WC’s parents were highly motivated to vaccinate their kids. WC’s cousin and playmate when they were both toddlers developed poliomyelitis. It was touch and go for Carole for a long while, but she eventually recovered about 90% of her pre-illness motor skills. She has since developed Post-Polio Syndrome.
When Carole got sick there were no vaccines for polio. The 35 weeks following our last contact with Carole were grim. When the Salk vaccine injections were available, WC’s folks had their kids at the front of the line. For good measure, we were given the Sabin oral vaccine as well, when it became available a little later on. Seeing your young cousin in metal leg braces and on crutches is incredibly effective motivation.
How soon we forget.
The childhood vaccine programs are a victim of their own success. The killer diseases and crippling diseases of the first half of the 20th century are largely eradicated. There are no longer summers when polio strikes kids down, killing and paralyzing them. As a result, parents seem to have lost the ability to properly assess the risks and benefits of vaccination.
And so we have an outbreak of measles in the United States, centered on Disneyland. Fantasyland, indeed. The vaccination for measles – MMR, or measles, mumps and rubella – is highly effective. The complication fatality rate from MMR vaccinations is less than 1 in a million. The fatality rate among children catching measles is about 1 in a thousand. Not getting the vaccination is about 1,000 times more dangerous than getting the vaccination. If you refuse to vaccinate your kid in the face of those kinds of numbers, you are seriously incapable of assessing risk.
But there is logical learning and then there is emotional learning. WC’s parents knew at the gut level just how important vaccinations were. They saw what happened in the absence of vaccination in their own extended family. At the “gut” level, they knew what to do. Because measles is largely but not completely eradicated in the United States, parents don’t know anyone whose kid has died from the complications of the disease. Just as they don’t know anyone whose kid was crippled by poliomyelitis. So the urgency WC’s parents felt is gone. Again, the vaccination programs are a victim of their own success. Sure, there is the logical learning, the risk assessment by the numbers, but that requires critical thinking skills that emotional learning does not. So it is less effective.
It gets more complicated still when a child develops a condition like autism, for which the cause is obscure. Jenny McCarthy’s son famously developed autism. He’d gotten a vaccination. In what Clyde Haberman in the New York Times properly identified as a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, McCarthy concluded the MMR vaccination had caused the autism. There is no – zero, zilch, nothing – credible evidence to support the conclusion.1 It’s emotional learning running the other way. With a smidgeon of irrationality thrown in hte mix as well.
The combination of poor risk assessment, ignorance of logic and absence of emotional appreciation of the risks of disease have spawned outfits like the National Vaccine Information Center, which at its website actively discourages vaccinations. The president of this disinformation center, Barbara Loe Fisher, is an English major. Not a physician. Not an epidemiologist. Not a statistician. But she has a child who suffered an allergic reaction to a diptheria booster.
With the exception of smallpox and rinderpest, medicine has not yet globally eradicated any other of humankind’s contagious diseases. They are still out there and, unless children are vaccinated, they are going to catch them. Seen from the other side, the anti-vaccination folks are incredibly selfish, jeopardizing the herd immunity that protects all Americans, but especially babies who are too young to be vaccinated. It takes a special kind of arrogant ignorance to jeopardize the health of babies because you have imaginary worries.
WC won’t ill-wish the anti-vaccination crowd’s children. But if an American child dies of measles, or the next completely avoidable childhood disease, WC isn’t going to forgive them, either.
- Don’t get WC started on former doctor Andrew Wakefield’s study, claiming that the vaccines could damage the brain. His findings were widely rejected as bunkum. More than 50 epidemiological studies found no merit to his claims, which were based on a statistically insignificant sample. The British Medical Journal went so far as to call his research “fraudulent.” The British journal Lancet, which originally published Dr. Wakefield’s paper, retracted it. The British medical authorities stripped Wakefield of his license. ↩