Victims of our own success

July 10, 2015 • 10:00 am

by Grania

Not long after Jim Carrey’s misbegotten rant about vaccines came the tragic news from Washington State that a woman had died from measles. USA Today reports that she had been on medication that supressed her immune system and she died of pneumonia – a common complication of measles. Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in Houston had this to say:

[her] death was a preventable, but predictable, consequence of falling vaccination rates

One of the most effective benefits of nation-wide vaccination is the herd immunity effect, where the general population’s resistance to a disease effectively eliminates it and in so-doing protects those individuals who for genuine medical reasons either were unable to get the vaccination or for other reasons live with compromised immune systems. Once vaccinations become a choice made by the uninformed, the herd immunity itself becomes seriously compromised and suddenly diseases that were almost eliminated (the CDC declared Measles eliminated in 2000) are creeping back in again.

By 2007, Measles outbreaks in the US had almost flat-lined.


by 2014 something had gone horribly wrong.

Source: CDC

As I mentioned before, people who choose not to vaccinate usually are not malicious people who hold the well-being of their fellow humans in contempt. Their indifference is rooted in ignorance, and in part it isn’t ignorance of their own making. Those of us that live in countries that have had robust vaccination programs for several decades most likely have no real concept of what it was like to live in a world without vaccines.

Today’s parents almost certainly grew up in neighborhoods during the 1960s to 1980s where everyone was vaccinated and the reality of dreaded, deadly and crippling diseases that every parent of previous generations feared and desperately hoped would not maim or kill their own child didn’t even feature as a cautionary tale. Comfort has bred complacency, and in the complete absence of any childhood horror and suffering, vaccines clearly seem to some to be the equivalent of choosing between organic and non-organic vegetables.

The improved health and well-being of society derived from the implementation of earlier vaccine programs has created a society ignorant of the ravages of disease. Vaccinations have become the victim of its own success stories.

What can you do about it? Keep being the annoying person in your Facebook circle who points out facts.

There are excellent resources on sites such as Sense About Science and also facts about the diseases that people have a tendency to underestimate Or get them to talk to talk to someone older than 50 or 60 who might remember what it was like when these preventable diseases were an all too real and present threat to everyone.

49 thoughts on “Victims of our own success

  1. Reblogged this on Sword Salad! and commented:
    “Comfort has bred complacency, and in the complete absence of any childhood horror and suffering, vaccines clearly seem to some to be the equivalent of choosing between organic and non-organic vegetables.”

  2. But why do we worry about measles – so you scratch for a few days. Big deal. Wait – someone died? Do you mean that people used to get very sick and die from diseases we now prevent by vaccination? But how is that more important than the fact that as a parent, I own my kid and can make him or her a guinea pig for my crackpot ideas?

    National Geographic has a good story on the measles death:

    Horribly, some anti-vaxxers are dismissive because the woman who died had other health problems. Completely avoiding the issue of the community trying to protect others – particularly those with suppressed immune systems.

    1. “Horribly, some anti-vaxxers are dismissive because the woman who died had other health problems.”

      That’s exactly the reaction I suspected they would have when I read that.

  3. One of my dear relatives is an anti-vaxxer, and I have taken on the role of that “annoying person” who keeps pointing out the truth (yes, on facebook). I’ve been thanked in private for doing so. These efforts can work. The person in question did vaccinate their child.

  4. My mother’s sister died of Measles complications as a young teenager. Her older brother suffered brain damage from the extremely high temperature he had with Measles. We should not permit these kinds of deaths or long term disabilities to return when they can be prevented.

  5. I’ve often thought that instead of calling it “herd immunity”, they should call it “collective immune system activation” or the “universal protective rainbow”.

    1. That’s a good point. Maybe we should call it “community chi” and tell them that if everyone gets the needle at the same acupuncture point, their vital energies will synchronize to achieve a higher state of immunological function. They can’t argue with that, right?

      1. How about “…an evolutionary higher state of immunological quantum functioning that works through the placebo effect.”

        I think we might be getting somewhere with this.

      2. Until someone makes a homeopathic version without the ‘toxins’ or insists that just the acupuncture needle without the vaccination is better because it’s natural or ancient wisdom or something.

  6. I sure remember as a kid, we all got measles, mumps, chicken pox – the whole deal. It was just standard procedure and there was nothing to do about it. Luckily we did get the vaccination for polio when it first came out. I got the vaccination for shingles a few years ago — sure don’t want that.

    1. My uncles have some polio-related issues and I’m old enough to remember a whole bunch of us getting chicken pox in Jr. High School. It is both gratifying but also alarming to think that my kid will grow up not knowing what those threats really entail.

    1. Except that the scientist’s research, which most other vaccine research is based on, was completely falsified. Making any future scientific assumptions pretty much null.

  7. It seems to me that antivaxers are Republican voters, creationists, NRA members and generally ignorant people.

    1. Not as far as I know. Antivax seems to cross political boundaries. As noted here, the movement is a left-right amalgamation. IMO it includes all of the following:
      1. Libertarians who reject government regulation of behavior
      2. Right-wing religious conservatives who reject western medicine (in part or in whole)
      3. Left-wing ‘holistic’ fundies who reject western medicine (in part or in whole)
      4. Autism-vaccine believers from any background, including very liberal types. Probably the most notable being Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey.
      5. Conspiracy nuts
      6. Probably a few people who are just plain self-centered; people who accept the concept of herd immunity and are just intentionally “defecting” in this social prisoner’s dilemma game. Let everyone else’s kid get vaccinated, and mine will be safe without the possibility of side effects.

      The problem with dismissing this as just another symptomatic belief of generally ignorant right-wing-ism, is that we’re not going to reduce the social objections to vaccination if we get the underlying objections to it wrong.

    2. Based on my experience, there seem to be plenty of crunchy anti-vaxers on the left. Their opposition to vaccines is typically rooted in conspiracy-theory (Big Pharma) and appeal to nature (vaccines aren’t natural; they have chemicals!).

  8. This is an excellent and informative summary of the situation as it stands now. I especially note the need to annoy people in our local friends and family since it seems that is most effective at squelching the’certainty’ that trumps their ignorance.

  9. Measles also suppresses both parts of the immune system for months after the disease.
    You can get all sorts of bacterial diseases after a bout.

  10. FWIW, I have never read about conclusive evidence that vaccination refusal is behind these epidemics, as opposed to say increased travel and/or population density.

    Instead I have read EBM analysts make that very point, that the evidence is lacking. [But I didn’t try to google it up before posting, so take it for what it is worth,]

    1. That’s interesting, although Peter Hotez, (president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development in Houston) who is quoted in the USA Today article linked to above lays it firmly at the feet of decreased vaccination. He may be selling his point rather than citing conclusive evidence, that’s possible too I guess.

    2. It is true that we are relying on correlation to identify causation: rates of vaccinations go down and rates of vaccine preventable diseases go up.
      The link from National Geographic shows measles rates by state. We would have to correlate that with state by state rates of vaccination and take into account population density as well. So it would be complicated.

  11. I grew up before MMR vaccines and got the lot. I don’t remember rubella much, but recall becoming almost delirious with measles and having painfully swollen glands with mumps – thankfully I had it before I got to puberty. I am profoundly grateful that none of my 4 kids had to go through what I did. There is clearly a lack of understanding these days of exactly what these horrible illnesses can do to you.

  12. It’s kinda like building on flood plains: a big flood happens, people die, property is destroyed- then all vow that, “We’ll never let this happen again.” Years later, with no big floods in the interim- people start creeping back into the flood plain as it’s nice and flat and vacant (because of the earlier destruction, of course). We seem programmed to take the “easy” way; it’s easier to build in a flood plain than on a hillside; it’s easier to NOT vaccinate than to vaccinate. That’s why all education as to the necessity for vaccination (as well as for all the other things we need to do to make our lives better) must be continuous and ongoing. We simply can’t rely on new generations to absorb this information by osmosis.

  13. In order to gain my citizenship in the US, one of the things I was required to do was get an MMR shot. I had assumed it was in case I infected a natural born citizen, but perhaps it was the other way round….

  14. “Once vaccinations become a choice made by the uninformed”
    This, it seems to me, is the problem with the advocates of individualism and the libertarians. We have to admit we humans are, in fact, a “herd”, not just a multiplex of independent individuals. At least in some respects, we require a group mentality. We thrive best when we subjugate at least some of our individual egos to the “collective”.

  15. Anivaxers should be informed about the elimination of smallpox,and rinderpest, a cattle disease which has been eliminated by vaccination. Polio still exists but could have been eliminated were it not for Islamic opposition.

      1. I just read another opinion piece in the Washington Post claiming ISIS isn’t Islamic as much as a reflection of humanity’s cruel nature, just like when the Catholics were holding the inquisition (but that wasn’t Christian either…because…)

  16. Thank you for this post and especially for the links you provided. This will be very helpful to me and hopefully to many others. I have always followed Orac’s blog for this very reason.

      1. “But the stupid would refuse to use it.”

        Because they would insist they don’t need it. The biggest problem with stupid people is they are too stupid to realize they are.

        1. ‘There is no sin except stupidity’:Oscar Wilde.
          ‘Earth has its boundaries but human stupidity is limitless’: Gustave Flaubert.

  17. All of my friends who have migrated to Canada from India have no problem with vaccines. They told me it is because they have personally witnessed what happens to people who contract these terrible illnesses. They are shocked that there are people who refuse vaccines.

    Perhaps people who refuse to vaccinate should be forced to watch videos of babies with whooping cough or children with pneumonia from measles…they make women watch videos about their fetus so why not this?

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