Vaccination: the moral imperative
Q: Polls show a majority of Americans are concerned about the H1N1 virus (swine flu), but also about the safety and efficacy of the swine flu vaccine. Is it ethical to say no to this or any vaccine? Are there valid religious reasons to accept or decline a vaccine? Will you get a swine flu shot? Will your children?
Are there valid religious reasons to ignore the speed limit? Or to dump sewage in a river? Or to ignore basic construction safety principles in the design of a bridge or a skyscraper? Why is it that we can immediately see the absurdity of such an idea when applied to other areas of public health and safety but can happily entertain the thought, even for a second, when it comes to vaccines?
Perhaps it is to do with the religious notion that suffering is somehow part of a divine plan; that it is either ordained by God in order to punish us or to shape us in some other way, or it is simply the natural consequence of Adam and Eve and that pesky apple, and therefore in some never-to-be-adequately-explained way something we have deserved and which it behooves us to accept meekly. From this perspective to conquer a disease is to fly in the face of divine providence, it is to overreach ourselves and to meddle in the affairs of God.
In reality, however, I suspect that opposition to the H1N1 vaccine has less to do with religion and more to do with the widespread mistrust of scientific medicine: a stance which is as baffling to me as religious belief. Scientific medicine has transformed our lives and made the business of living safer, less painful, healthier and consequently longer than it has ever been in the whole course of human history.
When scientific medicine began to be introduced in the 19th century it met with resistance from some quarters, who felt baffled and bamboozled by remedies they did not understand: having a vein hacked open with a blunt and rusty knife and then having two pints of blood removed may have been painful, and may have left them feeling even weaker than before, but patients could see what was going on and they could understand it too: the theory of the four humors which had prevailed since the days of Ancient Greece was one that was easily visualized and, to minds totally innocent of scientific reality, it 'made sense'. They also took comfort in so-called remedies which had been handed down through the generations and consisted of foul concoctions made of newts' eyes, owl pellets and horse urine, among other delights: surely something that disgusting must be effective and, besides, if it was good enough for granny, even if she did end up dying of poisoning ... Such 'remedies' sat well with people's ignorance: the new therapies involving needles and injections and drugs did not. We fear what we do not understand.
But today we do not have the excuse that the uneducated masses had 150 years ago. Thanks to over a century of scientific medicine, the vast majority of us live longer than our forefathers could ever have imagined, and in a state of health and freedom from pain that they could only have dreamed of. Thanks to over a century of scientific medicine, very few of us (in the Western world, at least, where scientific medicine is most prevalent) now need to suffer the torment of seeing our children die before our very eyes. And thanks to over a century of scientific medicine, diseases which were once the scourge of mankind have been conquered, wiped out or dramatically curtailed.
The tragedy is that we have largely refused to educate ourselves about science and consequently the gap between its knowledge and our own has become ever greater. Our fear and suspicion of it have grown accordingly - and yet when it comes to irrationality in all its guises, we have cast all suspicion to the four winds and thrown ourselves on the mercy of quacks and mountebanks. Hence we barely raise an eyebrow when we find a well known television presenter using his position of influence to promote dangerously anti-scientific nonsense on the subject of vaccines: nonsense which we could have excused a hundred years ago but which is now simply the height of ignorant irresponsibility.
As a result of this sorry state of affairs, where people are regularly conned into believing that 'nature knows best', diseases which we once thought had been wiped out or weakened beyond the point of serious harm are now making a comeback. Thanks to a huge global immunization program, polio was on the point of being wiped out a few years ago: but then a combination of administrative failings and a campaign by Muslim clerics in Nigeria, who invented the disgraceful story that the vaccine was part of an American plot to make their children sterile, saw a huge drop in the number of children being immunized and a consequent steep rise in the number of polio cases; and not just in Nigeria, but in seven surrounding countries as well. In Nigeria alone, at least 257 children who might have led healthy, normal lives, are now paralyzed as a result.
Here in the UK, totally baseless fears about the safety of the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine led to a sharp decline in the number of parents having their children vaccinated: with the result that measles once more stalked our children's playgrounds and, tragically, once again started claiming infant lives: a horror which, thanks to vaccination, had previously become just a distant memory.
Vaccines save lives. It is as simple as that. And they do so most effectively when a community achieves what is known as 'herd immunity': when roughly 80% of a population is vaccinated against a disease and is therefore immune to it, even the remaining 20% are protected against it because they are less likely to come into contact with an infected individual. This puts a huge responsibility on those of us who take seriously our obligations to ourselves, our families and our communities, to ensure that we are in the 80%.
Vaccines are a matter of public health. If we refuse to be vaccinated it is not just ourselves we are endangering, but our children, our elderly parents, our neighbours, our fellow passengers on the bus and the pregnant woman in the queue at the supermarket.
Our moral obligation is so abundantly clear that surely even religion cannot prevent us from seeing it.
October 20, 2009; 3:09 PM ET
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