The Importance of Running with the Herd

There's a great Q&A with essayist Eula Biss on Gawker today about her new book, On Immunity: An Inoculation, about the vaccine controversy. I haven't read the book, but after reading the Q&A, I intend to. Her arguments are calm, reasoned, respectful. I appreciate that.

As a parent, you cannot escape the vaccine controversy. It appears on nearly every news show, every blog, every parent group. I have friends and family that vehemently disagree on this issue. But when you're the parent of an infant, the question of vaccination is not only staring you in the face, it becomes two-fold. (1) Do I vaccinate? and (2) Do I need to worry about where I take my child until she is fully vaccinated?

For me, the first question is an unequivocal yes. It's not only a matter of protecting my child against disease, but of fulfilling a social/moral/ethical imperative. Through widespread vaccination against horrifying diseases like Polio and Small Pox, not to mention less severe diseases like influenza and chicken pox, we've created herd immunity, a concept which is well explained in the Q&A with Biss. By eliminating as many people as possible as disease vectors, it is possible to prevent the spread of disease even to those who cannot be vaccinated, such as young babies. If someone who can receive a vaccine chooses not to do so, they are making a conscious choice not only to open themselves up to risk, but to increase the risk to society's most vulnerable. If someone were able to scientifically prove a serious, widespread threat posed by vaccines, this question would become harder to answer, but for now, it seems pretty clear to me that any minimal risk is heavily outweighed by the enormous personal and social benefit.

For this reason, my answer to the second question, sadly, is also yes. As vaccination rates fall, herd immunity continues to weaken to diseases like Pertussis, which can and has proven deadly to small, otherwise healthy, babies. Even delaying vaccines weakens herd immunity be temporarily increasing the number of potential disease vectors in the population.

As a parent, I totally, completely understand the desire to protect one's own child at all cost. When I look at my daughter, there is not a single thing I can think of that I wouldn't do to keep her safe, healthy, and happy. I also understand the lingering skepticism on the part of some people about vaccinations. The internet is rife with articles shouting vociferously about the perils of the practice. But over and over again, studies have shown that vaccines are safe and effective. The small risks they pose are far outweighed by their incredibly power to save billions of lives.

Today, it was announced that a case of Ebola had been diagnosed on US soil for the first time. Ebola, a disease that kills more than 50 percent of the people it infects, that has claimed thousands of lives in West Africa in just the past few months. A vaccine for Ebola has the potential to save a vast number of human lives, just as the Small Pox vaccine has prevented untold suffering and death.

Thanks to vaccines, we live in a world that has allowed us to forget the suffering that came before them. It's time to wake up and remember before it's too late.


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