Get Your Vaccines, Keep Them Current, and Stop Making the World Unsafe for Everyone

I loathe the anti-vaccine movement with a flaming passion. I happen to be a firm believer that vaccines were one of the greatest developments in medicine, radically changing the nature of life on Earth for human beings and totally improving quality of life, survivability from common and potentially fatal childhood illnesses, and generally making the world a better place. With vaccination, we’ve eradicated horrible diseases like smallpox, and brought illnesses like polio under control. This is seriously good news, people! Tiny humans used to have a much lower survival rate than they do now because of fully vaccine-preventable diseases, and now we can stop that from happening, which is awesome for parents, babies, and communities.

Which is why I spit fire when I see people advocating against vaccination. Across the US, a number of outbreaks in recent years have been linked to pockets of people who don’t vaccinate. Many of those outbreaks have included fatal cases and needless deaths, and the most tragic of all have been deaths of people like infants who were too young to be vaccinated, who were counting on herd immunity to stay safe. Or adults and children who couldn’t be vaccinated because of immune issues, or who were immunocompromised and were unable to fully fight off infection. Those people died because of the reckless actions of other people, and that, my friends, is uncool.

Here’s the thing: I understand why some communities don’t get vaccinations. Among low-income people of colour, particularly immigrants, there is a complex and twisted history with vaccination that makes many people understandably suspicious about vaccines. In these communities, drugs have been illegally tested on people without consent (and continue to be), and were sometimes provided in the form of ‘vaccines.’ Some of those drugs caused severe complications. Vaccines have also been used as cover by spies, much to the horror of public health officials. So I can see why people from these backgrounds would reject vaccines. They certainly have no reason to trust them.

The onus there is on us to provide better public outreach and education about vaccination and how it works. And better protection to assure members of these vulnerable communities that they will not be illegally used as subjects of medical experiments. That the drugs they are receiving are actually vaccines, and they are fully effective and appropriate. Better social and legal protections are clearly needed to give members of these communities a reason to feel comfortable trusting their bodies to vaccination campaigns and other public health outreach, and that means working with those communities to identify community leaders, indicate a willingness to cooperate on concerns, and administer campaigns.

But I’m talking about educated white folks who are all over the anti-vaccine train. Some of them are still taken in by the words of quacks and frauds like Andrew Wakefield (that study has been disproved, recanted, and shredded, yet people still believe that vaccines cause autism) and other people who advocate against getting vaccines. I understand concerns about the timing and spacing of vaccines, and believe that parents in consultation with their pediatricians should decide on the best vaccination schedule for their kids, although ideally it should be within the guidelines recommended by health authorities like the WHO and CDC.

But rejecting vaccines altogether? For one thing, you’re endangering your child by exposing her to potentially serious illnesses. Let me put it this way: when parents of a pediatrician friend of mine ask her if their children should get vaccinated, she says: ‘oh, NO! I haven’t had a good case of measles in years! It would bring back such memories!’

For another thing, you’re endangering other children. Vaccines work on the premise of herd immunity; while they protect the individual, they also protect the group by providing fewer places for an infectious agent to latch on. An epidemic can only spread so far in a population that is mostly vaccinated, which is good news for people who cannot receive vaccines for legitimate medical reasons; they’re less likely to be exposed to the disease, because the flareup is likely to die out before it ever reaches them. In a population where only some people are vaccinated, however, disease can spread more quickly and penetrate more deeply, making many people sick, including not just those who opted not to vaccinate and decided to take the risk, but also people who couldn’t vaccinate or haven’t been able to yet.

We have a sort of social contract as a collective to look out for the welfare of society. I keep my vaccinations current both because I don’t want things like measles, mumps, and rubella, and because I don’t want other people to get them. I want to know that I can safely handle a friend’s infant or visit a friend who is severely immunocompromised. I want to know that children crowded into classrooms are safe from these infectious agents, and I want to know that my pediatrician pals are unlikely to see cases of mumps. I contribute to herd immunity because that’s part of my contract with society, because I think the better health of all is important, and because I love vaccines; they fascinate me, and I love what they do for us.

I get angry about people who are opposed to vaccination for utterly spurious, uneducated reasons, and who force these reasons upon others, spreading a tide of misinformation that takes years to repair. They’re doing themselves and the people around them a disservice, and seem to think they deserve some sort of prize for being ‘rebels’ living ‘outside the system.’ They aren’t doing any such thing—they’re just making ill-informed medical decisions and putting everyone, including themselves and their children, at risk.

Which is why I want people to get their vaccinations, keep them current, and shut the heck up. Unless you have a legitimate medical or social reason not to get vaccinated, please, for the love of chocolate cake, do the right thing for society. Express your rebelliousness in some other way.