A 2008 book by writer Susan Jacoby described our time as “The Age of American Unreason,” and countering that description becomes a lot harder when you consider the small but apparently growing number of parents who are refusing to get their children vaccinated.
Since their introduction in the late 1700s and increased use in the last century, vaccines have gone a long way toward improving public health and eradicating diseases that were once common, deadly or debilitating. Once a measles vaccine arrived in the 1960s, for instance, measles became so uncommon that many contemporary doctors have never even had to treat a case. However, the last couple of years have seen isolated outbreaks of measles in pockets around the country, such as one last month in Texas that can be traced back to a church that operates under the imprimatur of televangelist Kenneth Copeland. Copeland has previously declared that vaccines are “criminal” and “you don’t take the word of the guy trying to give the shot about what’s good and what isn’t.”
It is perhaps not surprising that the anti-vaccination brigade contains some of the same people who disdain scientific evidence of climate change and deny the theory of evolution, but they count among their bedfellows left-leaning hipsters who blanch at the thought of consuming anything concocted by a corporation or containing chemicals, and misguided moms and dads who persist in believing that vaccines cause autism. That assertion was made in The Lancet in 1998, but the British medical journal later retracted the claim and discredited the doctor who made it. Still, the notion stubbornly endures, helped along by Jenny McCarthy, a former Playboy Playmate and freshly-minted co-host of ABC-TV’s “The View,” who has insisted that her son’s autism resulted from vaccinations he received, despite an overwhelming flood of evidence to the contrary.
It would be easy to shrug and dismiss these naive parents as cranks who are risking the well-being of their own children and no one else’s. However, as the number of children who are vaccinated dips, it also decreases “herd immunity” and increases the possibility that children who are too young to be vaccinated or can’t be vaccinated due to other medical conditions will come down with whooping cough or polio after they come in contact with infected children who could have been protected.
In other words, squeamishness about getting your child vaccinated could put another child in peril.
Jason Terk, a Texas-based infectious disease specialist, told NPR that “this is a good example, unfortunately, of how birds of a feather flock together. If you have individuals who are vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-hostile, they congregate together, and that creates its own unique situation where a population of individuals is susceptible to getting the very disease that they decided they don’t want to protect themselves from.”
Ironically enough, in this “age of unreason,” we’ve been blessed with scientific and medical breakthroughs that have extended and enhanced our lives, and an unprecedented level of access to information. But we must be diligent in getting information from reliable, knowledgeable sources. Those who swat aside the benefits provided to us by science because they read an anonymous rant on the Internet or are following the advice of a C-list celebrity may come from all walks of life, but they are most assuredly united in their foolishness.