Fighting over vaccines may be the wrong cure

Intelligence and stupidity are funny things.

I’ve been watching the vaxxer vs. anti-vaxxer debate devastate the discussion boards on social media, seeing normally intelligent good-natured folks making hyperbolic proclamations that anti-vaxxers are evil people whose uncaring attitudes are murdering innocent children, and I’m seeing anti-vaxxers claiming that compelling people to undergo medical procedures that benefit the rest of society is right up there with how the Nazis treated Jewish people and other minorities.

Members of both groups claim the mantle of intelligence and accuse the other of stupidity.

It’s time to step back and take a deep breath before the intelligence runs out and the stupid starts to burn.

For those who are pro-vaccination, and I include myself in this group, please get a grip. Yes, there is a remarkable return of measles occurring, probably brought on by folks opting out of immunizing their children. But let’s not fly off the handle.

First, if you and your kids received immunizations, you are most likely perfectly safe. It’s sort of the whole point of the vaccination. If your fear is that persons with compromised immune systems who cannot receive immunizations will become infected because of the folks who opt out, then you have a measurable reason to be fearful, but overall herd immunity keeps even that vector of infection pretty low, unless opting out continues to spread.

Let’s compare risks. With current infections this year approaching 1,000, the infection rate for measles in the United States is currently about 1 in 400,000.  It is remarkable, but is it worth writing legislation to compel people to do something they feel is an affront to their civil rights and physical autonomy? Compare that to the 11,000 annual deaths (not just infections, which number around 80,000) from antibiotic-resistant bacteria brought about by the overuse of antibiotics, and you have something that rises to a level requiring some legislation. Heck, National Geographic reports that in 1996, toilets injured or killed over 40,000 people, yet I don’t recall a major debate erupting then.

That being said, the anti-vaxxers are correct that the government punishing people if they decline to undergo a medical procedure is authoritarian to a level that should cause the members of any free society to pause. And there is also the low-but-measurable risk of severe complications resulting from immunizations (and I’m not talking about the debunked idiocy of immunizations causing autism. They don’t.) Some people, perhaps as few as 1-in-a-million, do have severe adverse reactions to immunizations, according to the CDC.

Yet the anti-vaxxers, regardless of their reasons, do increase the risk of spreading a disease, increase the risk of people with compromised immune systems suffering fatal consequences, and increase the costs to the rest of society in dealing with the outcomes of epidemics. There is no argument there, but neither do anti-vaxxers actually intend to bring about these negative consequences.

Perhaps a better approach to immunizations, rather than penalizing people who opt out, ignoring people with legitimate reasons for avoiding immunizations, or trying to accommodate people who just deny scientific facts, would be a marketing campaign akin to the anti-smoking effort: to promote immunizations and reassure people of their safety.

And just as cigarette companies pay for the campaign against tobacco, perhaps the pharmaceutical industry should pay for the campaign to promote immunizations to the population using their products.

It just seems like the intelligent thing to do.

Andrew Birden is the general manager for Northeast Publishing, a division of the Bangor Daily News. People can reach Andrew at abirden@bangordailynews.com.

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