Buckle Up

In the early part of this century, there were fears that universal immunization and the sudden rise in autism were somehow linked. Celebrities and politicians (but very few scientists) led campaigns to stop immunizations, especially the vaccine combinations that used thimerosal as a preservative. The scare was legitimate, at least on the surface: thimerosal is a mercury compound and we know from seafood warnings that too much mercury accumulated in our bodies can damage our brain and immune system. But subsequently we learned more: (1) thimerosal does not linger in he body the way other mercury compounds do, and (2) there is no established link between autism and vaccines containing thimerosal—or vaccines in general.

I’m not trying to convince anybody, and if you are adamantly opposed to vaccinations, nothing I say will change your mind. But the preponderance of evidence supporting the vaccination of children—evidence from the respected scientific community—reminds me of climate change: we generally trust scientists to give us the proper information because they’re scientists, but every once in a while we think we’re smarter or that science can’t be trusted. And so a small minority of parents will refuse to immunize their children, just as a similarly small minority of citizens believes that climate change is a hoax.

We have the freedom to choose.

When I used to teach Modern Literature we read Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, a play centering on one lonely scientist speaking out against the majority. At one point in the action, frustrated and angry, he rails against that majority, claiming that “the majority is never right.” I always try to remember those words whenever people agree en masse about anything, and for that reason I’m inclined to cut the anti-immunizers some slack, especially the ones who refuse on religious grounds. I don’t get it but I understand it. However there are apparently many parents who decline the vaccines because they don’t want to cause their child any discomfort. That’s all well and good until you remember that the disease prevented would cause greater discomfort. Now if the parents are willing to accept that, then that’s their call. But once an epidemic gets rolling, it also affects children with weakened immune systems who cannot tolerate the vaccine in the first place. That vulnerability renders the decision not to vaccinate a little less innocuous.

When we become ill we want the best doctors, the most effective meds, the latest treatments. It’s ironic that when science confutes our own philosophy, we’re quick to dismiss it, be it immunization or climate change; and instead of a focus for discussion, it becomes another polarizing topic in our tweeting society. Remember how quickly we accepted the dangers of cigarettes, the harm of fluorocarbons to the ozone layer, the toxicity of DDT, the efficacy of the Salk vaccine, the need for automobile seatbelts? They’d be polarizing issues today, conspiracies to be peddled and broadened on some website as we shunt aside whatever we don’t like and call it liberty.

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