I recently had a conversation about vaccines that left me frankly stunned. A friend I respect and an older Marin couple were matter-of-factly agreeing that the H1N1 vaccine was, if you’ll pardon my language, “bullshit.” Their conversation happened as the Marin couple was running down a checklist of items that make one an acceptable conversation partner in their book: are you for or against Obama’s health care plan (against, because it’s useless without a public option); do you agree that health care in this country is a disaster, mostly thanks to Bush (of course); and so on and so forth and then lastly, “what about vaccines?”
“What about vaccines” has, for a certain segment of the population, become part of the knee-jerk rhetoric that marks whether you are or are not part of the educated liberal elite that’s progressed so far and so high that they’re actually above the need for medical intervention. At least if that medical intervention comes in the form of a vaccine, any vaccine, and particularly the H1N1 vaccine, which is considered “bullshit” because it, apparently, hasn’t been sufficiently tested and is more dangerous than the virus itself, according to articles like this one that cheerfully take entire paragraphs out of context (while helpfully linking to the original article), uses pseudo-science to terrify readers, and plumps up relatively obvious statements by health officials (e.g., “you should test vaccines before you use them,”) to make it sound as though those officials were in fact targeting the H1N1 vaccine itself as the harbinger of widespread death. Oh, and then there are the outright lies.
Here’s the deal. More than 30 years ago, 25 people died from an extremely rare side effect of a swine flu vaccination. So far, more than 100 children have died of swine flu, and more than 1,000 overall, in the United States alone. To put it mildly, we’re already trending ahead of that bad batch of vaccine that happened 30 years ago when science probably wasn’t quite as far along as it is now. Countless experts now say the vaccine is safe, and produced in the same way as the standard flu vaccine, a product that’s pretty well vouched for at this point.
I took my 2 and a half year old son in for a swine flu vaccination today (and I’ll get it myself once they’ve gotten all the kids and pregnant women — the ones most at risk — safely out of the way). I asked the doctor if she’d vaccinated her own children, ages 6 and 4. She said she had. She also said my son’s pediatric practice had three child patients in the hospital right now with “complications” from swine flu. Meaning, she said, “chest tubes.” That’s just in my town. On the other hand, I can’t find, and neither can anyone else, any confirmed cases of death or serious illness linked to the H1N1 vaccine thus far, anywhere in America.
And I wish I could say that anti-vaccine insanity was limited to just swine flu. It’s not, obviously. It’s just that irrational fear of the swine flu vaccine, considered by many health officials to be one of the most important tools in fighting off an increasingly dangerous and growing global pandemic, is the unfortunate culmination of a totally insane public conversation that’s been happening for years. Pediatricians and scientists are under attack for insisting that vaccines save lives (they do). Children with compromised immune systems are at risk from their classmates who haven’t been vaccinated against what should be, at this point, completely neutered diseases like measles, meningitis, and pertussis. Yet un-vaccinated kids are contracting, spreading, and even dying from those diseases at an alarming rate.
I don’t know how much more clearly to put it: that’s utterly ridiculous. There is ample science to show that vaccines save lives. Hundreds of millions of lives, people. There is zero hard data to show that they cause rampant autism, kill or cripple people in alarming numbers, or any of the other fear-based claims that are keeping people out of the doctors’ office. And I don’t have to, in the touchy-feely way of 21st-century America, “respect your beliefs” when your beliefs are not only utterly scientifically unfounded but also lethally dangerous!
This refusal to acknowledge human progress and scientific fact is a uniquely and bizarrely first-world problem, too. Wired points out that, “counterintuitively, higher rates of non-vaccination often correspond with higher levels of education and wealth.” It’s as though the Marin dwellers (where, unbelievably, non-vaccination rates are nearly 6 percent) and those like them have gotten so comfortable, so complacent, so alienated from the actual impact of widespread disease, that they feel they can reject the need for vaccination because they’ve never seen the effect of the lack of it. They haven’t actually had to see children contract first a fever, then a runny nose, then a full-body rash, then develop complications like blindness, encephalitis, and weakened immune systems that lead to choking and fatal pneumonia. And that’s just measles! Just think if we got to watch polio re-emerge! I haven’t seen that first-hand either, but to take one look at my child and imagine it happening to him is simply unacceptable.
Just because we don’t see the effects of widespread disease doesn’t mean we can stop believing they exist. This is not a subject for public debate. This isn’t a subjective topic. There is hard science and decades of evidence to prove that vaccines save lives and that refusing to get vaccines kills people. Period. So, yeah, you’d better believe my kid got a swine flu vaccine. For his life and the life of the kid next to him. You’re welcome.Read more →