The Cow-Pock—or—the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation by James Gilray, 1802. Image via
I’ve never really understood the fear of vaccines, mostly because there's no real, hard evidence linking them to autism, autoimmune disorders, sudden infant death syndrome, or anything else. The only thing you can really like it to is making sure you don’t get sick. But, like abortion, evangelical Christians have been using anti-vaccination hysteria as a way to galvanize support, even after Dr. Andrew Wakefield's landmark 1998 paper linking vaccines to autism and bowel dysfunction was roundly debunked as bad science.
To be honest, I get the religious argument against inoculation way more than the scientific one. I think it goes like this: even if vaccination is not compulsory, it is a sin to thwart God’s will—if He would strike me down, I would be stricken. If I believed in a pissed-off white-bearded dude in robes up in heaven with a lightning-bolt gun, I wouldn't want to anger him or her either. It certainly makes more sense than the new-age version of vaccine refusal, where suburban yuppies just slide their kids another kombucha instead of bringing them to the pediatrician.
If Fred Phelps wants to believe that vaccines violate the word of God, thats fine. It's no skin off my back if the evangelical community wants to believe that God doesn't trust them with their own bodies. The problem for me is that someday I plan on impregnating a woman with my penis. Nine months later, we’ll be blessed with a little wriggly child (preferably a boy), and I want to make sure that he grows up big and strong and doesn’t accidently contract an old disease—especially one that most doctors don’t know how to treat anymore—because my neighbors decide not to vaccinate their child.
Remember measles? That old-timey disease we officially eliminated in the United States 13 years ago? Thanks to the wonder of inoculation, measles should be entirely nonexistent in this country, but yesterday the Center for Disease Control reported 159 cases from January through August of this year. This puts our country on track for the worst measles year since 1996, when there were 500 reported cases—which is disturbing, especially because doctors and nurses aren't really trained to look out for measles anymore, because of the whole "elimination" thing.
Measles and scarlet fever. Image via
This might be a good moment to remind everyone what measles does to humans. In adults, it's a respiratory infection that leads to a four-day fever and a stain-like reddish rash that will keep you home from work watching Netflix and checking your temperature. It’s not usually fatal, but it’s pretty hard on kids. Even with the best care, about three of every 1,000 kids who get measles will die from it.
Studying the patterns and causes of health and disease is one of those jobs where you’re forced to admire the perfection of fatal diseases, which is why most epidemiologists and infectious-disease doctors remind me of Ash in Alien. Diseases grow and change in ways that doctors simply can’t predict, and looking closely at these "perfect organisms" can quickly turn into admiring their destructive power. Look, my friend's dad was an infectious-disease doctor, and he really freaked us out with old medical books.
What’s unique about this year's outbreak is that the CDC has finally admitted the spread of this “eliminated” disease is based on religious communities’ philosophical aversion to vaccines and reliance on divine healing through the Word of God. According to the report, 91 percent of the reported cases were in people who were unvaccinated, or didn’t know their vaccination status, and “of those who were unvaccinated, 79 percent had philosophical objections to vaccination.”
These cases began in religious communities, but eventually spread out of them and infected infants who couldn't legally be vaccinated yet. This August, epidemiologists in Texas began investigating the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas. The megachurch, which believes in faith healing, had become an open breeding ground for measles after a member of the congregation returned from Indonesia and infected 21 people in and around Newark. It was widely reported that Terri Pearsons, the church’s senior pastor, had encouraged her followers to avoid vaccinations at all costs. The church has defensively denied this claim, which contradicts Pearsons’s continued reservations about vaccines.
Once babies started getting all rashy, Pearsons reversed her position in an August 15 statement encouraging her flock to get immunized. Here, she limited her concerns to “very young children with a family history of autism,” again suggesting a belief that vaccines can turn your kids retarded. Eagle Mountain’s basic point is contradictory: you should vaccinate your kids, but they might end up like Rain Man.
Terri Pearsons and her husband, George. Image via
Things are even worse in Northern Europe. Since May, there’s been a “large, ongoing measles outbreak” in an orthodox Protestant community in the Netherlands. As of September 5, the Center for Infectious Disease Control in Netherlands had reported some 1,226 cases. Ninety-one percent of those cases were unvaccinated members of orthodox Protestant communities in the country's Bible belt.
Doesn’t all this qualify as reckless endangerment? Why are we still even talking about vaccines as if they had any negative effect on our society? Could it have something to do with the fact that, outside of the high-level demagogues, the bread and butter of the religious right is often referred to as a medieval sect of antidoctor serpent handlers, speaking in tongues behind the closed walls of their megachurches? I certainly think of them like that, and it’s nice to imagine the religious right as a self-contained, isolated community. What's alarming is that their diseases are smarter than they are, and do much quicker missionary work.
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