Skip to content

Taking Our Mumps: Why the Those Who Don’t Vacinate are Wrong But So Are the Rest of Us

Lately on FB, seems like every other post is related to the recent DiseaseLand measles outbreak. In between clickbait and status updates, there will be yet another post that validates all of us who believe that imperfect but rigorous science has improved public health more than fear-driven campaigns led by pop stars. One of my favorites is Penn and Teller’s four year old visualization comparing the even-if-there-was-proof-but-there-is-no-proof-risk of children getting Autism if we as a culture vaccinate with the risk of lots of children dying in horrible ways if we as a culture do not vaccinate. I also was moved by another piece by someone with Autism Spectrum Disorder about the ways the anti-vaccination movement dehumanizes those with ASD.

The anti-vaccination movement should be scrutinized, and that there some very ugly motivations behind the movement. Much of it seems to me to be related to the ways middle-class and professional class bodies separate their bodies from less aesthetically pleasing (to them) working class bodies. They shop at Whole Foods and drive to lots exercise classes and spend lots of money on electronic devices to monitor their health even though making those devices may wreck the health of factory workers. While that may be a large part of it, it might be worth examining the ways that the anti-vaccination movement is part of a larger trend in which Americans are “focused disproportionately on individual physical fears instead of say, economic risks, which may seem harder to understand and confront” (Lynn Stuart Parramore, Why Americans are Getting Obsessed with Threats to Their Bodies). We also might want to ask if part of the problem is that there are communities that historically have good reasons to mistrust doctors and scientists. Perhaps, it is not just the annoying privileged people making individual choices that endanger the larger community. Perhaps, the anti-vaccination movement is complicated and related to systemic problems.

Too many of the pieces are posted because humans play complicated reindeer games on social media; they really want to call Rudolph names. They point the finger at those “dumb anti-vaxers” to prove their membership in a particular social group. Many people post something critical about the anti-vaccination movement to prove that they are part of the “smarter” group that believes in imperfect but rigorous science. In general, when talking about social or political issues with a large impact, I think blaming individual people for their decisions is a waste of time.

Besides, we know from imperfect but rigorous science that regular exercise, not sitting on your ass all day, and eat a lot more veggies improves health (physical and mental) and cuts down on mortality. We know this. Yet, many of us do not regularly exercise, we spend all day sitting on our asses (in our cars to go to work, then at work, then in our cars to go home, and then watching TV), and most Americans only eat one vegetable a day. We know this. You might argue that not exercising, sitting all day and not eating veggies is less dangerous to the rest of society than a measles outbreak. Without downplaying the real danger of measles and mumps, there are huge social and economic costs related to the individual and personal choices we make not to move or eat veggies. Others bear the cost of our personal decisions. But the reasons that people don’t move enough and spend too much time sitting and don’t eat vegetables are complicated. There are large forces at play.

And it is important to note that the recent outbreaks are not just because of those who choose not to vaccinate but also are due to the large number of people who may be under-vaccinated. Many people born between 1970 and 1990 didn’t get their second dose because the “herd immunity” made it seem that the disease had been eliminated. Without seeing people suffer from the diseases, the threat was not as palpable. We do not believe it unless we see it.

I also would offer that we all are less rational about our health than we would like to think. I have some understanding of how science produces knowledge. I have spent time helping train future medical professionals. And I have seen myself, when driven by fear or dealing with a complicated health issue that is not easily resolved, make stupid decisions.

It is complicated. Let’s vaccinate ourselves against the virus of simplistic thinking. The kind of thinking that wants to boil down a large public health problem to the choices that a few people make. We should spend less time calling Rudolph names and more time doing the hard work of changing the game.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *