This is not a post about the relative merits of vaccinating versus not vaccinating your children. That question is not up for debate.
Throughout history, populations have been decimated by new viruses introduced by explorers and settlers from abroad. Entire tribes of Native people were wiped out after European contact with the Americas. And even where exposure to a disease had already been established, epidemic viral outbreaks continued to wreak havoc on large numbers of people throughout the world.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could somehow protect ourselves? Somehow build up immunity against those viruses without actually contracting them? If only there were some sort of shot that could magically protect us from the ravages of disease.
It turns out that we didn’t need magic because we have science. Vaccines have worked to prevent the spread of disease wherever they have been widely adopted. They have worked so well, in fact, that many of the diseases we are immunized against haven’t been seen for generations.
As medical science continued to develop more and better vaccines, parents happily vaccinated their children against more and more illnesses. Until now.
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Suddenly, within the past 10 or 15 years, vaccination rates steadily began to drop.
Don’t get me wrong; there have always been outliers. There are religious communities like the Amish and Christian Science that largely don’t believe in vaccines or modern medicine. There are other fringe communities and individuals who are distrustful of the establishment in general and opt out of standard medical treatment like vaccines for various reasons.
But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about a significant number of mainstream parents, many of whom are well-educated, who decided to either forego or significantly delay vaccinating their children. (These parents may be into “alternative” health practices and lifestyles, but they live in urban centres, hold down jobs and send their kids to public schools. They are alternative like Nirvana was alternative.)
I want to know why.
The prevailing theory is that a widely publicized (and since discredited) study that was published by the prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, linked the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) to autism and caused widespread fear and distrust of that vaccine and vaccines in general. This is also the Jenny McCarthy theory of vaccine denial since she was an early advocate of the so-called link between vaccines and autism.
But I’m not so sure. Certainly, the suggestion that vaccines could trigger autism in some people gave many parents pause. And I can absolutely understand how a parent who has a child who suddenly begins to show symptoms of autism after receiving a vaccination could want to believe that theory. Still, I’ve known enough people who haven’t vaccinated their children to wonder if that wasn’t an oversimplification.
The autism theory, in other words, is one part of the story, but I think there’s more to it than that.
I think the rising popularity of natural childbirth throughout the ’90s and 2000s fostered distrust of the medical establishment and, at the same time, sowed the idea that we should be the ones making medical choices for ourselves and our children — and all those choices should be equally respected. The internet further facilitated the democratization of medicine as every lay man and woman decided they could interpret the science for themselves, thankyouverymuch. And, finally, I think the medical establishment itself was extremely slow to respond to these sea changes in a meaningful way.
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