One of the big arguments that many anti-vaccine people will give you to downplay the importance of immunization is that “vaccines didn’t save us”. They will present as evidence the fact that deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases have been on the decline in the United States in modern times, particularly since potable water and sewer systems were installed in major population centers. They ask, then, that we do away with the US vaccine program and instead encourage good hygienic practices… LIKE WE DON’T DO THAT ALREADY.
If you were to read a public health message from any public health agency in October and November, that message would probably be about influenza, which peaks in the winter here in North America. In those messages, you will never read that the flu vaccine is the only way to prevent influenza. Better yet, you will even read from many public health professionals that frequent hand washing is the best way to prevent influenza, even better than the vaccine.
That’s right, anti-vaxers, the “Pharma Shills” are placing the interests of soap companies above those of Big Pharma. Shocking!
This is because public health professionals, for the most part, see public health problems as multi-faceted, multi-dimensional problems. No one problem is unique. Public health is not monolithic. Every single issue of public health concern has many sides to it, many causes, so it has many ways to approach it. When it comes to respiratory infections – like the flu – that are transmitted from person to person via respiratory droplets, we recommend to the public that they wash their hands, keep their distance if they’re sick and from sick people, and, if one is available, get vaccinated.
Let me explain it this way. What [expletive] general would ever send their troops to war without telling them all the ways they can defeat the enemy and equipping them with the best tools for the job? (Answer: One that doesn’t want to win.) So we tell the public all the evidence-based ways that they can prevent or control disease. It really isn’t all about vaccines.
But that is not what people in the anti-vaccine camp think. In their minds, we’re out there vaccinating at gunpoint. In their version of reality, we want everyone to develop autism from an imaginary conspiracy in their heads where vaccines cause autism while giving those of us who promote them some major profits. It’s almost like we’re not even on the same planet some times.
So you hear all of these talking heads – so-called experts – claiming that there are other ways, better ways to combat disease, so much so that vaccines are unnecessary and – in the minds of some of them – a dangerous proposition. There’s a pediatrician whose answer to childhood diseases is breastfeeding. There is a whacky lady down under whose answer to horrible things like whooping cough is everything BUT vaccines. (She has even denied that such a thing as whooping cough exists.) There are celebrities who trust homeopathy. And there are the poor parents who’ve believed these things and then lost – truly lost, as in dead – a child to a vaccine-preventable disease.
I’m not going to deny that potable water and sanitation have prevented a lot of death and disease in developed countries, nor am I going to deny that those systems are needed in developing countries to improve their standards of living. I’d be out of a job if I did. (Talk about conflicts of interest.) Potable water eliminates cholera. Draining swamps and installing nets eliminates malaria. Sewer systems take care of other waterborne infections.
But what about things like measles? It’s not waterborne. It’s not in the food. It’s in the air around an infected person, and it’s very infectious. What’s worse, the person is infectious to others before they have any symptoms. At least with diarrheal diseases – with the exception of asymptomatic carriers like Typhoid Mary – you have to get the diarrhea before you give it to others. That’s one good control measure we could instal: Diarrhea? Stay away! Yet that is not the case with measles or chickenpox. Even people with influenza are infectious about 24 hours before they are symptomatic.
The other thing about infectious like measles is that humans are the only reservoirs of the contagion. If we all got vaccinated, or at least the overwhelming majority (about 95%), we could eradicated – as was the case with smallpox. Then there wouldn’t be a need for any more vaccination. But no! Anti-vaccine advocates have done enough damage to the point that measles is making a comeback. I mean, those [expletive] will even go as far as to mail the [expletive] virus to other people!
So, yes, let’s have potable water. Let’s have sewer systems. Let’s give antibiotics/antivirals and continue research into their development and improvement. Let’s wash our hands, cook our food, and refrigerate the leftovers. AND let’s vaccinate, a safe and effective way to give these diseases the stab in the heart they deserve.