Vaccines and Validity

“The human mind seldom arrives at truth upon any subject, till it has first reached the extremity of error.”  – Benjamin Rush, Essays, Literary, Moral & Philosophical (147)

The above quote was written in 1798 by one of the newly-founded United States’ leading citizens.  Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician, educator, politician and reformer was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and founded Dickinson College.  I cite him now for his medical reputation.  One of the premier physicians of his day, he founded the American psychiatry tradition, publishing the first textbook on the subject.  His contributions to the field of medical science are still influential to this day.

At this point in time, the United States is faced with an outbreak of the measles virus.  Measles is a virus for which a vaccine exists that provides a 99% effective resistance to infection.  Although infection numbers for 2015 are only estimated to reach about 220 individuals, in 2014 there were 644 confirmed cases of infection, a twenty-year high.(1)

Correlation does not imply causation, yet this spike in the numbers occurs concurrently with the anti-vaccination movement that leans upon a now-retracted and discredited paper published in The Lancet in 1998 by Andrew Wakefield. (2)   Despite the fact that the article’s findings have been disproven time and time again, that Wakefield is banned from the medical practice in his native Britain and has no license to practice in the United States, there is a vocal stubborn contingent that still believes vaccines will make children autistic.  None of this is new information for any individual who has even casually followed this story over the years, but I provide this brief background for those who have not.

“In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the small-pox, taken in the common way.  I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if the child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen. – Benjamin Franklin, His Autobiography: 1706-1757.

Until relatively recently, I would regard myself as one of the casual followers of the vaccination controversy.  I read the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, I listen to NPR and browse the Guardian online.  I was aware of the story’s general development and broad strokes, but I had no personal investment – the individuals crusading against vaccines were far away, clearly resistant to any logical evidence that might contradict their views, and probably not the sort of people I would wish to associate with.

My engagement level shifted in large part due to two factors.  The first was the aforementioned outbreak of measles.  There was now a large enough provable harm caused by the decision to not vaccinate that idle observation seemed irresponsible – the number of infected may be a tiny drop in a vast bucket from a population perspective, but there should have been zero infections.  Who knows what might be the next virus, or how quickly and destructively it might spread?

The second incident that caused me to become more engaged is an article in the Archipelago, an online publication managed by Guardian columnist Jess Zimmerman.  In a February 6, 2015 article, Sarah Kurchak wrote about her experiences as an autistic woman living in a world where people feel that catching a potentially deadly illness is better than the risk of autism in a piece entitled, “I’m Autistic, And Believe Me, It’s A Lot Better Than Measles.” (3)  I encourage everybody to go read it right now.  Stop reading this and go read that, it’s way better than this.  Okay, you’ve read it?  Good.

For those of you who didn’t read it, briefly, it deals with being autistic in an ableist world where parents would rather see their children infected than become anything other than neurotypical, a world where the charities dedicated to helping people with your disability do tremendous damage, a world where because your brain works differently from other people your perceived value as a human being is irreparably damaged.

To my knowledge, I have been vaccinated and, to my best knowledge, I neither have measles nor am I autistic, though I do, like everybody else, have my own mental quirks, and one of those is that, like many individuals described in Kurchak’s essay, I do not deal well with people who are wrong.  I will argue with somebody who I perceive to be wrong until they present me with a convincing argument that thoroughly shows me I am incorrect (I love when this happens, see my previous entry on fundamental wrongness,) they give up, or I convince them.  After all, they’re wrong, and that’s bad, right?  Well no, not really always, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t get hung up on it sometimes.  This commonality that I perceive between myself and Kurchak caused me to have a sudden widening of perspective.  I could see how she feels devalued, and I could feel that devaluation myself.  What if it were me in her place?

I almost lament the fact that I find myself consistently surrounded by individuals of preeminent good sense, people who are willing to subject their opinions and ideas to rigorous scrutiny, folks who are willing to admit they are wrong and to tell me when I am as well.  I don’t know anybody who would refuse to vaccinate their children, so the level to which I can actively make a difference feels incredibly limited.  I try, nails scrabbling at the smooth surface of a seemingly impenetrable object.  I can spread awareness, spread knowledge, and hope that via osmosis the right information permeates through the culture.  I feel this way about so many issues that face the world today.  I hope that someday I will be able to do more towards resolving them.

1. The Guardian, “Measles outbreak spreads in US after unvaccinated woman visits Disneyland.” http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jan/14/measles-outbreak-spreads-unvaccinated-woman-disneyland

2. The paper is freely available for the curious but is not exactly readable by the layperson: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2897%2911096-0/abstract

3. https://medium.com/the-archipelago/im-autistic-and-believe-me-its-a-lot-better-than-measles-78cb039f4bea

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