Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Monday, March 03, 2008

There is no idea so good that someone won't object to it.

Let me ask you a question: what if I had a magic wand that could keep you from getting sick? It wouldn't cover all diseases- you might still get a cold sometimes and it couldn't help you with cancer- but it would protect you from some very serious diseases. Diseases that could cripple or kill you. If I had such a magic wand, would you want me to use it on you? Would you want me to wave it at your spouse? Your children? Your parents? Your siblings? How about your friends? Would you want them to receive the benefits of this wand?

Well, as it happens, this magic wand does exist. It's name is "vaccination." You see, we humans have discovered some pretty spiffy things in the last few centuries and one of them is that if we expose our immune systems to a de-fanged version of pathogens those same immune systems can learn how to annihilate the real thing. As a consequence, when we are exposed to the real, live, lethal pathogen we stand a much better chance of surviving the experience. Hell, in many cases we won't even get sick. And if it seems weird for me to refer to vaccines as "magic," than you've obviously never realized how effective they are. Let's take four diseases as examples: measles, rubella, pertussis and polio. Measles is a highly infectious disease that, in addition to being unpleasant in its own right, can cause serious complications. At its height it killed more than 894,000 people. Thanks to vaccination deaths in 2004/2005 were reduced to a paltry 66. That's a reduction of 99.99%. How about rubella? At its height it killed more than 57,000 people. In 2004/2005 it killed 11, for another reduction of 99.99%. Pertussis? The dreaded whooping cough killed more than 265,000 but in 2004/2005 killed slightly over 25,000- a reduction of about 87%. And, finally, what about polio, that crippling disorder? Well, it used to kill more than 21,000 people. In 2004/2005 it managed only 1. I won't give you the percentage there, I think you can figure it out on your own. And the reality is that in addition to reducing fatalities, vaccines have played an enormous role in staving off the complications that can arise from all of these disorders. Put quite simply, many diseases that used to be common have become effectively unheard of in modern American society.

It would seem that vaccination should be viewed as one of the best things we've ever come up with. Thanks in no small part to vaccination programs parents can be much more certain that their children will survive to adulthood and often do so without crippling deformities. Yet, unfortunately, vaccines are under attack. I've written about this before but an increasing number of parents are rejecting vaccinations in the mistaken belief that they are associated with other disorders- things like autism. Often this belief is staked on the alleged negative effects of thiomersal, a preservative used in some vaccines. Yet multiple studies have failed to identify any causal link between vaccination and autism. Vaccines remain one of the safest, most efficacious, and most cost-effective methods of disease control we have. Yet, nonetheless, parents continue to reject them in increasing numbers. As the New York Times recently reported there are increasing efforts to provide easy exemptions for required vaccinations. Some are already available for medical and religious reasons, but some legislators are seeking to make them even easier to obtain:

Some parents say that either exemption can be hard to obtain regardless of state regulations. Lawmakers in New York and New Jersey have introduced legislation to add a “conscientious objector” exemption to give parents more alternatives if they want to opt out of vaccines for their children. Nineteen states already have such laws.

This wouldn't bother me quite so much, except that the logic some folks are invoking is flat-out dangerous. Take this, for example:

Katherine Silvan, 37, a hospice minister and social worker from Stamford, Conn., refused vaccines for her infant son at the hospital shortly after she gave birth last year, out of concern for his health. “I’m not trying to be extreme and say no vaccines,” she said. “I appreciate that we don’t have polio in this country because of the vaccines. But it should be our personal choice.”

Hey, we're all American here, right? We like choice, right? So why should I object if someone else doesn't want to vaccinate their kid? I mean, they're taking the risk, right?

No. No, they're not. The problem is that their decision to not vaccinate imperils the rest of us. Many vaccines help produce what is known as herd immunity, or a barrier to the spread of a pathogen among unvaccinated individuals as a consequence of widespread vaccination. So, in other words, when enough people are immunized a disease can't move through the population to find those who are still vulnerable. More than direct immunity, herd immunity actually protects us from deadly outbreaks. Thus, vaccination is less a personal good and more a public good- when we all participate we all stay healthy, when we start to defect we all suffer. If these folks were making a choice that would ONLY affect them I'd probably be okay with it but, unfortunately, that just isn't the case.

And what's even more infuriating are the "alternatives" to vaccination used by some parents:

Rita M. Palma, of Bayport, N.Y., sought a religious exemption from vaccines for her three sons but was turned down after a hearing with school officials. She said she had become increasingly uncomfortable with the vaccines the boys were getting.

“About two years ago I hit a wall with it,” she said. “I said I was going to listen to my inner voice. The whole vaccination process is based on fear of getting diseases but I would rather put my faith in God to heal diseases.”

Look, I don't want to be insulting to theists but human history is rife with death and suffering caused by infectious agents. Europeans cried out to god to save them during the black plague and... well... we all know how that turned out. If you believe in god that's fine but, really, history has made it abundantly clear that he/she/it has absolutely no intention of stopping disease for us. Michael Behe, that paragon of intelligent design mythology, even thinks that the malaria parasite was designed so, you know, it appears that in a war between pathogens and humans god may not even be on our side.

We know failure to vaccinate is dangerous and, if the history isn't enough to convince you, just check out recent events in San Diego where a measles outbreak is unfolding as a consequence of- you guessed it- failure to adequately immunize. I'm all for free choice people but, really, when you fail to take advantage of vaccines you're not just endangering yourself, you're endangering your spouse, kids, friends, family, neighbors, and even strangers on the street.

I guess there just aren't any ideas so good that someone won't object to them.

UPDATE: In breaking news, John McCain demonstrates conclusively that he is a goddamned idiot.

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Blogger tina said...

I can't believe McCain said that! He is supposed to be the reasonable Republican. *Sigh*

Monday, March 03, 2008 3:27:00 PM  
Blogger Mister Troll said...

Great post! This can't be repeated enough.

Monday, March 03, 2008 4:26:00 PM  
Blogger scripto said...

Let's hope enough of us vaccinate their kids to offer enough protection to the weaker minded members of the herd. Some of the comments on your McCain link are amazing. Evidently vaccines just don't feel right to some people and they're going with their gut instincts and apparently no amount of evidence is going to sway them. My mother had polio and I ran the gamut of all the typical childhood diseases of 40 years ago. I don't think these people realize how nasty some of that stuff was.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008 1:16:00 PM  
Blogger Paula Rothstein said...

I would like to know exactly how much time Drek spent researching the opposing view of vaccinations prior to writing this post. My guess is zero just like every other pro-vaccine individual out there. (They are usually employed by the drug companies.) Never mind the numerous experts with actual medical degress (not sociology) who oppose vaccines, responsible for waging whisper campaigns against vaccinations in the hopes of stopping the numerous deaths, serious adverse reactions and new diseases occuring as a result of vaccines. I say "whisper" because when they take a very visible role opposing vaccines they lose funding for projects at the very least and/or their license revoked for more adamant opposition. This is a complex issue to be discussed amongst the vaccine educated and the alternative to opt-out critical if the US is to seriously be considered a free society. Start with the video "Why Vaccines Aren't Safe" and then if you still wish to spout nonsense, then go right ahead. Hey, it's your blog!

Tuesday, March 04, 2008 5:15:00 PM  
Blogger scripto said...

"This is a complex issue to be discussed amongst the vaccine educated and the alternative to opt-out critical if the US is to seriously be considered a free society."

Free to expose your children to potentially life threatening diseases that can be easily prevented? Can you say "iron lung"? I consider that child abuse. And by extension that behavior puts the rest of us at risk.

Suppose smallpox somehow gets out of the freezer. Are you going to stick to your guns or line up with the rest of us at the public health trailers for our innoculations?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 9:47:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Paula: Given that the movie you refer me to is over two hours in length, you're going to have to wait a bit for me to get the chance to view it. Once I've done that, I'll go ahead and post a response to your concerns and associated ad hominem.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008 2:43:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...


I realize I've neglected to mention this in the comments to this post but I have watched the movie you recommended. You can find my evaluation here.

I am comfortable allowing my readers to decide, based on it, which of us is "spouting nonsense."

Friday, August 22, 2008 7:29:00 AM  

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