Why the antivaccine movement is so dangerous

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Before I start this little spiel, I need you all to know: I’m not hating on people who don’t vaccinate their kids, and while I know for a fact BASED ON facts that vaccines don’t cause autism or other “defects”, I’m all for continuing research to make them even better and safer.

But you know what really, really scares me about the anti-vax movement? As a future Public Health Professional, the thing that scares me most about this is the fact that our cultural mindset has become so CHILL about vaccine-preventable/”childhood” diseases that there is even room for such a movement. Let me explain.

Do y’all know what an R0 is? The R-naught, as it is called, is the basic reproduction rate of a disease. It tells you how many new infections can come from one existing infection. For example, an R-naught of 3 (R3) means that, on average, one sick person will infect three other people. Every disease has an R-naught, some greater and some lesser.

Do you remember when everyone was freaking out about Ebola? Everyone was terrified of catching it, because it’s SOOOOO contagious and deadly, right? Ebola has an R-naught of 2. That’s it. R2. One person with Ebola, on average, will get 2 more people sick. And we were freaking out about that.

Well guess what? Measles is the most contagious disease known to mankind, and it has an R-naught of 18. 18. One person with measles will give it to 18 new people, and those people will give it to 18 new people EACH, and so on. That’s what happened with the Disneyland outbreak; it’s so ridiculously contagious that just ONE sick child was enough to start an epidemic.

And yet very few people are as scared of measles as they are of Ebola. Why is that? One reason could be the nature of the disease, sure; Ebola is terrifying in its progression and symptoms. But I would suggest that a major reason is that measles has been so well-contained by vaccination that people no longer fear it. It’s not a part of every-day life anymore; this disease is no big deal because nobody gets it, because so many people are vaccinated against it. Let’s put this another way.

What are the diseases that scare everyone the most: Ebola, HIV/AIDS, and SARS are pretty high on the list of terror diseases. But let’s look at the R0s, shall we: Ebola-R2. HIV/AIDS-R5. SARS-R5.

Now let’s look at diseases that people are voluntarily rejecting vaccinations against: Measles, Pertussis, and Diphtheria are the major ones. Their R0s? Measles-R18. Pertussis-R17. Diptheria-R7.

Everyone focuses on the former set of diseases– rightly so, I suppose– because they’re more dangerous at the present time. What makes them more dangerous? Not their R0; it’s the fact that there is no viable treatment, and NO VACCINE. Seriously, that’s why the medical community is worried about them. There’s no way to treat or PREVENT their spread biologically. Well guess what? There’s no viable treatment for Measles or Pertussis, and only limited treatment options for Diphtheria. That’s why the medical community doesn’t focus on them as much, because we can prevent them at the biological level, safely and effectively.

But now that the Anti-Vax movement has taken hold so firmly, the medical community is now being forced to once more worry about diseases it had almost eradicated. And not only that, it’s endangering herd immunity for the people who can’t receive their own vaccines due to compromised immune systems. I’m allergic to eggs, so I can’t receive the flu shot, but I’m also asthmatic so I can’t get the inhaled vaccine. I rely entirely on the people I associate with to keep me safe from the flu by getting their yearly shot. This made public school a living nightmare, because almost NOBODY got their shot. They caught it, and while it didn’t affect them TOO terribly because they were generally healthy, when I caught it, it was very dangerous because of my asthma. And then there’s that time when I caught the flu, and then right after because of my weakened immune system, I caught Whooping Cough from someone who hadn’t been vaccinated. I HAD been vaccinated, but my body was so fatigued from the flu that it couldn’t keep up with immune demands. And so I caught it.

Have you ever had Pertussis (whooping cough)? It’s hard enough on someone with full lung capacity; it can break ribs, it makes you cough so hard. You cough until there is literally no air in your lungs, and you have to inhale so forcefully it makes the “whooping” sound that gives it the name. It’s painful beyond belief, and it can last for weeks. Some people will survive it. But add that to asthma, or to a young child, or to an elderly person, and you are looking at either permanent damage or death, no exceptions. When I had it, I was about 6 years old, and asthmatic; I spent 81 hours awake because the coughing was so violent I physically couldn’t sleep. I tore abdominal muscles. I vomited during coughing fits and aspirated the vomit. I was actively dying. The doctors could barely suppress the cough enough for me to breathe at all. My inhaler wasn’t helping, none of the cough syrups or breathing treatments were helping; I was getting pneumonia on top of the virus. It was Hell. I was LUCKY that I didn’t die.

Who would wish that on their child? Nobody, I hope. And if you KNEW you could keep your child from ever experiencing that, wouldn’t you do whatever it took to ensure their safety?

Or would you look at the safeguard and say, “Nah. I’ll take my chances with my child’s life.”?

That is what the anti-vax movement is doing. Perhaps not purposefully, but that’s the end result. These aren’t just names on syringes designed to make a child cry; the diseases are real, and real threats to health and life, and the vaccines are how you prevent them. Yet we are so far removed from the impact and effects of these diseases BECAUSE of the peace brought to us BY vaccines that people now feel no qualm about refusing vaccines.

That’s what scares me about the anti-vax movement; people have become so complacent that they no longer worry about these very real, very deadly diseases. They’d rather risk their child’s life than get a shot? The side effects of vaccines are unproven (nonexistent), but the efficacy of vaccines are very much proven.

When the pertussis vaccine first came out, people jumped on it right away. They were so grateful to have it, and for a while everything was smooth sailing, and whooping cough was on the decline. Then, in the 70s, some groups started claiming the pertussis vaccine was causing brain injury in young children. Less than 50 in 15 million cases were reported, but it was enough to scare people away from the vaccine. And children began dying again. It was later discovered that it was NOT the vaccine, but the result of infantile epilepsy, that caused the brain damage. People began once more vaccinating their children, but not before hundreds if not thousands had died.

And that’s what’s happening now. A falsified claim scared just enough people that time-tested, lab-tested, fully-proven, totally safe vaccines are being rejected, and we’re already starting to pay with lives. And I’m scared it’s going to get worse. People don’t really grasp the full import of these diseases and the necessity of the vaccines until they have experienced the disease. I’m scared that it’s going to come down to new epidemics before people will realize the mistake of not vaccinating.

Right now we’re still in the semi-safe zone. Enough of the population is immunized that we could probably keep most pandemics of these diseases at bay. But if this movement keeps gaining momentum, there might come a day when measles and pertussis could once again destroy thousands of people yearly. Imagine if some terrorist group weaponized Ebola and used it against this country; so many people would die, because we have no vaccine for it, no way to prevent it. That is what could happen with diseases like mumps, rubella, measles, pertussis, Diphtheria, and polio. Except it wouldn’t be terrorists using a disease as a weapon; it would be some kid in your child’s class, or your neighbor across the street, or the guy who delivers the mail to your office. That’s how life used to be, and if someone from the pre-vaccine era could see us now, they’d weep for joy at the idea that we can prevent these horrific diseases; and then they’d weep in sorrow at the idea that people are voluntarily turning down that safeguard.

It’s true, vaccines aren’t always 100% effective; I was immunized, but still got Whooping Cough (lowered immune function, if you recall). But you know who didn’t get it? My baby sister. My big sister. My cousins. My mother and father. My classmates, the other kids at my doctor’s office. The nurses at the hospital. The pharmacy workers. Their children. The kids my mom taught at school. All those people were safe because of vaccines. And you know what else? When I was in India, I was exposed to polio. Didn’t get it. Know why? I was vaccinated. I was exposed to chicken pox in 5th grade. One unvaccinated kid got it, and the other 4 kids in our class who weren’t vaccinated got it. But you know who didn’t? The rest of us who WERE vaccinated.

Vaccination may not be perfect, and the only way we will improve them is by continuing research. But the fact remains that as they are now, vaccines cause no lasting side effects (injection site pain goes away), and are extremely effective at preventing dangerous, painful, debilitating, often deadly diseases. Let’s keep researching, yes, but in the mean time, PLEASE vaccinate. It’s not worth your life, or your child’s, or anyone else’s. Vaccines save lives, not destroy them.

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Snowstorm Jonas

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Courtyard shrubs after Snowstorm Jonas, New Haven, morning of 24 January 2016.

I tried to take pictures yesterday during the blizzard, but something about wall of heavy white snowflakes flying by at thirty miles an hour blotting out the sun rendered my camera next to useless. According to a New York Times infograph, we got 16.0 inches of the dense wet fluff. This morning was much warmer and prettier. On my walk to the grocery store after lunch, I had to pull off my hat, glove, and scarf, and unbutton my coat, because it had warmed to a balmy 36ºF and everything was melting under the bright sun.

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The streets and sidewalks were clear by 8am. Good luck getting your car out, though.

I didn’t get any good pictures on my grocery run. The takeaway is that everything is disgustingly wet and drippy.

Facebook is like the suburbs of the Internet

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Notable development: recently I’ve found myself consciously refraining from using “suburban” as a derisory descriptor for middle/middle-upper class white people, commonly living in suburbs, who make interesting and bold statements / take strong and interesting intellectual positions in a way which belies insufficient understanding of the subject which is nonetheless carried forward non-ironically, esp arguing passionately and completely missing the point.

see also: that phenomenon by which people read a Wikipedia article or watch a TED Talk and believe themselves enlightened experts on the subject

This personal usage probably dates to a particular tweet from a friend:

eh. It’s weird because I grew up in rural America, and for the past five and a half years have lived as a carless urbanite in/on the steps of a prestigious university. It’s easy for me to judge, I realize. Still tho, from my ensconced perspective: suburban America is freakin’ weird.

Not that I’m blameless, myself. I’m also a product of this wacked-out culture. And I like to argue. I hope I generally put decent thought into my arguments, though.

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Current mood: mildly annoyed and amused that spellcheck on my phone doesn’t recognize the word “undergirded”. I have SMS treatises to write and it would be helpful to not be fighting autocorrect while simultaneously waging intellectual holy war against a position of my own construct which was conceived as a test of my arguments, having been prompted by casual conversation. A mind can only engage so many battles at once. :screwers-phone-with-an-épée:

update: nor does my computer. facepalm.

The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems

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Let’s pretend, for a moment, that you are a 22-year-old college student in Kampala, Uganda. You’re sitting in class and discreetly scrolling through Facebook on your phone. You see that there has been another mass shooting in America, this time in a place called San Bernardino. You’ve never heard of it. You’ve never been to America. But you’ve certainly heard a lot about gun violence in the U.S. It seems like a new mass shooting happens every week.

You wonder if you could go there and get stricter gun legislation passed. You’d be a hero to the American people, a problem-solver, a lifesaver. How hard could it be? Maybe there’s a fellowship for high-minded people like you to go to America after college and train as social entrepreneurs. You could start the nonprofit organization that ends mass shootings, maybe even win a humanitarian award by the time you are 30.

Sound hopelessly naïve? Maybe even a little deluded? It is. And yet, it’s not much different from how too many Americans think about social change in the “Global South.”

If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.

But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda — rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia — she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.
I’ve begun to think about this trend as the reductive seduction of other people’s problems. It’s not malicious. In many ways, it’s psychologically defensible; we don’t know what we don’t know.

If you’re young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning, of course you’d be attracted to solving problems that seem urgent and readily solvable. Of course you’d want to apply for prestigious fellowships that mark you as an ambitious altruist among your peers. Of course you’d want to fly on planes to exotic locations with, importantly, exotic problems.

There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions — most notably, the 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S., many of them focused on helping people abroad. In other words, the young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”

“The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems” by Courtney Martin

(via nonstandardrepertoire)

Am I who I say I am? Struggles of official forms of identification

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Fortunately I’m perfectly comfortable with the name I was given before I knew what a name was, and as far as gender goes, people can call me he, she, or radieschen, I don’t really care—tho I do identify as cisgender male, when asked (not that it ever really matters). Friends of mine for whom either or both of these things is not true have a much, much harder time obtaining official identification documents than I do…

And yet.

Steps to renew my U.S. passport:

  1. obtain a mug shot of myself down the street at Walgreens
  2. mail in an application, with check enclosed
  3. wait a month and a half
  4. bingo

Steps to transfer my drivers licence to Connecticut, while not owning a car and not having family here to drive me:

  1. spend an hour determining the optimal public transit route to a DMV (none within New Haven or walking distance because Connecticut hates inner-city urbanites and poor people) OR bike 4-6 miles to said location (only in good weather)
  2. expect 1-2 hours transit time to DMV location
  3. if visiting a DMV near New Haven, expect 2+ hours wait time because of all the suburbs and paucity of DMV locations near the state’s largest population center
  4. residency paperwork at the DMV
  5. 1-2 transit time back to New Haven
  6. on a business day (i.e. skip work)

um sweet letsgooooooooo. But I legit don’t understand—you’re willing to accept my out-of-state licence as proof that I know how to drive and thus don’t need to take an eight-hour driving course in addition to the paperwork (questionable logic), but you’re not willing to let me mail in a form “hi I live here now—which you already knew because I’ve been paying taxes—kthx”.

Maybe I can rent a car, to drive to the DMV, to be licenced to drive in this state. smh.

Steps to obtain a library card here:

  1. adults must present a photo ID proving New Haven residency (“such as a drivers license”)

It is literally easier and cheaper for me to renew my international travel documentation (passport) than borrow a book from the city’s public library(!?!).

A+, insular and xenophobic Murika. Our tax dollars are doing great work keeping all those filthy people… who don’t have a car or means to a car, financially or otherwise… away from… books. There are non-drivers licence state-issued ID cards, of course, but hilariously they’re also vended at the hard-to-get-to DMV, and require more documentation than a passport renewal.

To be clear, I don’t really need access to the New Haven Free Public Library, and don’t even have a car, so the licence point is a bit moot, too, but—seriously?

Disclaimer: I obviously benefited from my parents being there to drive me to get my first drivers licence and passport, and getting both of these documents did require my birth certificate as proof of citizenship. I just find it interesting that it’s harder for me to prove my identity to local authorities to transfer a valid form of state-level identification than it is to renew my also-existing valid form of national identification. Somehow it feels like it should be more difficult to operate on a national level than at the level of a city library. Then again, the history:

  1. Amerikans hate “their taxes” paying on behalf of “other people”
    • ergo weird locality requirement at the library
    • ergo DMVs suck
  2. the law and accessibility is crafted for suburban white middle-class lifestyle
    • ergo “the drivers licence” has become the de facto form of government identification—suburbanites drive everywhere, so why not use something everyone who matters already has
    • ergo the DMV is on a highway and not where people actually live or can get to easily not-with-a-car
    • i.e. away from poor blacks and latinxs and “white trash”, to put it bluntly
    • ergo state drivers licences are acceptable forms of ID when boarding flights overseen by the federal TSA
  3. as a society we’re intensely tribal and xenophobic, but also incredibly lazy
    • ergo states only trust each others’ drivers licences to the extent required by federal law
    • ergo the TSA applied pressure for drivers licensure to require extensive documentation, to prevent “terrorists” and “illegals” from boarding U.S. flights—instead of operating a national program of identification, because that would be both inconvenient and effective, and already implemented (see: U.S. Passport)… or something

At some point we should probably nationalize drivers licensure and forgo the false pretense of “we’ll accept your licence for transfer, but only in person because we don’t really trust you or whatever state you came from to issue and present verified IDs”. This might have repercussions for election locality, in that drivers licences are often used for voter identity verification, but I doubt it—actually I have the opposite problem, that I don’t know how to transfer my Connecticut voter registration (how primitive a concept—thou shalt register before thou mayst partake in demokkkracy) from one ward of the city to my current ward within the same city, while still having an out-of-state licence. (I registered to vote while still a student—students aren’t required to switch state-of-licensure—and there’s no apparent easy way to unregister or move registration without probably switching my licence in order to prove I live where I say I now do. I’m 100% positive I could show up on election day with a passport photo ID and be fine.)

It would be easier for me to continue to vote in a precinct I no-longer live in and obtain documentation for travel to and through Ukraine and Cambodia, than it is to transfer my drivers licence between jurisdictions within the USA. I have no interest in either of the former, but what a world and time to be alive.

tl;dr: When I renew my passport, I’m totes gonna splurge for the $30-extra U.S. Passport Card so that I have an official form of pocketable photo ID even if the motor vehicle departments of the confederacy of incompatible jurisdictions are legislated and run by insular, discriminatory, poorly-organized, xenophobic loony tunes. Moving my drivers licence isn’t terribly hard, but the process seems unnecessarily arduous and stupid, and a total waste of my time. Really, I would rather spend that entire day flying to Cambodia.

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Rey is given a luxury that comes so easily to male heroes—she simply turns a corner, finds a magical item (Luke Skywalker’s Lightsaber, no less) and it awakens the Force in her. Just that. No searing infertility, no rape, no revelation of past abuse, no heartbreak, no sacrifice. No heroine who’s validity is defined by what she has sacrificed, in the way of Katniss handing up her life for her sister, becoming a martyr for a revolution. In the way of Ariel, handing over her power to speak in order to walk on land. No poison apple, no needle on a spinning wheel here.

—Sarah Maria Griffin in Scannain, via tumblr