Unearned Immunity

What do we do with the anti-vaxxers?

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There was a point earlier this year when the U.S. was on pace for almost 2,400 cases of measles. The various outbreaks causing the spike have petered out since then, and after 342 cases in April alone the country saw only six cases in September and ten cases in October.

Which sure, that sounds like a dodged bullet, but we’re still over 1,200 cases of a disease that was eliminated almost 20 years ago. More than 100 people this year required hospitalization due to measles, and 61 have reported complications including pneumonia and encephalitis.

Here’s the money line from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

The majority of cases are among people who were not vaccinated against measles.

You don’t say.

The whole anti-vax thing is now a pretty old story I guess and there have been some positive steps against the problem like when Facebook and Instagram rolled out these little pop-up boxes with good info on vaccines if someone is searching for or looking at the bad info on vaccines but I still have a question about all of it that doesn’t seem to have a satisfactory answer anywhere in the U.S. at least:

What do we do with the anti-vaxxers?

These people are not just hurting themselves, or even just hurting their own kids. Why do we tolerate it? Why does Jenny McCarthy get to be a host on the Masked Singer?

[Secondary question: Why is Ken Jeong okay with being her co-host? He is a DOCTOR. Like, a real one.]

I’m really asking if we have some method of accountability here: what should the consequences be when you endanger a community? You’re not firing a gun into a crowd, but it’s in the ballpark. And while the story may feel old it’s not like it has gotten better: those 1,261 measles cases so far this year—double the worst year since 2000—are a direct result of the anti-vax movement, and there are still big well-funded groups out there pushing their bullshit onto unsuspecting people.

And if you want to be further infuriated, a study published earlier this month laid bare some of the moral rot in the anti-vaxxer’s heart. See, only 15 states allow parents to cite personal or philosophical beliefs as a reason not to vaccinate, but 45 states allow them to cite religion. In the states where both exemptions are available, the rate of religious exemptions actually taken is far lower than in states where only the religious possibility exists, and in those religion-only states the rate of such exemptions has been rising over the last decade. In other words, these parents have no fixed moral center other than the idea that they shouldn’t want to protect kids from dangerous diseases, and are willing to pretend that some god or other demands this practice of them in order to get it done.

In Vermont, after a change in policy eliminated the personal belief exemption, the rate of religious exemptions jumped seven-fold, from 0.5 percent to 3.7 percent. It’s the “I’m Kruz-uh-wewski” Bud Lite ad, only for like, fake Christian Scientists or whatever. These are bad people.


Across the country, measles vaccination rates have fallen over the last decade. Half the states now have rates below the 95 percent target that establishes herd immunity and protects those who cannot get vaccinated for one reason or another.

[Quick aside: The state with the highest vaccination rate at 99.4 percent is Mississippi. It allows no exemptions for personal or religious beliefs and has not had a case of measles in 27 years. Mississippi is not usually in the “here’s a state doing something well!” discussions so I thought I should mention it.]

So again, what do we do with these people? We should absolutely ostracize them (thought that sucks for their kids, obviously), but we don’t. If you’re a parent and you knew a neighbor of yours like killed six people on a gun rampage or something you wouldn’t hang out with that person or let your kids anywhere near them even if he had some really adorable twins or something but that’s not that far off from what anti-vaxxers do, they proactively decide that their weird conspiracy beliefs trump the health and safety of not only their own adorable twins but also every other kid in the vicinity.

The very concept of “personal belief” exemptions with vaccines is the most insane shit, and it is an absolutely glorious demonstration of the failure of our particular form of governance and democracy that it managed to get into official state rules. You can home-school your kids but that doesn’t mean you’re keeping them in a bubble in the attic—you take them to the library, to the movies, to the grocery store and the shoe store and the convenience store, to the amusement park, to the gross piss-pool water park, to the waiting room of a doctor’s office where the rest of the kids in there were vaccinated as recommended because their parents aren’t assholes but the kids are still vulnerable because some of them are under one year old and for the others though vaccines are really good they are not perfect and also because one of the kids in that waiting room had leukemia a few years ago and is immunocompromised and couldn’t get vaccinated and now you’re just dangling a pinata in the shape of a donkey labeled “MEASLES!” over that immunocompromised leukemia kid’s head and honestly there’s an argument here that you belong on trial in the goddamn Hague.

Some degree of accountability is now not without precedent. In Germany, a new law requires vaccination for any kid going to school, and failure to comply means a few thousand Euros in fines. Incidentally, Germany, with a quarter of the U.S. population, has had more than 500 cases of measles this year. Imagine a government that tried to fix problems.

Fines are a decent first step to discouraging the practice. As others have argued, if hikers go off-trail and need to be rescued by public authorities, the hikers often have to pay for that themselves. Next step is shaming; public registries, not unlike those for sex offenders, pinpointing where normal parents should have their kids avoid, seem like a solid idea too. Choosing literally anybody else to host your quirky singing competition show is also an important step.

Measles is one of the most—if not the most—contagious diseases in the world. “Measles makes an infected child into a viral Uzi,” one expert has said. You don’t get to spray a real Uzi into a crowd and then go home and watch quirky singing competition shows. Vaccinate your goddamn kids.

random bits

  • Almost 1,000 toxic waste sites around the country—around 60 percent of all the Superfund sites—are at risk from climate change-related disasters including sea level rise, fires, and river flooding. Which seems bad.

  • First read this new piece about the weirdos who claim to be able to predict earthquakes (they can’t), and then read my year-old piece about those and other weirdos who used to write letters to the president and the president’s science advisor about the things they claimed they could predict or invent and so on.

  • Considering that something like half a million people have stents inserted into blocked arteries in the U.S. every year, this new study is a big deal: lots of those people don’t actually need the stents, and do just as well with aspirin, statins, and some other drugs. As the Times story says, though, other studies have found similar stuff and “previous results have not deterred doctors.” What that means is that industry had so ingrained in docs that implanting a stent was the proper thing to do even in the face of conflicting data. This new one was a big study, though, and well done, so maybe it manages to pierce through the billions of dollars medical device companies are making on the things.

  • Under Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil destroyed roughly three Rhode Island’s worth of Amazon rainforest over the last 12 months, a 30 percent spike from the previous 12 months and the highest total in 11 years. Goddamn I hate when predictions of environmental catastrophe come true.

  • This isn’t science-related, but please join me in pouring one out for Deadspin, possibly the only good website that ever existed, that was recently private equity vulture’d into a smoldering abyss. It sucks incredibly hard. Follow this Twitter account to hear when the very good writers and editors who resigned in protest write stuff for other sites that have not (yet) been private equity venture’d into a smoldering abyss.

notes from [gestures around]

New Zealand just passed a zero-carbon bill! Pretty cool! It has a glaring loophole for methane, a shorter-lived but stronger warming gas than carbon dioxide! Not that cool! Anyway, here’s a giant clumsy pigeon on this island we’re living on for a month.

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