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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Thirty-Two

 
Dr. Jonas Salk vaccinating a young child in 1955. When he refused to patent his vaccine, he was dubbed "the people's scientist."

 

The Anti-Vaxxers

 

  

Smallpox inarguably shaped the course of human history by killing countless millions in both the Old World and the New World. Dr. Edward Jenner's discovery of vaccination in the late 18th century, and the global eradication of smallpox in the 1970s, rank among the greatest achievements in human history.

US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health

 


I had never met an anti-vaxxer until I moved to upstate New York. I know they are everywhere in the interstices of our lives, but I had never met any. I think I was at a July 4th party when I heard a parent of young children complain that she'd have to home-school her children rather than give them vaccines. There had been a serious measles outbreak in New York State, and the legislature had acted decisively. No vaccines, no return to school. When I asked this parent why she refused to vaccinate her children, she told me, definitively, that vaccines cause autism, a debunked theory. She was an educated woman. What had she been reading? Moreover, as a parent, she continued, it was her "right" not to vaccinate her children. That gave me pause. What if every parent refused to vaccinate their child? The answer is not complicated: we'd have a resurgence of all sorts of diseases that have not been entirely eradicated, including polio.


I am old enough to remember polio epidemics every summer. Like other privileged New Yorkers, my parents made certain that their children were not in the city during the hot months. Polio is primarily spread through contaminated water or food (fecal-oral transmission), thus the terror of public swimming pools.

 

And then there were vaccines. My physician mother said, "My children will be first in line." The Salk vaccine arrived, then the Sabin oral vaccine. I recall standing online in the school cafeteria with my best Brownie girlfriend. We were in our uniforms, lots of badges. The vaccine was given to us little tykes as a special treat on cherry-flavored sugar cubes. No more polio.


My husband had undetected polio. He was robust and he survived—one of the lucky ones—but the entire left side of his body is smaller than the right. It was only years later that a doctor measured his uneven legs and figured out he'd probably had polio.

 

Lack of compliance to state government mandates has become a theme during the COVID-19 pandemic in America. It portends trouble when a new vaccine is available, possibly as early as November, just in time for the results of the election. If we don't all take it, COVID-19 will not be eradicated. It's a deadly disease, a terrible disease. And the pandemic is global. How can a parent justify endangering their child for years to come? How can any of us justify endangering our neighbors, national and international?
Conspiracy theories effloresce among under-educated populations. The check-out woman at the supermarket the other day said, deadpan, "I don't want them to put anything into me. It's alive. It will make me get it." I didn't dare ask if she was registered to vote, or if she planned to get the regular flu shot, though I should have. She was fearful and I felt bad for her; she is an essential worker, exposed to COVID more than I, a good reason to get the vaccine, I said. She asked me more questions about live vs. dead vaccines. At least she was thinking, I told myself, processing the way a vaccine works. "Just get it," I said. "Protect yourself and your loved ones. Try not to worry." But I have no ready reply to the seemingly more educated anti-vaxxers, and no illusions that I can persuade anyone with rational, scientific ideas, or with this blog post. I defer to the legislators to pass laws that mandate vaccines for the safety of all citizens. Like it or not, that is the role of government.


People 18 years of age and older who are interested in participating in a clinical trial can visit https://www.coronaviruspreventionnetwork.org (link is external)or ClinicalTrials.gov and search identifier NCT04470427 for details.

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