Another community has learned the hard way not to trust anti-vaccine activists. This time, it’s the Somali-American immigrant community in Minneapolis:
In the early 2000s, the large Somali immigrant population had high vaccination rates. But in 2008, fear that their children were suffering from higher rates of autism swept through the community. Though research later concluded that autism rates were not unusually high in the community, anti-vaccination activists pounced on the panic. The activists held community meetings and invited Wakefield to visit with scared families. Vaccination rates dropped from 92 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2014.
As the Ars Technica article notes, autism rates were found to be no higher among the Somalis than in surrounding communities. But a few highly visible cases sparked rumors and fear, and anti-vaxxers were happy to exploit that, including the notorious fraud Andrew Wakefield:
As parents sought to learn more about the disorder, they came across websites of anti-vaccine groups. And activists from those groups started showing up at community health meetings and distributing pamphlets, recalled Lynn Bahta, a longtime state health department nurse who has worked with Somali nurses to counter MMR vaccine resistance within the community.
At one 2011 gathering featuring Wakefield, Bahta recalled, an armed guard barred her, other public health officials and reporters from attending.
As predictably as night following day, once the community’s vaccination rate dropped below the threshold for herd immunity, measles came roaring back. There have been at least 68 cases, making it the state’s largest outbreak in decades. At least a fourth of the sufferers had to be hospitalized, and it’s likely there’s more to come.
In an utterly typical instance of hypocrisy, right-wing white supremacists writing in WND have used the outbreak to sow fear about Muslim immigrants refusing vaccines and spreading disease, even though that same outlet has run anti-vaccine propaganda itself.
Only the success of vaccination has made it possible to forget that measles is a killer. In 2014, almost 150,000 people died from it, mostly children. Even after the disease has seemingly run its course and the sufferer has recovered, it can cause fatal, incurable brain damage years later.
I’ve written before about anti-vaccine hysteria and the harm it causes. But at the time I wrote those posts, I didn’t have any children. Now I do. It’s natural to wonder if I might feel any differently about the risk when it’s my own son on the other end of the pediatrician’s needle.
My answer is that I haven’t changed my opinion at all. My son isn’t old enough for the MMR vaccine, but when he is, he’ll get it on schedule. He’s already gotten others: hepatitis B, whooping cough, polio, flu, Hib, pneumococcal disease. To me, these shots are the best armor I can give him. Each one is a vote of confidence in the power of science to push back the darkness.
I’ve been with him at the doctor when he gets his shots, and it’s not that bad. My wife and I hold his hand, stroke his forehead or talk to him to calm him down and distract him. The shot is administered in his thigh and takes just a second or two. It’s over almost before he registers the pain and screams. There’s a small spot of blood which we wipe up with some gauze, then hold him and cuddle him until he calms down. He cries for a few minutes at most, and by the time we leave the doctor’s office, he’s his usual happy self. Sometimes he’s sleepier than usual and eats less the day after the shot, sometimes it doesn’t make any difference.
I acknowledge this isn’t the easiest experience. For a parent, there’s something viscerally upsetting about seeing your child in pain, even when you know it’s for his long-term good. I wish I could spare him the pain of those shots. But whenever I catch myself thinking that way, I imagine how much worse I’d feel if he caught something a vaccine could have prevented, and instead of being in pain for a minute or two, was sick and suffering for days on end. And what if he infected someone else’s child, to boot?
Vaccination is a scientific blessing. It’s the simplest, safest, and – to the extent this word means anything – most natural way we have to protect ourselves and our children from dangerous diseases. It’s lifted a tremendous burden of pain, suffering and death from humanity’s shoulders. And its tally of success is getting larger all the time, as we keep inventing new ones.
When I was a kid, getting chicken pox was a rite of passage. Now we have a vaccine, and my son and all the kids in his generation will never have to suffer through it. Millions of babies will live because of the rotavirus vaccine. The HPV vaccine will prevent countless cases of cervical cancer. After a devastating outbreak of Ebola virus, we now have a vaccine that appears to provide 100% protection.
Anti-vaxxers would take these tools away from us and offer nothing to replace them. They only want to spread fear; they don’t care about the consequences they cause or the suffering that follows in their wake. (Wakefield has disclaimed responsibility for the Minneapolis outbreak, insisting he was only offering information and it’s not his fault if people get sick by following his advice.) In combination with the vast evidence for the efficacy and safety of vaccines, their callous behavior is more than sufficient for me to decide where I should put my trust.
Image: The best armor a parent can give. Photo by the author.