Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans — now regarded as a third world problem — were a first world reality.
Today, because the looming risk of childhood death is out of sight, it is also largely out of mind, leading a growing number of Americans to worry about what is in fact a much lesser risk: the ill effects of vaccines. If your newborn gets pertussis, for example, there is a 1 percent chance that the baby will die of pulmonary hypertension or other complications. The risk of dying from the pertussis vaccine, by contrast, is practically nonexistent — in fact, no study has linked DTaP (the three-in-one immunization that protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) to death in children. Nobody in the pro-vaccine camp asserts that vaccines are risk-free, but the risks are minute in comparison to the alternative.
It seems that with even the most rudimentary knowledge of the history of health, medicine and epidemiology, it is clear what a beneficial impact vaccines have had on human health. (The most obvious example is smallpox, with 300-500 million dead during the 1900s and zero today.) As the article mentions, there is of course a tiny risk with vaccines, but it is a very small cost to pay for the benefits we gain from it – individually and especially collectively. It seems thoroughly irresponsible to decline common vaccines, mainly for the risk we then place others and the community in.
The fear of vaccines is of course a part of the larger world of conspiracy theories, and all of it seems to find most fertile ground in the US, where you also have the same irrationality in the political system, maybe most clearly seen these days in the opposition towards universal health care – as if that hasn’t been tested out in many countries already, and found to overall work very well.
It is obviously irrational and overblown in most cases, but it still has a function for the ones holding those beliefs, as all beliefs do. What are those functions? I am not sure.
As all beliefs, it gives a sense of knowing and of security, of having a place to stand.
It is also, most likely, a projection of characteristics – such as deception – that we all have and they haven’t come to terms with in themselves. (They deceive themselves even as they hold that belief, not acknowledging what is more honest to them.)
As many beliefs, conspiracy theories also gives a sense of being right and making others wrong, it is a way to “stick it” to the ones with more social/economical power, to create cohesion among “us” through a common enemy, and so on. Maybe most simply, it can be a way to compensate for a sense of lack of power.
There may be a grain of truth in the conspiracy theories, and in a few cases more than that, but when there is also all the symptoms of beliefs, there is not as much clarity around it as there can be.
There is obviously a cultural element here. In Norway, there is far more trust in the government in general, because they generally act in people’s interest. In the US, there is far less trust because they often don’t. And that tends to color how people see these type of things.
Of course, there may be some vaccines that are more questionable and deserve some skepticism and a closer look.
And it is obviously good for all of us that some are concerned about the effects of certain vaccines. Especially if it leads to a closer investigation.
Additional thoughts (2):
This post came out in a slightly unfair and one-sided way as well. It refers to those, mainly in the US, who overlook the mainstream and well-known information that gives us a more nuanced view on vaccines, and instead get into a black-and-white view based on misinformation and conspiracy theories.
For instance, the main improvements in health seen over the last 150 years or so comes from improved hygiene and an improved understanding of how many diseases are transmitted. Other medical interventions, including vaccines, have a smaller impact in the overall picture. The best way to stay healthy is what we already know: eat well, get enough sleep, wash your hands, exercise, and at a community level, make sure the water, air and food is clean. We are continuously exposed to a wide range of pathogens, and our immune system does a good job taking care of these.
And sometimes, mass vaccinations are clearly not needed, as is the case with the current piggy flu which is milder than regular seasonal flus.