The measles outbreak shows there's no vaccine for ignorance

by The Listener / 14 March, 2019
Illustration/Alamy
We can vaccinate against many illnesses. Unfortunately, there’s no vaccine for elective ignorance.

Canterbury’s measles outbreak, which has endangered the lives of vulnerable infants, among others, was depressingly predictable. Despite repeated studies by qualified medical researchers over many years, some people continue to believe vaccinations are either dangerous or unnecessary, because unqualified people on the internet tell them so.

Thus the “herd immunity” that, through vaccination, has kept people increasingly safe from measles, mumps, rubella, polio, tetanus and other life-blighting diseases for decades is breaking down around the world, causing misery and even death, when it’s totally avoidable.

Belatedly, Facebook, Google and the like are starting to grapple with their culpability for allowing such damaging misinformation to be freely promulgated on their platforms. But the damage will be hard to undo. Conspiracy theories, like viruses, mutate with alacrity to survive. Told that yet another randomised controlled trial has found no link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, anti-vaxxers invariably retort that “Big Pharma and the medical elites” have a vested interest in lying. Social-media platforms taking down anti-vax content will further cement such beliefs. Even overwhelming evidence that Andrew Wakefield – the discredited British former doctor who became an anti-vaccine activist – faked his 1998 data linking the MMR vaccine to autism and stood to gain financially from the ensuing panic fails to penetrate closed minds.

The psychology maintaining anti-vaxxers’ belief is powerfully seductive. Vanity dies hard. Believers revel in the conviction that they are an enlightened minority who can see through the attempt to manipulate the masses. Online pseudoscience provides a constantly gratifying feedback loop.

Unfortunately, unlike flat-Earthers and moon-landing “truthers”, anti-vaxxers do actual harm – to themselves, their children and potentially everyone else on the planet. It’s not just ignorant and selfish to assert that the infinitesimal risk of their child having a bad reaction to a jab justifies their putting everybody else’s children at risk of disease, it’s antisocial on a global scale. The World Health Organisation now rates “vaccination hesitancy” as one of the top 10 threats to human health. It’s infectious in itself, signalling to the still-less-informed in the community that inoculation is not that important. If this vocal group are refusing it, need the rest of us really bother?

This year, a single unvaccinated five-year-old French tourist is believed to have reinfected Costa Rica, after five years of being measles-free. This, and other outbreaks around the world mostly associated with clusters of parents refusing vaccination, has brought a hardening of public policy. Though few countries enforce mandatory vaccination, more are considering penalties. “No Jab, No Pay” is Australia’s controversial new line, refusing state benefits to refusenik parents. France considers vaccination refusal a form of child abuse and has prosecuted parents for it. Belgium, Croatia and the Czech Republic ban non-vaccinated infants from early childcare facilities. In the US, it’s mandatory for children to be vaccinated before being enrolled for school. Though exceptions are made, the Supreme Court has ruled schools have the right to exclude unvaccinated children in the event of epidemics. California is considering enforcing a maximum number of allowable exceptions to its mandatory vaccination programme, concerned too many parents are opting out.

Unfortunately, most enforcement measures will just intensify anti-vaxxers’ sense of exceptionalism. For many, anti-vax sentiment is a proud aspect of self-definition, thus not easily susceptible to reason or fact. Past generations saw in their own communities the misery caused by polio, mumps, rubella and other diseases. When vaccines made the diseases preventable, their overwhelming response was gratitude. They’d be appalled at subsequent generations letting them re-emerge.

Still, the most powerful weapon anyone has against ignorance is not coercion but truth. It’s hard to think of a more powerful truth than a baby, too young to be immunised, suffering terrifying temperatures, dehydration, pain and risk of death. That a Canterbury mother of a toddler with leukaemia, and another whose infant has a heart defect, have had to flee for their children’s lives in modern-day New Zealand is another tough fact.

Measles is not “just a normal childhood disease”, as some airily dismiss it. It kills the most defenceless among us. Given the clear science behind vaccination, it’s the height of heartlessness to refuse it.

This editorial was first published in the March 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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