Immunity

Sometimes, I wonder about the basic intelligence of my people. Americans can be incredibly short-sighted, blind to both future and past. But that just means that teachers like me need to step up and show people what they may have overlooked—particularly when it is not just one problem, but a pattern.

If you haven’t been keeping up, the measles are back. Never totally gone, this disease—which can in fact be lethal, despite what many think—has roared back to high levels in recent years. Most recently measles made the news at Disneyland, where hundreds were infected. Nor is it the only disease to be making a comeback: pertussis (whooping cough) made a major return a few years ago. Why are these diseases, long held at bay, suddenly returning in full force? Because of the anti-vaccination movement, called the “anti-vaxxers.” These are parents who believe that the vaccinations are more dangerous than the diseases they prevent.

There are many reasons for the anti-vaxxer movement. A few prominent celebrities made headlines by decrying vaccinations. A scientific paper made an unscientific link between the MMR vaccine and autism; its author had to retract it for manipulating his data, but the anti-vaxxers haven’t heard, or simply ignore this. The reasonable fear of toxic chemicals has spilled over to an unreasonable fear of anything with the word chemicals, and people may have forgotten that it’s not the substance but the dosage that does the damage (water is toxic in sufficient quantities, though for a few substances there is no safe dosage at all). And in a world that seems to be spinning out of control, parents may be reassured that they can still at least have a say about what goes into their children’s bodies, even if their decisions are just wrong.

The reason that makes the most sense to me, however, is that vaccinations have worked so well for so many years that many people simply don’t realize how dangerous these diseases can be. If Quakers made bets, I’d be willing to bet that few anti-vaxxers have ever actually seen a case of the measles, and I’d bet even more that none of them have ever seen a child die of the measles. Which is, as I said, totally possible. But it’s been a long time since measles and mumps and other such old plagues were endemic. So I would say that the anti-vaccination movement simply does not conceive of the danger of these diseases, because they have never seen the problem.

In short, I would sum up the problem this way: vaccinations have worked so well that people think we don’t need them any more.

But we do. The root problem has never gone away.

All this would be worth mentioning from a purely public-health standpoint, but it’s worth blogging about here because this is not an isolated case of Americans with short memories. I see two clear parallels.

The first is the recent set of decisions by the Supreme Court that undermine many pieces of classic anti-discrimination legislation. In 1965, when most of the southern states had laws or policies that kept black people from voting simply because of skin color, the Voting Rights Act was passed to outlaw such practices. This, at a stroke, increased black political participation in the democratic process the south tremendously. Recently, however, the Supreme Court has struck down many of the provisions in the Voting Rights Act, though some remain in place. The rationale given, as far as I could tell, was that the states in question haven’t discriminated for a long, long time, so parts of the law were no longer necessary.

A second parallel comes from the financial world, though it also involves a law being removed. Following the Great Depression, a law called the Glass-Steagall Act was passed to prevent future Great Depressions from occurring. The law prevented investment banks (which work on the stock market) from being connected to or involved with commercial banks (which work with ordinary citizens). The idea was that this separation would keep major problems on Wall Street from damaging the rest of us on Main Street. In 1999, however, Glass-Steagall was repealed, for a variety of reasons—one being that it violated our “free-trade” treaties—but one reason that was held up was that we simply hadn’t had a major economic crisis of that scale in seventy years. Lo and behold, less than ten years after Glass-Steagall was killed, we had the worst economic crisis in the country since the Great Depression. The law would not have prevented the crisis, but it would have insulated many of us from its worst effects. By the by, no equivalent of Glass-Steagall has yet been put back on the books, so the next trouble in the market will almost certainly spill out to hurt the rest of us again.

Now, the parallels are not absolute. There’s no money in not vaccinating, unlike the money that many banks stood to make by repealing Glass-Steagall. Nor is it a question of long-rooted political antipathy, as it was for Chief Justice John Roberts, who worked back in the 1980s to undermine the Voting Rights Act, and finally got the chance to see his lifelong dream fulfilled by striking down parts of it from the Supreme Court’s bench.

But I do see a recurring theme of “The ceiling hasn’t fallen down for ages, so we don’t need to prop it up any more.” And I do see a recurring theme of selfishness. Roberts and the other justices who struck down the Voting Rights Act provisions were all white, and never needed the parts of the law they did away with. The banks and corporations that wanted Glass-Steagall gone were purely in it to expand their markets, even if it also expanded their risky business propositions to include the whole of the unsuspecting populace. And finally the anti-vaxxers, by refusing to protect their own children, also refuse to protect everyone else’s too. Vaccines are not perfect, nor can everyone receive them. So we need as many people as possible to be vaccinated, for the sake of those who are unprotected. (A vaccine might only be 90% effective and still protect 100% of the people, if the 10% of the people whose shots didn’t take are always insulated from infectious people, and from each other, by the 90% whose shots worked fine.)

In each of these three cases, certain people removed or weakened protections for all of us with no guarantee that the root problems were actually gone, simply because those people could not see the original problem. They simply could not conceive that the original crises might be gone because of those protections.

In contrast to these, I put forward an alternative: leave the protections in place until long, long after the problems are eradicated. We no longer vaccinate against smallpox because smallpox appears to be confined to a handful of labs, gone from the natural world. Even then, some say it might be worth it to keep vaccinating as long as those samples remain. The best example I can think of in the political realm is the Third Amendment, which outlaws quartering troops in citizen’s houses. The Third has actually done its work so well that the simple idea of quartering troops seems illogical, so far out of the realm of possibility that no one would even try to do such a thing. But even now we do not repeal the Third. It stands, a constant watcher against a long-gone foe. But it does us no harm to leave it there.

I say, let’s treat our protections like the Third Amendment, be they vaccines against diseases of the body, like measles, or diseases of the soul, like racism and greed. Leave them in place so long that the danger not only seems long past but laughable, impossible, inconceivable—and thus grant us immunity. It will do us no harm, and it might do us great good. After all, horrors have a way of returning. If they do, we would still have our protectors—dust-covered but serviceable—to hold disaster back.

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