Suspicion and fear about vaccination are not new, as attested to by James Gilray’s 1802 satirical print, “The Cow-Pock-or-the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!” By 1800 vaccination was becoming widespread, and alongside that was fear and suspicion of it. By 1801 many satirical cartoons and vilifying, fear-mongering pamphlets were in circulation, admonishing the public that vaccination was dangerous. In Gilray’s print we see the newly inoculated quickly developing cow traits such as hoofs.
Today this fear of vaccination is running rampant again, and yet, just recently another scientific report has come out that confirms what we already suspected: that it’s not the vaccination we need to fear but the disease. Measles is even more dangerous for our kids than we knew. According to a new study by the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, evidence has emerged that “measles may have the potential to nearly wipe out a person’s immune system, leaving them susceptible to other illnesses such as influenza.” In fact, they speak of a “deadly shadow” that will follow our children for up to 3 years after they have suffered from measles.
The term coined for this wiping out of the person’s immune system is “immune amnesia”. Scientists already suspected this to be the case, but the study confirms it and further, demonstrates how this happens. “Through VirScan, the researchers tested the immune function of the children who had gotten measles and found up to 73 percent of their antibodies were eliminated.”
This new information leads me to ask how a society can tolerate an individual decision—in this case, that of the vaccine deniers–when that decision not only negatively affects the entire community, but may even cause death in the most vulnerable among them.
In the historical past people who were suspected of spreading disease were at the very least cast out of the community. The health and safety of the community was placed above the rights of the individual. The infamous story of Gian Giacomo Mora, the real-life model for the disease-spreading “untore” made famous by Alessandro Manzoni in I promessi sposi, (The Betrothed) gives us a glimpse into what the community thought about people who spread diseases (even if their crime turned out to be unfounded), when the most virulent contagious disease, the plague was feared.
“Once arrested…After nearly a month of torture, the barber confessed to what he did not commit, just to end his torment. They broke all his bones and chopped off his right hand, then they put him on a wooden wheel and left him in the execution square for six hours so that everybody could enjoy his agony. When he finally passed away his body was burned and the ashes thrown in the nearby river.”
Mora’s story, now memorialized in the Castello Sforza in Milan, was not unique. Indeed, one of Alessandro Manzoni’s own ancestors, Giacomo Maria Manzone, was also accused of being an “untore,” though he was later acquitted. Manzoni put the memory of this family trauma, plus the research he had done on Mora, to dramatic use in I Promessi sposi.
Even the victims who succumbed to communicable diseases, but without any blame, were strictly quarantined. This was true for yellow fever, syphilis and cholera, for example. And sometimes they were cast out of society permanently—as in the case of leprosy.
Today we have parents who, ignoring all medical and scientific guidance, choose not to vaccinate their children against infectious diseases such as measles, putting all our communities—and especially the most vulnerable among us: children, the aging and those medically vulnerable– at risk of death. Scientists are now crystal clear: measles’ “long shadow of death”, a period of vulnerability to increased mortality from encephalitis and other diseases, will follow your child for as long as 3 years.
And yet, some parents believe that their prerogative of “religious freedom” or their skepticism of science, justifies their wanton decision to endanger not only their own child, but your child. Principal among these “vaccine deniers” is the Orthodox Jewish Community. In the midst of the 2018 epidemic, in just two Orthodox Jewish communities, one in Rockland county and the other in Brooklyn, close to 500 unvaccinated people suffered from measles. We may well ask, why? The “New York city health department said anti-vaccine propagandists are distributing misinformation in the community.” In my opinion, anti-vax propagandists, in any community and representing any ideology, truly are the “untori” of our time.
This misinformation has to do mostly with the misguided belief that vaccines are somehow linked to the uptick in autism, a belief that persists despite many scientific studies that have disproved such a link. The report from the Centers for Disease Control is categorical: “there have been nine CDC directed or funded studies that have found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and ASD, as well as no link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and ASD in children.”
Given this clear evidence, why do some people in the Orthodox Jewish community still reject it? Place the blame chiefly on PEACH, or Parents Educating and Advocating for Children’s Health, which according to some sources, are targeting the Jewish community with misinformation about vaccine safety, and even citing rabbis as authorities, through a hotline and magazines. One Brooklyn Orthodox Rabbi, William Handler, has gone as far as admonishing that parents who have their children vaccinated are practicing “child sacrifice”.
The Orthodox Jewish Community is not alone in this. The second major group of vaccine deniers, though more flexible than the Jewish community, are the Christian Scientists. In their Christian Science Newsletter, they explain that over the years they have indeed availed themselves of the religious exemption, and they value it; that they rely on the power of prayer for healing. Nevertheless, “Church members are free to make their own choices on all life-decisions, in obedience to the law…”
This somewhat half-hearted permission to vaccinate their children seems to have a negligible effect, they are still among the most affected by the measles, but they at least do attempt to reconcile religion with science. As they point out: “Christian Scientists report suspected communicable disease, obey quarantines, and strive to cooperate with measures considered necessary by public health officials. We see this as a matter of basic Golden Rule ethics and New Testament love.”
Sadly, religion is not the only impediment to acting on scientific evidence. Sometimes it’s just a matter of living in a bubble that excludes such information, because there is also evidence that the measles epidemics that have proliferated in this past year affect any overly-insular community, whether this is due to secular or religious ideology, in accepting scientific findings. Among these groups we find the Somali-American community in Minnesota, the Amish in Ohio, and the Russian-American in Washington.
Then there are those who simply succumb to conspiracy theories; like the people who are convinced that vaccines contain material from aborted fetuses.
This clash between traditional beliefs—religion among them– and science, is putting our lives at risk. Scientists calculate that one un-immunized person can infect up to 18 individuals.
Some of the un-vaccinated may simply be enacting what is known as “free-riding”, that is, the belief that if the rest of the population is immunized then they themselves will not make any difference in the overall health of the community. In a comprehensive study, because of the ratio of 1:18, this has been proven to be a case of erroneous optimism. Soon enough, the entire “herd” (as in Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons) will lose its protection against the disease.
In view of these facts, it is fair to ask, “Where is the ethical line between religious and personal freedom and the health of the community?” Unfortunately, this is a question that although studied and debated by many experts across the disciplines, has not been answered. The line between freedom and oppression is a very thin and fragile one, but one that must take into account more than just personal preferences.
Science and religion are frequently at odds—indeed, sometimes they represent diametrically opposed world views. Look at the Creationism debate that still rages on in certain parts of the country and among certain communities—the vaccination debate is one more example of people who would rather rely on faith than on facts.