Willful ignorance, often spread for personal or political gain, is one of the greatest public health threats we face.
Increased dependence on medical technology makes us more susceptible to such outbreaks.
As with freedom itself the only cure is eternal vigilance and a willingness to engage when provoked.
Vaccines are among the oldest, most reliable medical technologies. They have saved lives for over a century. Dread diseases like polio are a thing of the past thanks to vaccines.
When disease disappears from living memory, however, we become susceptible to a form of medical Luddism. The first Luddites thought they could protect their way of life by destroying factories. Today's medical Luddites believe they can do the same thing by sowing doubt about medical technologies.
That's not to say criticism of modern technology is always Luddism. The dangers of BPA might be unknown were it not for people willing to speak up. But it's one thing to speak out for new science, quite another to demand adherence to pseudo-science and nonsense.
Thus a growing anti-vaccine movement has once-dread diseases making a big comeback.
The latest is whooping cough, or pertussis. (Picture from CNET TV.) A vaccine first became available in 1940 and most people have only a vague knowledge of how terrible a disease it is. It can kill.
Babies today are routinely vaccinated against pertussis but this protection wears off after 12 years. Adults should get a booster. The disease nearly disappeared because kids were the primary transmission vector.
Ignorance and forgetfulness have whooping cough making a big comeback, especially in California. A bill to subsidize vaccine has been offered, as prevention costs much less than cure.
The problem stems from an increasing number of "personal belief" vaccine waivers, parents refusing the vaccine thanks to activists like Barbara Loe Fisher, who insist the disease can't be prevented and claims a "government cover-up" of a second bacteria is behind the outbreak.
Really? So the fact most of the counties where the disease on the rise are those with the highest rate of vaccine refusal is a coincidence? The fact that huge increases are reported in upstate New York and Arizona, where refusal is also high, is also a coincidence?
It gets worse. Some racists are already using the whooping cough epidemic to fan the flames of hate. Meanwhile officials in Texas, Florida and Michigan are expressing worry about rising refusal rates.
Turns out anti-vaccine hysteria is subject to outbreaks just like disease itself. It often starts with a single bad study, is then fanned by media flames into a rising vaccine refusal rate, which results a few years later in a higher rate of disease. It falls as reports of deaths increase.
Fact is, the anti-pertussis vaccine, which is given in combination with vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus, is safe. A recently-completed study from the CDC should put valid concerns to rest.
There is a lesson here that goes beyond whooping cough, or measles, or any other particular disease. Science is not politics. When you cover it as "he said-she said" you commit malpractice, increase the level of ignorance, and spread disease.
This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com