Vaccination has been the biggest success story in modern medicine. Vaccination has been so successful that many people have never ever heard of diseases like diphtheria and pertussis—diseases that were once major killers of children. As a result, many people doubt that vaccinations are necessary. Yet vaccinations work best if they are given to practically everyone.
If enough people are immunized against a disease, that disease can no longer circulate within the population. If we vaccinate enough people against a disease that happens only in human beings, we can drive that disease into extinction. Once a disease is extinct, we no longer need to vaccinate anyone against it. So the ultimate goal of nearly all vaccination programs should be to make the vaccine itself unnecessary.
As long as vaccination has been available, there has been a vocal movement of people who are against vaccination. Most of these people have some selfish motive for speaking out against vaccines. Many of them are selling some form of alternative medicine. Some of them are faith healers who want you to put money in their collection plate. Others are selling overpriced vitamins and untested herbal remedies over the Internet. Some antivaccination activists make their living by running some sort of antivaccination advocacy organization. To get you to support them financially, all of these people have to destroy your trust in your family doctor. Yet by doing so, they are undermining public health.
Whom should you trust when you have questions about health care? If you were one of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island, whom would you have asked for medical advice: the Professor or the movie star? The castaways on Gilligan’s Island knew that they could trust the Professor. They knew that the Professor was brilliant and well educated, and that he used his knowledge unselfishly to serve others. In contrast, they would never dream of asking the movie star Ginger Grant for advice about science and health. They all loved Ginger, but they knew that she was poorly educated, that she loved attention, and that she could be manipulative.
Unfortunately, many people would rather be seduced by a glamorous movie star than educated by a professor. Thus, when they need advice about vaccinations, they ignore professors. They assume that all professors are merely the servants of the greedy rich man. Instead, many people take medical advice from glamorous celebrities and from people who sell overpriced vitamins and untested herbal remedies over the Internet. Unfortunately, these celebrities and snake-oil merchants are scaring people away from vaccination. As a result, children and even some adults are suffering and sometimes even dying of preventable disease.
Many people want to turn to natural or traditional ways to promote health and prevent disease. However, vaccination is used to protect us against the diseases that are a major threat to your child’s health, even if your child is well-fed. These diseases were serious problems back even when everyone breastfed their babies and fed their families nothing but homegrown, homemade organic food. So even if you are a “crunchy mama,” your children should still get all of the recommended vaccinations.
In general, the vaccine-preventable diseases are caused by germs that can spread easily from person to person (or that can be carried by mosquitoes) and that easily sneak past the body’s innate immune system. The innate immune system is a primitive, general-purpose system that attacks anything that looks foreign to the body. Vaccination alerts the other part of your immune system: the part that learns to recognize specific germs and mount a specific defense against them. Vaccines give you the gift of time. They allow your body to recognize and destroy a dangerous germ right away, rather than letting the germ run rampant through your body for several weeks. As a result, you become immune to a disease without having to have the disease first.
The antivaccination movement is a symptom of a larger problem: the failure of many of our social institutions and the resulting breakdown of trust in those institutions. Many people feel that health policy is being driven by the profit motive of the healthcare industry. As a result, they suspect that vaccination is just a racket. At best, they imagine that vaccinations are being sold to the public simply to make money. At worst, they imagine that the vaccines are serving some sort of weird agenda out of a science fiction movie.
In No More Measles!, I explain the basic facts about infectious diseases and vaccinations. I explain how vaccine policy in the United States is made. The Food and Drug Administration decides which vaccines should be available. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices decides which vaccines should be recommended. (Both of these institutions take concerns about vaccine safety seriously. Vaccines have been reformulated or taken off the market because of concerns over theoretical risks or very rare side effects.) Both the FDA and the CDC are ultimately controlled by Congress, which gives them their funding and passes laws that spell out what they must do. However, the U.S. federal government does not regulate doctors or medical practice. Instead, the state governments then decide who should be allowed to give vaccinations and who must receive them. For example, the state government may require children to get all of the recommended vaccines before the child enters public school.
Back in the 1930s, the American people became united in the struggle against polio. During the Great Depression, ordinary people sent their dimes marching to Washington, DC to support the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which then became known as the March of Dimes. After the polio vaccines stopped the spread of polio in the United States, the March of Dimes turned its attention to preventing birth defects.
Unfortunately, we have lost that sense of shared mission. To me, it is most disturbing that people on the political left are becoming increasingly hostile to vaccination. The people on the left are supposed to provide the political support for public health. If the people on the left do not stand up for children and the poor, who will?
As in the 1930s, ordinary people need to get involved in the struggle to eradicate infectious diseases. Smallpox is gone. Polio is almost gone. Measles and rubella are next in line for eradication. Once these diseases have been wiped off the face of the earth, we can safely stop vaccinating children against them. But it would be madness to stop vaccinating before then.