I have a serious problem with vaccine skeptics who are over 70. When they were children, they saw mothers march from door-to-door, collecting dimes to fund polio research. And they witnessed the nationwide relief when first Jonas Salk developed the “killed” vaccine and then Sabin developed the “attenuated” oral vaccine administered as drops in sugar cubes.
Alongside that effort was a longstanding drive to vaccinate against smallpox. Us older folks still have that scar on our left shoulder. Thanks to vaccination, the last case in the U.S. was in 1949. Worldwide vaccination and quarantine ended smallpox in the wild in the 1970s in Somalia, Africa. In 1976, I witnessed the deeply pock-marked face of a smallpox survivor in the streets of Macao. Now, I could understand the tremendous motivation of a population that suffered smallpox — so disfiguring and fatal in one-third of the victims --- usually children.
In 2019, we had also eliminated measles from the United States through requiring childhood vaccination for school attendance. Measles is one of the most contagious diseases, with a contagion rate of 12-to-18 (meaning that one person transmits it to up to 18 others). With such a high rate of transmission, nearly 95% of schoolchildren need to be vaccinated to halt the transmission to the few children who cannot be vaccinated due to immunity disorders. However, the anti-vax campaign on the West Coast had dropped the level of vaccinated schoolchildren to a point where measles was re-introduced from overseas and took off.
All states have vaccination requirements for schoolchildren, but different states allow a different assortment of exemptions. Obviously, the immune-compromised students need and receive a medical exemption. But some states also allowed exemption for religious or personal philosophy. A handful of states narrowed the exemption to medical only.
This right of a state and its schools to mandate vaccination was solidly established long ago in 1905, when the Supreme Court ruled in Jacobson v. Massachusetts that a state can mandate vaccines and impose criminal fines on those not in compliance. When Indiana University required COVID-19 vaccinations and students petitioned the Supreme Court, Justice Amy Coney Barrett refused to step in, rejecting the case on Aug. 12, and citing Jacobson.
In 2019, before this pandemic, I was awarded for a radio commentary recorded on the measles anti-vaxxer dilemma. I described how “science was self-defeating.” By eliminating those early major epidemics that caused widespread pain, suffering and death, a new generation grew up free from these experiences and as a result no longer valued the benefits brought by vaccination. In other words, the success of science undermined the future motivation for vaccination.
But now, in this current pandemic, my explanation of anti-vaxxers as youngsters who grew up without major epidemic experience falls short. There is now a much larger element of politics and confirmation bias that is rejecting science, embracing falsehoods, and threatening health worldwide.
And that presents a personal problem because I try to follow my speech professor’s rule to “...remember at all times the inherent dignity of humans for that is more important than any other concern....” Those over 70 have had direct experience in the effectiveness of vaccines in eliminating polio and smallpox. And yet many are choosing instead to believe in abstract media messages that are in total contradiction to what they personally experienced in childhood. But how can I express utter contempt for those readers or listeners who put media over experience, without assaulting their dignity?
My professor continued, noting that a speaker/writer must be adequately informed because there is no right to disseminate ignorance, to think straight for there is no right to promote confusion, and to be socially responsible and bear in mind the welfare of those affected. So I will clarify. My contempt is for the dissemination of ignorance, promotion of confusion and disregard for people’s welfare.
If we had today’s media back in the 1950s, as well as the political polarization of this time, we would still today be living with folks in iron lungs, children on crutches, and one-third of smallpox victims dying each season.