Vaccines: How Quickly We Forget

There is an all too common form of argumentation today. I call it argumentum ad forgetum. In this argument the proponent has lost site of all perspective on the origins of benefits gifted to them. They have forgotten the path others employed to bring them where they now stand. And so ignoring the path’s utility, they seek to destroy it. Burning bridges, as it were. While this 20/20 hind-blindness afflicts many today, nowhere is it more prevalent than among the anti-vaccination crowd. The increasing quantity and magnitude of outbreaks of formerly vanquished diseases (measles, whooping cough, polio) is a chilling reminder of the aphorism, “those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The modern anti-vaccination movement had its genesis in a fraudulent study (since retracted) that claimed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Once that study was thoroughly debunked and discredited, the anti-vaccination front changed tactics. They employed FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Scary sounding vaccine ingredients are plastered on anti-vaccination websites in order to bolster fear and uncertainty. Complex names are “bad” by mere virtue of sounding scary. Side effects are presented absent the context of concentration. Concentration matters: even water will kill if you drink too much. In point of fact, those scary sounding ingredients are no more harmful than common processed food ingredients we eat everyday. Even when childhood vaccines contained thimerosal  (ethyl-mercury) (they no longer do since 2001 due to autism hysteria) the amounts were so low that one could arguably receive a higher dose of mercury from a tuna sandwich than from a vaccine. The third prong (doubt) of their attack is to obliquely cite statistics that imply rates of disease were declining dramatically before vaccine use. For example, it is often cited that measles in the US declined by 96% before its vaccine was implemented in 1963. But push a little deeper – what they either omit or pass over quickly is that it was rates of death from measles that declined by that amount, not rates of the disease itself. This of course makes sense in light of improvements in childhood nutrition in the early 20th century. All things being equal, a weak, malnourished child is more likely to die from a disease then is a hardy, well-nourished child. To suggest that because death rates declined without vaccines we therefore don’t need vaccines is foolish. There are a many other debilitating effects (brain damage, deafness, paralysis) of these diseases that will have a profound impact on a child’s life.

Helping the immune system combat and prevent disease involves the use of many tools: sanitation, nutrition and vaccination. None of these alone is 100% effective. Even when all three are combined there is no guarantee of 100% effectiveness in all individuals. Herd immunity (augmented through vaccination) helps ameliorate that issue by reducing the overall probability of infection in a given individual. But, if more and more of the herd is not vaccinated then the probability that any one individual will be exposed increases, putting at risk both the voluntarily and involuntarily unvaccinated (as well as the vaccinated who unluckily fall into the minority of vaccine insensitive individuals). In this respect, forgoing vaccinations that put others at risk of death or permanent debilitation is selfish. Although selfishness should never be illegal, it will always be socially shunned.

So does this mean we should blindly follow the state and accept whatever elixir they wish to inject into our children or us? Certainly not. Be skeptical, ask questions and seek answers from those with expertise and a positive reputation (not self-anointed internet gurus). Weigh the benefits and risks. Just because some vaccines might not seem worth the risks doesn’t necessarily mean you should reject all vaccines. Likewise, just because some vaccines are worth the risks, doesn’t mean all vaccines are necessarily warranted. But most of all, don’t jump to conclusions and remember that correlation is not causation.