The truth about vaccines, autism, measles, and other illnesses

The left derides the right for science denialism, on evolution and climate change. But many on the left have their own science blind spots, on GM foods and vaccination.

The anti-vax movement is based on junk science. The fraudulent study that started the whole controversy, by Andrew Wakefield, supposedly linking vaccines and autism, has been totally debunked. The true causes of autism remain debatable, but in the wake of Wakefield there have been numerous (genuine) scientific studies, and now at least one thing can be ruled out with certainty: vaccination.

“But my kid became autistic right after vaccination” — we hear this a lot. Post hoc ergo propter hoc (after which, therefore because of which) is a logic fallacy. One thing may follow another with no causal link. Kids are typically scheduled for vaccinations at right around the same age that autism first shows up. It’s just coincidence.

Anti-vaxers throw up a flurry of other allegations of harm, and keep insisting science hasn’t answered them. Not so. All such claims have been conclusively refuted. True, it’s possible to have a bad reaction to any injection, but with vaccination such cases are so extremely rare that all the fearmongering is totally disproportionate. The fundamental safety of vaccines is proven beyond any rational doubt.

I heard it reported that parents objecting to vaccination actually tend to be smarter than average. Proving you can be too smart for your own good. Tom Nichols’s book The Death of Expertise shows education often leads people to overrate their own knowledge, making them confident to just reject conventional medical science. They make the mistake of deferring instead to a movement that’s rooted in a mindset of hostility toward elites and experts of all stripes, and receptiveness to conspiracy theories, ready to believe big pharma, the medical establishment, and of course the government, all promote vaccination for evil purposes. People go online and find all this nonsense, and it fits with their pre-existing mindset, so they become impervious to the facts.

Still, we’re told this is a free country and people should be allowed to make these decisions for themselves and their own children. Such pleas resonate with my libertarian instincts; I don’t like government telling us what to do. But the vaccination issue isn’t so simple. Children are unable to choose for themselves. While parents are free to raise kids as they see fit, we don’t allow child abuse. And the law steps in, rightly, when Christian Scientists for example want to deny their kids needed medical treatment.

The same principle should apply to vaccination. Indeed, more so — because parental decisions here don’t just affect their own kids. When a high enough share of a population is vaccinated, a disease is blocked from propagating, so even the unvaccinated are safe. It’s called “herd immunity.” But with enough unvaccinated available victims, the disease can get a toehold and spread. Vaccinated people are still safe, but not babies too young for vaccination, and people who can’t be vaccinated, for various legitimate medical reasons.

Our herd immunities are now in fact being broken by the widespread refusal of vaccination. Thus dangerous illnesses, like whooping cough and measles, that had been virtually eradicated, are making a big comeback, with sharply rising infection rates.

This is a serious public health issue, and for once the solution is simple. Vaccination must be mandatory, absent valid medical reasons. Opt-outs on religious or “philosophical” grounds should be ended. There are no arguably legitimate religious or other doctrines that could justify refusal to vaccinate. These are just pretexts by people suckered by the pseudo-scientific anti-vax campaign.

We all should be free to do as we please, as long as it harms no others. The freedoms that matter are living as one chooses, and self-expression. Requiring vaccination does not violate these freedoms in a meaningful way; while refusing it does harm others. While you might argue that you have a right against unwanted injections, they are a far less drastic impingement upon personal freedom than is quarantining people with contagious illnesses. Their personal freedom is surely trumped by society’s right to protect others from disease.

To anti-vaxers, the minuscule risk from vaccination may seem larger than the risk from illnesses like whooping cough. That’s only because vaccination had practically eradicated those diseases. Anti-vaxers are getting a free ride from the herd immunity conferred by the vaccination of others. Anti-vax parents act as though only their kids matter, other kids and the herd immunity do not. Where is the social solidarity? Doing something because it’s good for all of us together?

Vaccination is a fantastic accomplishment of humankind, conquering the dread specters of so many diseases that afflicted life, and brought early death, throughout most of history. If you want to shout from the rooftops arguing that vaccination is a devil’s plot, you should have a right to do so. As long as you’re vaccinated.

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