a term coined by James Randi to refer to belief in the pseudoscientific or paranormal, such as ghosts, psychics, crypto-zoology, alien visitation, astrology, creationism, dowsing, crystal power, therapeutic touch, homeopathy, feng shui, etc). But few bother me as much as the anti-vaccination movement.
This particular iteration of science-denial bothers me because it’s not as innocuous some of these other beliefs (although, they are not as innocuous as one may think, as chronicled at www.whatstheharm.net). No, this movement has a body count associated with its particular brand of misinformation. And unfortunately, some celebrities have joined the “anti-vax” movement, most notably Jenny McCarthy (www.jennymccarthybodycount.com).
Vaccination has been one of the most important breakthroughs medicine has ever given us. Smallpox was successfully eradicated by vaccination, and polio was on schedule to disappear from our planet by 2000. However, progress has been hampered in some countries recently due to interruptions of vaccination programs, often caused by local religious objections and misinformation. When people used to catch smallpox, one variant of the virus had a
30 percent mortality rate. The fear of contracting polio, and suffering the paralysis that sometimes followed, used to cause widespread panic during outbreaks. Our continent is now free of the terror that these diseases once inflicted.
However, there are those who preach that your children don’t need to be vaccinated. They preach that vaccines cause autism, cancer and autoimmune diseases. They preach that you can be protected from these diseases by using all sorts of superstitious, magical nonsense such as homeopathy, chiropracty, prayer, etc.
These fear-mongers are largely responsible for recent outbreaks in measles, mumps and pertussis around the globe. Sometimes, these diseases are not as benign as people think. Measles and/or mumps can cause blindness, brain damage and death. Pertussis (whooping cough) can cause severe coughing fits, sometimes resulting in broken ribs, seizures, brain damage or death. These diseases are preventable by vaccines. I wonder how a parent who denies their child a vaccine manages to live with that decision if faced with the resultant disability or death?
Often it is unknown who ultimately becomes victims of these parents’ decision, for there are many in our society who rely on a “herd immunity” to these diseases. Those with weak immune systems, the very young, the very old and those who cannot receive a particular vaccine for medical reasons depend on the rest of us to not be carriers of these diseases, so we don’t spread them to unprotected individuals. We often think of the decision to not receive a vaccine as a personal one, but the consequences of that decision can often extend to many others. Recently, a
4-week-old girl in Australia died from whooping cough after being exposed to someone who had the disease. The infant was too young to be vaccinated, so the decision not to vaccinate by the person who exposed her was directly responsible for that death.
More recently, a vaccine was released to protect against the human papilloma virus. HPV is a virus that exists as many different types – some types cause genital warts and some cause cervical, vulvar, vaginal and penile cancer. This is essentially a vaccine against cancer. However, HPV is transmitted by sexual activity, and since it was introduced several years ago, there has been a new reason that some give for not vaccinating their children. Some believe that if they vaccinate their children, they will become promiscuous since they are protected from getting HPV. Of course, this notion is completely unfounded, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that it’s true. What kind of parent would you have to be to consider the chastity of your child to be more important than protecting him or her from cancer? How would these parents feel if a child was raped and later developed cancer from HPV that could have been prevented with a simple inoculation?
Of course our hearts go out to the children and parents affected with conditions such as autism, and we do need to continue researching how to prevent and/or treat these conditions. However, study after study has been completed, and none have shown any correlation between vaccines (or any of their components) and the conditions that the anti-vaccination movement claim. Out of fear and desperation, it is easy to be victimized by purveyors of “woo.” However, we must always strive to use logic and reason and follow where the evidence leads, careful not to simply follow our heart to the destination that is most comfortable or emotionally satisfying.