A local mom recently posted a plaintive plea on Facebook, asking us to recognize that people on both sides of the vaccine brouhaha are well-meaning nice folks. Sorry, but no dice. This is that rare public issue that is starkly black and white.
A concern for one’s children is always appropriate, but what if that concern effectively endangers the kids? Some parents have always held whacko beliefs—that balanced nutrition is wrong, that schools teach evil things, that cancer treatments cause more harm than good. In countless instances, the courts have stepped in and removed parental privileges for the health and safety of children. If any childhood disease reaches epidemic proportions, then we may well see the courts enter the vaccine debates.
On the political level in Sacramento, a medical doctor-turned-legislator has introduced a bill to eliminate the vaccine Personal Belief Exemption. That may appear draconian, but kids’ lives are at stake.
I am old enough to remember when vaccines were universally heralded as the hallmark of modern medicine. When Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was first produced 60 years ago, parents virtually pleaded to put their kids first in line. Before the Salk shot was approved, as a current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doctor reminds us, “People tried to keep their children safe from the potentially paralyzing disease by keeping them out of public places such as pools, parks, and theaters.”
Our small community in Connecticut was chosen as one of the first sites for broad-based inoculation trials, and out-of-towners considered us blessedly lucky. This was also the era when everyone got smallpox vaccine, the application of which left noticeable scars. Yet I remember no complaints.
The 1950s may now have the warm glow of memories of “I Love Lucy” and Davy Crockett on black-and-white television sets with enormous rabbit-ear antennas, cars with huge tailfins, and brightly colored hula hoops. But growing up in that decade meant getting a whole series of classic illnesses: mumps, measles, chicken pox, German measles. Kids got sick for weeks, and doctors could offer only supportive measures.
And some of these childhood viruses just keep on giving; millions of us aging baby boomers are now at risk for shingles since we once had chicken pox. Thankfully, there is now available a vaccine for shingles, but astoundingly few of us have gotten it.
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The current generation of parents with young children grew up protected by vaccines and they have not seen the serious damage childhood ills can cause. A few years ago, I interviewed Dr. Karen Smith, our intrepid Napa County Public Health Officer. At that time, anti-vaccine venom was flowing strongly through talk shows and national discussions. Smith was eerily prescient back then in voicing her concern about a possible outbreak of measles. This was a disease, she said, with “the greatest likelihood of kids with very bad outcomes.” Fortunately, in the current California outbreak, no child has died.
So part of the anti-vaccine belief system is simple ignorance of the damage that childhood diseases can cause. That at least is understandable. But another part of the anti-vaccine argument is less fathomable, and holds that a more “natural” approach to child-raising is healthier. This view insists that inoculations are somehow artificial and vaguely akin to chemical ingredients in mass-produced supermarket foods. This ideology calls for purity and simplicity in all things. Toxins are amongst us, and must be rigorously eliminated.
And layered on top of this ideology is a profound distrust of experts. Since so-called experts have led us into too many wars and one Great Recession, why should other experts — medical doctors — be trusted? In this era of Google, Facebook and Twitter, we supposedly can become our own self-reliant experts.
Finally, there is the specter of selfishness and the absence of a social conscience. We now know the meaning of “herd immunity,” where the few who cannot be immunized are protected by the willingness of the vast majority to get inoculated. The rugged individualism of vaccine deniers harms the larger communities in which they live.
Countering any ideology or belief system is tough. It takes the time- consuming task of education and the rational presentation of data. Some doctors may resist this assignment, but it’s essential if vaccine resistance is to be overcome. Public health issues, including vaccination, should be part of school curricula. And those of us old enough to remember the bad old days need to speak up, loud and clear.
Epstein lives in St. Helena and is a columnist for the St. Helena Star.