The plague

The anti-vaccine movement is on the rise – and their ideology spreads like an infection.

Written by: Karolina Kwiatkowska

Art by: Lisa

Fatal diseases can be transmitted by direct or indirect contact, but also by words. Beware of the latter, for there is no vaccine against destructive ideas. Contagious and carried by rumours and conspiracy theories, they quickly inflict physical harm.

When Edward Jenner first invented the smallpox vaccine, it seemed that humanity had opened a new chapter in the history of medicine. The era in which liberating populations from bloodthirsty diseases was at humanity’s fingertips.

Now the threat of infectious diseases is diminished, their impact on societies is gravely underestimated. Yet for centuries epidemics – next to wars and natural disasters – shaped the course of history. The demographic wasteland left behind by the Black Death posed a subsoil for a new wave of religious fanaticism on one hand, and improved economic conditions of peasant survivors on the other.

Crucially, however, infectious diseases brought about massive blood harvest. The death toll of the Spanish flu, which haunted Europe near the end of World War I, was higher than that of the Great War itself.  Few remember that as recently as the early 1960s, when polio reached the farthest corners of the Earth, before it was targeted by an innovative vaccine and was virtually eliminated.

It would seem that vaccinations are an unquestionable success story. A triumph of science over the perils of nature, allowing man to challenge death on one of its most fruitful battlefields. Admittedly, trailblazers were rarely greeted with joy. A conservative backlash against innovations is commonplace in the history of science. The more surprising plot twist, however, is that anti-vaccinationism has outlived initial scepticism and become an ever-recurring theme in the debate on public health.

The current upsurge of anti-vaxx movements dates back to 1998, when Andrew Wakefield published a paper suggesting that the MMR vaccine is causally related to the onset of autism. The underlying research has been proved fraudulent and although its infamous author has subsequently been discredited, the seed had been planted.

Anti-vaccination movements pop up all over the world, receiving support from attention-seeking celebrities and populist politicians. Jenny McCarthy became the face of the anti-vaxx movement in the US, voicing concerns over the alleged detrimental consequences of vaccinations. Analysts estimate that this year some 40,000 children in Poland will escape vaccination coverage, while Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister publicly questioned the need for obligatory vaccination schemes. Anti-vaxx sentiments are beginning to translate into first occurrences of some infectious diseases which were thought to be buried once and for all.

The arguments of anti-vaxxers are twofold. Some invoke para-scientific gossip, which fails to survive closer scrutiny. Others rely on a false assumption that the decision whether or not to be vaccinated is one’s private, personal matter.

Decreases in vaccination coverage entail dangerous spillover effects, and the first ones to suffer are the most vulnerable. A minority of the population cannot become immunised due to various medical reasons, but still benefit from widespread vaccination programmes which establish herd immunity. By reducing the occurrence of an infectious disease, they reduce the probability of contagion. Anti-vaxxers are not merely free-riders who benefit from an indirect protection through herd immunity, but they also expose others to the threat of infection.

In the times of free and instant information circulation, the anti-vaxx epidemic spreads with a thrilling speed. Do not underestimate anti-vaxx movements, for they are becoming a real danger. Not merely by direct influence, but also as sources of contagion.

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