Imagine for a moment that a scientist has created a preventative vaccine-like shot for all types of cancer. But there’s just one catch: the vaccine carries a minuscule risk (say, one adverse reaction for every 40,000 doses given.) That risk could include anything from febrile seizures to anaphylactic shock. But the vaccine is 95-percent effective. Meaning: if your child gets the shot, they likely will never be affected by cancer.
Would you do it?
My guess is that despite the small risk, most people would wait in line for such a shot. It would be considered a modern-day miracle as it would pretty much wipe out many of the leading killers of children and adults.
Now imagine 100 years into the future, 100 years after such a medical discovery. Imagine your future relatives – relatives who have never lived in an era when pink ribbons and fundraisers for a cure are necessary – refusing the vaccine for their children because they are worried about the risks.
That is exactly how people who lived through the measles and polio epidemics must feel when people refuse vaccines today.
According to the World Health Organization (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/), “one in 200 [polio] infections leads to irreversible paralysis…[and] among those paralyzed, 5 percent to 10 percent die.” That is terrible odds, but in the 1950s, it was inescapable.
According to a Chicago Tribune article by Ron Grossman (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-polio-vaccine-per-flashback-0301-20150228-story.html#page=1) in 1952, there were 58,000 cases of polio in the United States. Of those cases, 145 resulted in death and 21,269 ended in paralysis. KidsHealth (http://kidshealth.org/parent/infections/bacterial_viral/polio.html), however, puts the number of polio deaths that year at 3,000.
Which is why church bells rang in some towns, and newspapers ran large, bold-font headlines, when the polio vaccine, discovered by Dr. Jonas Salk, was determined to be effective.
Currently, WHO (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs114/en/) states that “more than 10 million people are today walking, who would otherwise have been paralyzed [by polio]. An estimated more than 1.5 million childhood deaths have been prevented.”
It’s sometimes hard to appreciate miracles that happen so quietly: 1.5 million children’s lives spared because of one little shot. Had things gone the other way – 1.5 million childhood deaths despite the vaccination – people would be outraged.
This is a phenomenon the police know well. When a city has low crime, people fail to realize it’s the direct result of a well-funded police force. When a city has low crime, people start asking, “Why are we paying for all these police officers anyway? There’s no crime here?” It’s the Head and Shoulders dilemma: You don’t have dandruff; why are you using that?
Vaccinations have “invisible” results. When they are working, no one knows the amount of lives they’ve saved. When they are working, people concern themselves with things like the minuscule amount of adverse reactions caused by them. When polio was at its worst, and thousands of children were dying, people accepted those small risks as necessary to prevent an even greater evil. Today, we have the luxury of worrying about febrile seizures, rashes and other adverse events, because my generation has never known a world with Iron Lungs. Vaccinations are so effective, we fail to understand what our world would be like without them.
This month, a woman in Washington state died of measles. It was the first U.S. death from the disease in 12 years. Some people who are against vaccines said that one death in 12 years was nothing compared to the hundreds of kids who are negatively affected by vaccines every year.
But that’s the whole point of it, isn’t it?
Vaccines have been saving so many lives, the only news to report about them is the handful of adverse reactions. And one solitary death in more than a decade makes startling headlines, the imbalance of which skews people’s perception of risk and probability.
All of my children have been vaccinated. I do it for them, because I know the benefit is greater than the risk, and I do it for all the children who have diseases that prevent them from getting these life-saving shots – children who might die if one of my children passed the measles to them. And if a cure for cancer came out next month, I’d get that for my children, too.
After all, in the 1950s, people worried the polio vaccine would run out before their child could get it. Today, some parents refuse the plentiful and effective vaccine all together. Could you imagine refusing a vaccine for cancer?