The 80 plus cases of measles are in the headlines, bringing the vaccine/anti-vaccine debate back to the fore. The hub bub is about the dangers or blessings of the vaccine. But the core issue has nothing to do with needles or microbes. Rather, it is the unavoidable connection of all humans to one another.
The anti-vaccine movement generally claims to be achieving two goals: avoiding the dangers of the vaccine itself, and strengthening the immune system. The anti-vax crowd tends to exaggerate the dangers of vaccines, even continuing to cite the widely-debunked study linking vaccines to autism. There is a level of risk, as with any intervention and the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Compensation program exists for this reason. The program paid 2,810 claims from 1987 to 2011, an average of 117 people per year. That’s out of nearly 2 billion vaccines given to humans each year.
If these parents are indeed risk averse, then why would they put their children at risk for complications of measles? A 1963 study found that 66 measles patients out of 1,000 would suffer some form of complication. Compare that to 117 out of 2 billion.
As for strengthening the immune system, it’s true that exposure to microbes “teaches” the immune system how to fight that particular microbe. A smarter immune system is better, in their estimation. This reasoning breaks down for me; however, because these better immune systems are prepared for things they do not need to be prepared for. High school students do not learn how to prove the earth is round; we all accept this as fact. Similarly, immune systems do not need to learn how to fight smallpox – it’s not relevant any longer.
Nevertheless, these arguments hold sway over a growing number of parents. And if we’re looking just at the molecules, there is some coherent reasoning. What they fail to recognize that those molecules exist in a human society.
An outbreak of measles is a burden not just to the sufferer and his family, but also to society. It’s not just them that bear the cost of smartening up their immune systems. They impose this illness on everyone around them too, in the name of exercising their freedom. They seem to forget that many freedoms have an impact on other people. Freedoms are not so individual after all. Here’s an example.
My neighbor wanted more sunlight in her home, so proceeded to cut down several trees in her yard. I was not happy about this, because it exposed my yard to an open field where cows grazed and emitted methane (also known as farting). Someone (not me) called the town authorities who then required her to re-plant nearly all of the trees because the abutting wetlands were disturbed by the removal.
Like tree roots, our actions have a broader effect than the above-ground obvious. Whether we like it or not, we are woven into the human web and our actions affect everyone else.