I don’t talk about disease much, but it is a reality of urban life. When we group together, we make ourselves vulnerable. The internet is heaving with arguments over vaccination at the moment, and arguments have become rather over the top on both sides. I will admit to being blissfully unaware of this issue until it came home to roost last year. Measles ripped through my university, which is located in a bible-belt area of British Columbia, and thus some people opposed to vaccines on religious grounds, and also near to the city of Vancouver, which holds many people skeptical of the sort of “big science” that produces vaccines. Thanks to these two forces, my university doesn’t have “herd protection”; too many people are not vaccinated. I found myself worriedly going to my doctor to check if I was actually protected against such diseases, and it turned out that I’d had boosters for MMR, but somehow had missed the chicken pox vaccine. I quickly got the vaccine, and spent a week with a really painful lump on my arm; I respond badly to vaccines. But in the long run, given my community isn’t vaccinating, it seemed like a safe bet. I work in a high risk job when it comes to exposure to illness, and have to protect myself.
The whole experience got me thinking about vaccines in general, and what I see as the fundamental flaw in the anti-vaccination crowd’s thinking. The goal of vaccines isn’t to protect individual children; that is secondary. The goal is to eliminate the targeted disease. Let’s consider an example; smallpox was a truly fierce disease. The more serious form killed anywhere between 20% to 40% of its victims, and often left survivors scarred and blind. If you look online at some of the surviving photos of smallpox, I challenge you not to shudder in horror. The vaccine for smallpox was painful, a bit dangerous, and left a scar, but it was a lot better than a roughly one in four chance of dying. And vaccination was incredibly successful; today we don’t have to argue about vaccinating our children for smallpox, as it was declared extinct in the wild in 1979. So now no one has to risk the disease, and no one has to risk the vaccine. Score one for science.
So here is my modest proposal to all of the folk out there wondering about vaccines; if you really want to limit the overall potential suffering from vaccines, vaccinate your children. Vaccinate yourselves. In a single generation we could send more of these terrible illnesses to oblivion. And then there would be no need for these vaccines any more. We are very close to eliminating polio, and measles and mumps could be eliminated as well. It requires worldwide cooperation, but the results are permanent, and our grandchildren won’t need the vaccine and won’t get the disease. Simple, all it requires is that we take a limited risk for the good of society as a whole.