The Anti-Vaccine Zealot’s Endgame

I’ve met a lot of anti-vaccine people in my life and in my lines of work. Like any other group of people, anti-vaccine people span a wide range of personalities, behaviors and other traits. They are far from being a monolith, but they do share a lot of common characteristics. Some characteristics are good, like caring about their children or working hard in their professions. Other characteristics just plain scare and confuse me.

Yeah, they may care about their children, but they’re willing to lie and bully other people and, thus, set a bad example for their children on how civil discourse should be carried out on topics that are of importance to everyone. Others go as far as to compare their children to animals or say that their children are “lost” or “dead” while the child is right there next to them. They confuse autism or any other developmental delay or intellectual disability with being completely not there. That is, the child hears and in many cases understand their statements.

I can only imagine being that young and wondering why your own parent is calling you a mistake, a dead person, or an animal of some sort (outside of terms of endearment, like “my little bear,” of course).

Then there is the outright hatred the anti-vaccine zealots direct at people they see as their enemies. There’s the death threats and the threats of violence to the loved ones of people who work in public health, medicine, science or something even remotely related to vaccines. They’ll show up in groups to talks by vaccine scientists and spew all sorts of angry rhetoric, sometimes with a lot of spittle, sometimes with hoarse throats from all their yelling.

But what, exactly, is their endgame? In chess, we know that we need to capture the King, getting through all the other pieces while anticipating your opponent’s every move. In football, you get the ball from one end to the other, yards at a time. In baseball, you have to put the ball in play and run around the bases, all within the limits of the 9 innings of play.

That is, there are rules of engagement for those activities and sports. Heck, one could argue that even war has some sort of an endpoint, despite the recent examples of the war on terror. So what are anti-vaccine people aiming for? When will they be happy enough that they stop being so goddamned evil?

Ever since Jenner came up with the first vaccine back in the late 1700s, anti-vaccine organizations and people have lost their collective minds at the prospect of immunization. They created “leagues” and “brigades” to organize themselves against laws and other requirements for vaccination. They said that the smallpox vaccine — made from the cowpox virus — would turn you into a cow, or any other sort of animal.

They lied as much back then as they do today, except that today they have the weapons of mass media and social media to spread those lies farther and faster than ever before. They organize through electronic means and summon up dozens of their like-minded trolls to go to presentations by vaccine scientists and spread even more lies and misinformation. Or they create anonymous or pseudonymous blogs to seed fear and distrust of science in their followers.

And for what?

Do they really think that vaccines will be outlawed or not used anymore? Even if, somehow, vaccine laws are reversed and children are not required to be vaccinated, the parents of those children will still listen to the advice of their physicians and get their children vaccinated. And, if they don’t and vaccine-preventable diseases make a big comeback, the ensuing wave of disease and death would certainly make people think twice about their decision to forgo vaccination.

That’s actually happening right now in Italy after the populist and somewhat anti-vaccine government saw that measles is out of control.

This is why I and others wonder if anti-vaccine people know that they will be dead and long forgotten and vaccines will still be a thing. After all, no one remembers the leader of the first anti-vaccine group, but we all remember Jenner. So is it worth it to be so goddamned angry about vaccines all the time? Is it worth it to be so anti-science and to endanger so many lives by scaring parents away from vaccinating their children?

Apparently, to far too many people it is worth it, and they will continue to do their worst… Which suits me just fine. It’s job security for me. It makes me stronger. It gives me purpose. But it all would be just a little bit easier if they had a clear mission statement, something they’re working toward and something we scientists could focus on preventing.

Instead, we get idiotic showmen making idiotic documentaries with idiotic talking heads who think they know better. We get fluff. We get marshmallow. We never get raw meat to sick our teeth into, so to speak.

Photo by Robert Whitehead on / CC BY

Do you need to go to medical school?

I met a couple of kids who are in high school right now and are interested in a career in public health. They couldn’t be more different from each other in so many ways. Student A is White, lives in a big city, and goes to a public school. Student B is Asian, lives in the suburbs of that big city, and goes to a private school. Student A’s parents work at a local hospital. His mother is a nurse and his father is a radiology technician. Student B’s parents are both physicians at another hospital. I didn’t ask them, but I think they’re not poor, but it is clear that Student B’s lifestyle is a little more privileged.

Where these two differ is in their plan to get to a career in public health. Student A wants to go to a respectable college, get an undergrad in public health, then apply and go to medical school. Student B wants to go to a similar college, get an undergrad in microbiology, then a master’s in biomedical sciences, and then a PhD in public health. Student B wants to be more involved in research. Student A wants to be a physician so he can “be the boss” in a public health agency. It was that last part that gave me a chuckle. Continue reading

You can’t go wrong with the evidence

As I think of moving on to the next thing in my career as an epidemiologist and into public health policy, I have been thinking of what kinds of challenges I’ll face when I make the leap. If you know me, you know that I absolutely cannot stand politics and politicians. I hate that they are willing to say — or do — anything and everything so long as they stay in power. They’ll lie, cheat, and steal, and then deny that they did even in the face of convincing evidence against them.

See, in their silly little minds, they think that they are being “Mavericks” or “Win-at-all-costs Winner” by systematically doing things that are very “questionable” in order to retain their elected position. And it’s not just the elected politicians, either. I’ve met plenty of non-elected people in power who will also go to great lengths to stay in power. They will go along with a horrible plan, even one that they know is horrible, and then not criticize that plan once it is agreed that it was horrible.

So one of my weaknesses in going into public health policy will be my willingness to admit when I’ve made a mistake and the sense of urgency I feel in correcting it. Now, some of you may think that I’m just blowing my own horn by saying that I am self-aware enough to admit my own mistakes — the kind of attribute reserved for historical figures. But I really am not. If anything, admitting my own mistakes has gotten me in trouble when I’ve uncovered mistakes made by me when others would have never found them.

The one big thing I hate to carry around is guilt. I really don’t like it. Ask Pedro. She can detect the slightest hint of guilt on me and make me confess to anything that I’ve done. So it’s going to be hard to be in politics when I am prone to admitting my own mistake. Although, to be honest, I have no interest in being a politician. I’ll just be working with them. But some of them are going to be my bosses, and anything I say or do will be interpreted in light of the day’s politics. This is going to lead to conflict and frustration.

Then again, you can’t go wrong if you have all the science and all the evidence on your side. Even if you make a huge mistake, as long as you did what you did with all the available information and evidence on your side, you really should be in the clear. I’m no mind reader, no fortuneteller. So, if I base the things I will do in public health policy on stuff that has been proven to work, then I should be okay.

Still, I’m sure I’ll find a way to get in trouble.