Posted Friday, Feb. 24, 2012, at 12:08 PM
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
Could this be the case that breaks the hold that anti-vaccination idiocy has over certain sectors of our country? Janice D'Arcy reports at the Washington Post on the latest measles outbreak traced back to anti-vaccination fanatics, but this time, instead of an outbreak being traced back to a Whole Foods or a nursery school---the usual places where the kids of yuppie anti-vaxxers have a chance to expose and be exposed---the trail for this one leads back to the Super Bowl. Indiana has had 14 cases of measles since the game, and 13 of those have been confirmed as occurring in anti-vaccination families. The outbreak started with two infected people who went to the Super Bowl village, visited a few places, and thereby set off the mini-epidemic. As D'Arcy points out, if not for widespread vaccination, the numbers of exposed would have reached the hundreds of thousands.
In most cases, measles just creates a few days of utter misery for the patient---which is reason enough to vaccinate, unless you have some sadistic streak---but in some cases, it can lead to pneumonia or encephalitis, causing brain damage or death. I genuinely don't think anti-vaccination parents want their kids to get sick, even though some of them act disturbingly blase about that possibility or minimize the suffering these diseases can cause. (I still can recall with great clarity what torture the chicken pox was, and curse any parent who thinks it's better to put a kid through that than simply give them a shot.) The problem is that anti-vaccination parents are making a virtue out of selfishness, imagining that they're doing right by their kid by making them a free rider that uses herd immunity. This is wrong-headed thinking. To be a proper free rider, you have to be accruing benefits without making sacrifices, but outside of a little pain and maybe a slight fever, getting vaccinated is not a sacrifice. Unlike with other competitive yuppie child-rearing practices, such as trying to get your kid into the right preschool, someone else's loss isn't your gain. As painful as it is for anyone in the 21st century to admit, there is such thing as a win/win solution, and vaccination is it. You help others while helping yourself. The victims in this case are, after all, people who opted out of vaccinations. Additionally, anti-vaccination fanatics are aggressive at recruiting. With every successful convert to the cause, the herd immunity they rely on diminishes, as demonstrated by the fact that this particular outbreak spread through a group of people who ran in similar social circles.
The Super Bowl example also demonstrates the limits of herd immunity for protecting the unvaccinated. In our modern era of plane travel, dense cities, and events like the Super Bowl, the average person has plenty of opportunities to inhale the germs of a large and diverse group of people---and take those germs further faster than ever before. Considering that the exposure point was the Super Bowl, we should all be very concerned. These cases are so far limited to Indiana, but think of how many people were exposed and then got on a plane after the game to return home to every corner of the U.S. Luckily, the vast majority of them are vaccinated against the measles, but with the growing ranks of anti-vaccination converts, our luck may not hold out forever.