Friday, February 24, 2012

Virtue in Numbers

While the movement for parents to opt-out of having their children vaccinated has created a certain level of consternation among some sections of the populace, we might due well to remember a simple fact of human nature. While it may be easy to make a virtue of necessity, it can be difficult to maintain the commitment to virtue once the necessity wears off.

Back in the day, there were any number of really deadly diseases loose in the wild. Polio, whooping cough and smallpox come immediately to mind, but I'm sure that there were others. When the ability to suppress these diseases via vaccines was developed, people considered it a miracle. (I suspect that even if modern concerns about autism were known back then, many people would rather have taken the risk of having an autistic child than a dead child.) Once immunization become widespread to the point of being nearly universal, many diseases that plagued families during the first part of the 20th century were more or less completely eradicated. While the diseases my not be completely extinct, they're nearly completely unheard of in the modern United States.

As predictable side effect of this is that the sense of urgency and desperation around these diseases has waned. And while the risks of vaccination may be small, small is different than non-existent. So we shouldn't really be surprised that some parents, many likely with no first-hand (or perhaps even second-hand) knowledge of once terrifying illnesses, are now more concerned with stories of vaccine-induced autism, the stories of which are circulated via the Internet rather than polio, which most people know only from history books. Which creates a problem - how do you convince people of the seriousness of a problem that you're also protecting them from? It's like the people who don't get that animals in zoos are often wild and that while a 700+ predator may look cute and cuddly, it still regards humans as tasty. They're accustomed to none of the animals that they encounter on a day-to-day basis actually being dangerous. After all, a bear on the other side of a moat, and therefore can't attempt to eat you, is easier to think of as harmless. By the same token, people for whom diseases are something that a pill, shot or at worst, a couple days in the hospital can clear up, the idea that failure to vaccinate a child could have fatal consequences simply does not compute.

A parallel might be a work ethic that finds virtue in toil. For settlers and pioneers, toil wasn't simply a virtue - it was often the only thing that stood between them and death by starvation or exposure. But in modern times, as a direct result of the work that others have done before, most of us don't require lives of constant toil to survive. It's become meaningless, if virtuous, drudgery, often with little show for it.

So while it's becoming fashionable to be outraged at the lowing of herd immunity triggered by those who opt-out of vaccinations, it's not particularly worthwhile. This is simply a side-effect of our success at removing once dreaded diseases from the popular consciousness. As long as there are fears (founded or not) about the effects of vaccines, people will seek to protect themselves. It's likely that only the return of endemic diseases of childhood with change that.

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