The anti-vaccination movement has really gone mainstream big time lately, with new celebrity spokesbimbos like Jenny McCarthy now being endorsed by the mighty Oprah! Even a recent episode of the venerable TV show Law and Order (SVU, I think) raised the issue by putting an anti-vaccination parent on trial for causing the death of another child due to measles. It was great that L&O took the rational position on this, but they don’t have Oprah’s reach, surely! If Oprah gets explicitly behind the anti-vaccination woo, the rest of us, esp. those who understand the science, must shudder at the likely consequences. Indeed we are already shuddering at the rising death toll from diseases we should have eradicated by now because we have vaccines that work against them!
Much has been written in the science blogosphere about this lately, and many are trying to sway Oprah away from the woo to consider the actual science. It amazes me that this unscientific movement has gained such traction among the populace of countries that are otherwise at the forefront of science, bastions of western civilization: places like the US and the UK! Why so many in these countries are unscientific is, of course, a much larger question, so I’ll just let you ponder that on your own for now. But I do wonder: what are the less knowledgeable populations in developing countries to make of this anti-vaccination movement? Does the celebrity woo of well-fed blond bimbos like McCarthy carry more weight with a parent in rural India or Africa over the sight of undernourished kids in their own communities hobbling around on polio-afflicted legs? Is it that western parents have forgotten, within a generation or so, what Measles, Polio, Whooping Cough, etc. really are like? I’m not that old (well, my daughters will dispute that) but even I do remember the last few fires from Smallpox raging through communities where I grew up in India, before it was eradicated in the 70s through vaccination. I can still see the pock-marked faces of survivors, some of whom are still alive in India. Indeed, I’m reminded of the value of vaccines every other day when my wife talks to her mother whose health is deteriorating daily due in no small part to complications from Post-Polio Syndrome! So it really is mystifying to me that there are parents around me who don’t want to vaccinate their children – even if it puts not only their own, but other children at risk by reducing herd immunity. The argument for vaccination is so strong, and the few studies touting their lack of safety have so little support and/or have been so discredited, that I am genuinely puzzled by the irrationality (and selfishness) of these parents. If you are still unsure about the rational argument on this, you really should read this Open Letter to Oprah, which lays it out clearly – and do what you can to keep raising this question until Oprah starts listening.
And while you read that letter, let me raise another spectre, of another group of bogeymen who might get behind the anti-vaccination movement enthusiastically: the terrorists, especially those bent upon “mass destruction” through biological weapons!! Seems to me that the anti-vaccination movement, if successful, will only make their jobs easier: if we lose our herd immunity, then they don’t need to spend much money inventing/pursuing new bioweapons at all – even good old measles might do the trick! How easy it would be to release some of these old viruses and cause an epidemic if more parents stop vaccinating their children. So if you are swayed by the fear-mongering of celebrities like McCarthy, pause for a moment to ask if Osama (or whomever’s next in line) might not be chuckling in their cave about the irrationality of the “modern” west for making their job easier! Should we bo doing some reverse fear-mongering of our own to counter the antivax hysteria? If swine-flu raised so much fear in the public here, why do these old viruses with a proven killer track record not scare these parents into vaccinating their babies? Why isn’t this vaccination debate being framed yet in “national security” terms? Which side of this debate is Jack Bauer on??!!