Updated: Mar 25, 2019
A while back when I was still teaching, a colleague was dealing with an autistic child. Even in the 90s, research on autism was still in its infancy: causes and treatments ranged from stupid (cold and aloof parents, so-called "refrigerator mothers" were to blame) to feasible (environmental pathogens had increased with each generation.) Treatments themselves were ineffective, sometimes even sadistic: pain therapy, electric shock, LSD.
Then came the so-called breakthrough: a cause. Mercury, specifically the thimerosol used as a preservative in the MMR vaccine given to children. At about the same time radio personality Don Imus provided his wife Deirdre with a forum to tout that theory. Every day listeners could hear her screeching on the radio, warning parents not to vaccinate their children. In the end the study she cited as "proof" was debunked to the point of being laughable, yet today there remain pockets of adherents who outright refuse to have their children vaccinated.
Fast forward to 2017 and the unvaccinated Oregon boy who spent 57 days in the hospital (and many more rehabilitating at home) after contracting tetanus. It was the state’s first documented pediatric case of the disease in more than 30 years. When it was determined that he had the disease, the parents conceded one vaccination to begin his recovery. One, but no more, even though subsequent treatments would have eased his suffering. And after his recovery they vowed not to vaccinate in the future. Some say beliefs like this should force us to reconsider our definition of child abuse.
Now in 2019, in the same area of the country, a measles outbreak has people worried, but instead of responding in a way that might slow down the spread of the disease, the leader of Oregonians for Medical Freedom, Sarah Bacon, claims there is no measles emergency and protests a measure that will make it harder for parents to opt out of school vaccination requirements. These so-called vaxxers are convinced that the dangers of immunization outweigh the benefits. They provide no scientific data—they just know. (I wonder if there's an Oregonians for Home Bypass Surgery also—and who in his right mind would give it any credence.)
The approach resembles that of the climate-deniers—they just know what they know, scientific method be damned
What does autism have to do with tetanus or measles? Maybe very little. But twenty years ago there was no Facebook, there was no ubiquitous fake news. There were outliers (and outright liars) like the Enquirer, but we all knew those sources bore only a passing connection to reality. But we were vulnerable too. When a well-known personality like Deirdre Imus said don't vaccinate, we didn't think she was lying or that her opinion was based on fallacious, incomplete, non-scientific studies. We certainly weren't anti-science; after all, cancer victims were living longer, polio was gone, AIDS patients were surviving, and smallpox, rubella, diphtheria—all history. But there remained shreds of doubt and gullibility that left us open to suggestion. I know. I too once spread the news about thimerosol, probably thought I sounded intelligent because I knew a big word. In fact, I knew little.
Now those shreds are out there threatening our children. Some will say it's the parents' right to raise their kids as they see fit. Yet we've seen photos and news stories of children living with disease and squalor and wondered what kind of parents would allow it. Beyond that, the idea of helping to regenerate an all-but vanquished disease and spreading it to others should affect the thinking of even the most ardent opposition.
We're a strange species. Rumors of Roswell still infatuate us, and the idea of a Loch Ness monster sells postcards and boat rides. We all know of the Bermuda Triangle, we consult mediums, we believe ghosts and await the zombie apocalypse. But sometimes—maybe when the lives of our children hang in the balance— we should give the nod to science and admit that sea levels are rising, that Sasquatch probably doesn't really exist, and that preventable diseases should be prevented.