Thanks to anti-vaccine ideology, diseases long ago vanquished are creeping back—even polio.
This may be a foretaste of the future: the United States’ first case of polio in ten years.
The person exhibited symptoms about a month ago, according to Rockland County’s health commissioner, who said on Thursday that the patient had suffered from “weakness and paralysis.”
Mr. Backenson noted that only a tiny percentage of cases would develop into severe paralysis but that many of those infected with the polio virus would remain asymptomatic, which could make it difficult to detect to what degree the disease had spread.
“That’s probably the biggest concern: You may have a lot of people out there who may never have severe paralytic polio but could potentially be spreading it to others,” he said. “That’s the reason for the urgency.”“Rare Case of Polio Prompts Alarm and an Urgent Investigation in New York.” Jesse McKinley and Nate Schweber, The New York Times, 22 July 2022.
We’re reaping the deadly harvest of anti-science ideology, and this case is proof. Because of relentless anti-vaccine propaganda, trust—not just in the COVID vaccine, but in all vaccines—is plunging. It was only a matter of time before diseases that had been pushed to the brink of extermination started creeping back.
Would we take polio seriously if it emerged today?
This polio case arose in Rockland County, in upstate New York. The sufferer is a 20-year-old unvaccinated man. It’s not clear where he was infected, but public-health officials believe he contracted it from someone who’d gotten the oral polio vaccine, which contains live virus. Normally, the virus is weakened so it can’t cause disease, but it can occasionally revert to wild type and become dangerous. The U.S. has exclusively used killed-virus polio vaccines since 2000, so it’s a reasonable guess that he was exposed while abroad.
Public-health officials also say he didn’t spread it to anyone else, but there’s no way to be sure. Despite its fearsome reputation, polio is asymptomatic in as many as 75% of cases. Most of the rest have only mild symptoms. Less than 1% of sufferers have the most dreaded complication: the virus attacks the nervous system and destroys neurons in the spinal cord, causing paralysis of the arms, the legs, or the muscles that control breathing.
In the more-trusting 1950s, even a few children in iron lungs sent people stampeding to get the vaccine. Given the way we collectively reacted to COVID, would we take polio so seriously if it had emerged in our era? We could be about to find out.
It’s not only polio that owes a debt of gratitude to vaccine deniers. Diphtheria, a disease that used to kill children in huge numbers, is reappearing in some corners of the world. Pertussis, or whooping cough, has spread through communities with low rates of vaccination, killing infants too young to get the shot. Measles has re-erupted in both the U.S. and Europe wherever vaccination dropped below the minimum for herd immunity.
The long shadow of religion
Anti-vaccine ideology doesn’t exist in isolation. As is often the case, the long shadow of religion hangs over this story.
Many of the articles I read tiptoe around the religious beliefs of the sufferer and the community he comes from. The blunt truth is that Rockland County is a stronghold of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Monsey, a town in the region, has been ground zero in a series of state-church battles, as the ultra-Orthodox voted as a bloc to strip-mine the public schools (which they shun in favor of their own private yeshivas).
To be clear, there’s no commandment against vaccination in Judaism. If anything, Jewish teaching says that any other religious rule can be broken to save a human life.
However, ultra-Orthodox sects shun modernity and stunt their children’s minds by forbidding education beyond rudimentary levels. Predictably, their communities become fertile ground for ideologies which thrive on ignorance.
Making it worse, they believe they’re only accountable to their own rabbis and have a deep suspicion and hostility toward outside authority. During the first COVID wave, they resisted mask mandates and defied stay-at-home orders, sometimes violently. One prominent rabbi warned that the COVID vaccine would turn people gay.
They paid a price for it. In Israel, the ultra-Orthodox died of COVID at four times the rate of the general population. Estimates by Der Veker, an independent Yiddish-language magazine, found similar death tolls among Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community.
Even before COVID, the ultra-Orthodox suffered disproportionately from vaccine-preventable disease. Rockland County, where the polio case occurred, was the epicenter of a serious measles outbreak in 2019. They didn’t learn a lesson from that; they didn’t learn a lesson from COVID; and they’re set not to learn a lesson from this.
Dreaming of the medieval era
This may be the trend of the future. As humanity becomes more secular, the remaining enclaves of religious belief will double down on literalism and conservatism. They’ll withdraw into their own enclaves and erect walls to shut out the world, trying to keep modernity at bay. Of course, the problem is that no ordinary wall keeps out a contagious virus.
Many of these extremist religious groups—Jewish, Christian, and others—act as if they want to turn back the clock to the middle ages. They dream of restoring the pre-scientific worldview, when religion had no competitors for truth. But that comes at a cost. If they get their wish, they may find out what life was really like in medieval times, when plagues regularly wiped out huge numbers of human beings.