He Who Hesitates…

With the Pandemic, no one’s wanted to be in tight spaces with others who might be shedding deadly Coronavirus. California’s Disneyland has been closed because of that concern. Being squeezed into lines and rooms at Disney is unavoidable, to get as many people through the rides as possible- after, all everyone wants their turn to be immersed in the magic. But in 2015, some Disneyland visitors were unlucky enough to also be immersed in measles.

That year an unvaccinated 11 year-old visited the park. The child was infected with measles, not symptomatic yet, but already shedding virus. 110 people caught the virus, most of whom were unvaccinated. 20% had to be hospitalized; luckily, no one died. Like COVID, measles is highly contagious. When an infected child coughs, virus-laden droplets can hang in the air for 2 hours, waiting to be inhaled by others. That makes for lots of exposed people if that cough is in the elevator in the Haunted Mansion- how many people shuffle through that ride in two hours!?

Vaccine hesitancy has been growing in the past twenty years, and is now an issue again with the COVID vaccine roll-out. Parents want their kids to be as safe as possible, and some are confused by competing voices in the media and online about vaccine safety. Medical experts know vaccines are safe and important to prevent deadly infections. However, their voices are sometimes drowned out by anti-vaccine folks who frankly don’t know what they’re talking about.

Vaccines have been around for centuries. Smallpox inoculation began in the 1700s, and has saved millions of lives since. Most vaccines kids get these days have been around for 50 years or more. We have lifetimes of experience with these medicines to know they’re safe.  They’re also the most administered medicines- the vast majority of kids get them. Thus we have plentiful opportunities to detect side-effects.  Finally, vaccines are some of the most studied medicines. Anti-vaccine hysteria has driven some of this research, and any serious worries about safety have been thoroughly investigated. Mission accomplished: vaccines are some of the safest medicines available.  Oh, did I mention they save children’s lives too?

My friend Brent has a sheep farm in Georgia. The farmers around him are mostly older, taciturn types.  Brent got his first COVID vaccination, and tried to talk his colleagues into doing likewise, but they’ve decided to wait and see. To goad one farmer into getting his shot, Brent offered, “How about, if I feel fine after my second shot, you get yours?  Deal?” The farmer replied, “Well, let us know how it goes.”  Note the non-committal response- talk about giving nothing away!

As we mentioned above, small pox inoculation is centuries-old, and we’ve had modern vaccinations for over 50 years. Vaccine hesitancy is that old too. In the 1800s, governments mandating smallpox inoculation met with popular resistance. After all, inoculation meant taking fluid from a cow’s pox blister and scraping it into the skin of a child- doesn’t sound very clean or safe, does it?  The Leicester (England) Demonstration March of 1885 had over 80,000 participants, opposing forced vaccination.

Fast forward to 1998, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study that supposedly linked the Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism in children. Despite the revelation that Wakefield falsified his data and lost is medical license for other ethics violations, the anti-vaccination movement was off and running. Besides bad data interpretation, vaccine hesitancy is also fueled by complacency. In the 1950s when polio was epidemic, killing and crippling thousands of children yearly, people clamored for a vaccine. Now vaccines have been victims of their own success: few parents experience the horror of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases, and wonder why all these shots matter.

Conspiracy theories have also eroded confidence in experts and vaccination.  Conspiracies are inherently attractive to human thinking (they’re so exciting to contemplate, like UFOs!), and have been grafted onto vaccines. From microchips and DNA manipulation in Coronavirus shots, to good-old-fashioned drug company corruption, conspiracy theories make saving kids from vaccine preventable disease harder.

Rest assured, vaccine makers aren’t dastardly villains poisoning kids for fun and profit. They’re nerds and careerists who live for good data and publishing well-researched papers. They’re nice folks doing good science to save kid’s lives. What more could a parent want for their child?

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