Note: This is part of a new series I’ll be posting. Given Bark’s canine mascot, I’ll be calling it: The Dog Particle: Popular Science with a Bite.
For all of the (many) medical problems that remain unresolved, we’re living amid the most advanced medical knowledge that has ever existed. We’re living longer than ever before, and we’ve eliminated or greatly reduced the number of cases of a whole host of serious diseases including perennial killers like smallpox, black plague, and tuberculosis.
And we’re making progress on some of the others—the new HPV vaccine, if adopted widely, should be able to knock out the vast majority of cervical cancer cases. There are also promising vaccines in the works for malaria, HIV, Dengue fever and many developing treatments for a variety of cancers and a host of other maladies.
While we’ve only been doing real, rigorous science for a few centuries, we understand more of the world than we ever have. Nonetheless, there is currently a widespread backlash against science—and bizarrely, it has targeted one of the greatest triumphs in scientific history: vaccination.
Let’s be clear: vaccination is an unparalleled success.
Fun and Games
To illustrate this, let’s play a game. It’s called, “Let’s not contract measles, mumps, or rubella. Or polio.”
Let’s imagine there are two teams.
Team #1: The Vaccinators
Cheer: Ow, that needle hurt! But at least I won’t die of measles while living in my yurt!
Team #2: Antivaxxxxxxxxxx
This will be a short game. Team #2 will lose. At the end of the game, several members may or may not be dead.
How do we know? Prior to widespread vaccination, this game was played out for many years in the U.S., and sadly, it still is in many places around the world.
Here’s proof: During the last major polio epidemic in the U.S.—from 1949-1955, there were over 1,000 deaths per year from polio in the U.S, or several times the total of deaths in 9/11. And for every death, there were many cases of people surviving—only to be paralyzed and confined to an iron lung. All in all, there were tens of thousands of cases each year—with nearly 60,000 cases in 1952 alone. Once the vaccine was widely available in the early 1960s, cases were down to the double digits—as in 60-some cases. (One would think Jonas Salk made it rich—but his vaccine was not patented and distributed at cost—as it still is, as Forbes discusses in an article infused with humanitarian spirit: How Much Money Did Jonas Salk Forfeit by Not Patenting the Polio Vaccine?) He was reputedly offered a ticker tape parade, but declined it. When asked why he didn’t patent it, he famously replied, “Could you patent the sun?”
Oddly, because vaccination is so effective, large swathes of the population have actually forgotten how bad these diseases were—-and by extension, how incredible vaccination is.
Kelly Clarkson, Professor of Philosophy
Our surviving antivaxxers might complain. A few may protest from their iron lungs, but we probably won’t be able to hear them over the whooshing of the negative pressure ventilators. OK, OK, we have positive pressure ventilators now, but the iron lung is a perfect metaphor for polio; like the iron lung, polio is a relic in much of the world.
Still, the antivaxxers might grumble, those diseases “aren’t so bad” and we should let nature take its course. We’ll be stronger afterward! After all, as Kelly Clarkson, our chief philosopher, said “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger,” right?
Except that’s not how it works with most diseases. (Ever feel particularly rejuvenated after the flu? I haven’t.) Freddy Nietzsche, the source of the famous quote and the very notion of the “Superman” learned this lesson literally—he ended up going full-on bonkers from what is often reputed to be syphilis (though that may not be the case) and was essentially confined to asylums for the last ten years of his life.
But What about Autism?
Even though some of our game’s contestants are sick and or ill, a number of them are sticking to the fight because they have a trump card—BUT WHAT ABOUT AUTISM!?!?!? They shout in unison, while on unicycles.
That’s the thing: If you can’t definitively link autism to vaccines—(hint: you can’t), the game is over. Proof: A city (Yokohama) in Japan had zero—count ‘em, zero—MMR vaccinations in 1993. If MMR really caused autism, then we should have seen autism plummet, right? If you take away the “poison” (vaccines) then the resulting sickness (autism) should go away. What happened? Autism rates actually rose.
That’s the worst part about all this—autism SUCKS—it is a serious disease and one that we need to need to learn much about. But focusing on dead ends (vaccines) not only wastes time and (rather rare) money, it also prevents us from finding the real causes of autism. It’s the scientific equivalent of obstruction of justice.
In sum: the people who are earnestly trying to prevent kids from becoming autistic are actually hindering research that could protect children from developing autism in the future.
Without such anti-vax “protectors,” fewer kids would likely become autistic, and fewer kids would be getting sick from vaccine-preventable diseases. So instead of helping kids, they are hurting them.
That, kids, is the definition of irony.
 There is another version of this game, which is called Oregon Trail. I wholly encourage you to play it. It is also really, really hard. Never ford the rivers. I also heartily recommend Organ Trail, a new version that involves fleeing a zombie apocalypse. You can even kill members of your own party when they are bitten.
 As an aside: do anti-vaxxers not vaccinate their pets for rabies? This is an honest question. If they do, my question: WHAT ABOUT DOG-TISM?!