Prior to the 20th century, bacterial meningitis ravaged countries around the world. Its ability to strike even the hardiest of bodies inspired widespread fear; yet it was that very fear that galvanized scientists to devise new treatments through antiserums and medications, dealing a major blow against the mortality of the disease.
However, meningitis still carries severe long-term effects for those unlucky enough to be unvaccinated. And they don’t just suffer from meningitis, either—they’re also targeted by the anti-vaccine movement, which questions the overall safety and efficacy of the vaccine and revives the same fears of uncertainty from yesteryear, stymieing efforts to immunize against infection.
We’re falling into the trap, again. As Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia wrote in his recently published book Deadly Choices, this exact timeline has played out for numerous diseases—e.g. pertussis, measles, and smallpox. A 1998 graph produced by a Centers for Disease Control official, titled “The Natural History of an Immunization Program,” displays, through analysis of previous reactions to vaccination programs, a timeline of the hypothetical progression that vaccines undergo. As coverage increases and the incidence of disease goes down, confidence diminishes due to factors like misinformation and contentment.
The graph demonstrates one thing very clearly: The anti-vaccine movement is not unlike the angry mobs of 19th-century England decrying smallpox vaccines. It’s a typical manifestation of latent fears following a period of success, triggered by an instigating event that casts doubt on the institution of public health. Just as smallpox saw a resurgence in England, so, too, are we seeing new pockets of vaccine-preventable diseases emerge throughout the United States and the world. As the graph shows, more and more individuals will be stricken with this resurgent disease until fear of disease trumps irrationality, allowing for eventual eradication indicated by the dropping of the line for disease to zero.
Does a civilized society really wait until its people die before it takes action? From what history has shown us, unfortunately, it would seem so. However, to avoid the mistakes of the past, there are several courses of action to halt the increasing incidence rates of disease designated by the graph.
First, our media must take the time to appreciate the precarious nature of scientific reporting. A published study is not a fact; it’s an opportunity for a global network of progressive thinkers to analyze the merits and faults of one’s work. Andrew Wakefield’s now-fraudulent journal article linking autism with childhood vaccines, though flawed in form, was widely reported in the press, and even now the man receives an incredible amount of airtime to give a semblance of “balance.” Yet, if news media wished to provide balance, they would need to give proportional air-time to scientific professionals and anti-vaccine experts, which would mean thousands of researchers for every Wakefield. In addition, just as many outlets have taken the opportunity to turn Fred Phelps’ anti-homosexual protests into positive stories on community support and respect, the same outlets should also emphasize the marvel that is a vaccine.
Second, Americans must become active participants in the vaccine debate. Anti-vaccine parents influence their friends, which only necessitates the need for ongoing, proactive dialogue. What we need is a distinct entity specifically tasked with educating the public on “science comprehension.” In the short-term, it would educate at least a portion of the American populace on the real effects of not vaccinating, a tactic successfully implemented by the Ad Council in the 1950s to convince adults to receive a polio vaccine. In turn, the long-term strategy would be to raise a generation of more educated adults by stressing the importance of scientific thinking in American education.
Finally, and most importantly, there must be a national dialogue on the extent to which the inclinations of an individual can be put aside for the livelihood and health of a community of innocent Americans. For obvious reasons, this is something easier said than done; anti-vaccine advocates and scientists are not banging on each other’s doors looking to compromise. That alone makes it clear that our national dialogue is not going to come about organically. In the end, it is the courts that have guided the long, tumultuous road of vaccine safety. As the U.K. utilized its courts to settle the controversy over pertussis vaccines and epilepsy, the U.S. might also need to call forth a judicial arbiter to settle such a politically explosive issue.
Perhaps we should allow a family that lost a child from a vaccine-preventable disease to file a case against their local governments, their public health officials, and the individual that first infected their child. Perhaps parents should be entitled to sue physicians that offer vaccination schedules ungrounded in legitimacy. Perhaps then the political will could be mustered to do something. Sadly, it seems only the hyperbolic, hypothetical nature of such scenarios is what will jolt this country into action.
In short, far too many lives have been taken from us, and it’s time for rational minds to retake the helm.
Byran N. Dai ’11, a Crimson editorial editor, is a History and Science concentrator in Currier House.