At the time the British government announced the Longitude Prize, shipwrecks were a grave problem – many people died, ships and cargo were lost. It was decided that a reward in the form of what would be millions in today's dollars should be given to the person who devised a method by which a ship's longitude could reliably be determined – making accurate navigation possible.
Ultimately, the prize was successful. Many lives were saved. Faced as we are now with alarming outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, we need a similar competition.
Who, 50 years ago, would ever have imagined we'd need to promise a reward to the person able to persuade wealthy, educated parents to do this small thing for their own children – of whom they seem quite fond – and for those who come into contact with those children, about whom one hopes they'd give a damn.
Yet here we are. There are schools in the wealthiest parts of Los Angeles where the vaccination rate is on a par with that of South Sudan – fashionable tinder boxes of measles waiting to go up. Pertussis (the far-less-fun-than-it-sounds "whooping cough") is making a dramatic comeback.
"Why don't we just explain all that?" a contestant in the competition will likely propose. "That, even if vaccines did involve a slight risk of, say, autism – and then we present the multiple studies that prove they don't – they'd still be better than returning to a time when mothers named a child Henry, and that would be their third Henry."
The Board of Seriously, People, You Went To College, Do You Just Hate Children?, established to administer the prize, would reject this solution.
"A study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics journal showed that, even when educational efforts 'successfully reduced misperceptions that vaccines cause autism,' it 'nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate,' " the board's chair would have to say. "Yeah, decreased. And have you seen the Internet? You disprove one theory, they come up with 10 new reasons not to vaccinate. Call in the next contestant."
An infectious-disease specialist armed with meticulous research makes a sober presentation. She quotes Roberto Cattaneo, a molecular biologist at the Mayo Clinic who has spent 30 years studying measles, which he calls "the most transmissible virus we know." She leans authoritatively on the chair's desk, and speaks to him directly. "Let me make my case to parents," she pleads.
She leaves. Two hours later, she pops her head in the door and explains that, had she been infected with measles, the virus would still be alive on every surface in the room she'd touched and in the room's airspace. "Nine out of 10 of those without immunity in this room would already be infected," she says "And that ends my presentation."
"They'll just say they're protecting their kids with kale and organic hand sanitizer," a nutritionist on the board says with a sigh. "People put a lot of faith in raw food and lavender."
An accountant, an immigration lawyer and a rabbi make an interesting joint presentation; many parents are requesting exemptions where vaccines are mandatory.
Getting these exceptions is a drag, as parent things can be, but it's not unlike registering your child for a somewhat exclusive soccer league. And so they present their creation: Together they've crafted an exemption process so arduous it would make requesting an exemption the emotional and time-consuming equivalent of filing your taxes, earning your citizenship and converting to Judaism.
"You think this will discourage them?" a member of the board asks. "It'll just give them more to blog about." And the accountant, the immigration lawyer and the rabbi leave, disappointed, before walking into a bar.
The next applicant enters with a swagger. "Even before Wakefield's autism-vaccination study was withdrawn and he was struck from the medical register, his methodology was suspect. Anyone making a choice about vaccinating their child based on the work of a disgraced gastroenterologist might just as well be counting on alchemy to bankroll that kid through university.
"However, my own research" – here he tables a stack of documents and a plastic bottle – "suggests people like things from Fiji. Couldn't we just say that vaccines come from Fiji?"
"Doctors should keep giving vaccines in their offices, but we should have another vaccine for our target group. It'll be just like the regular vaccine, but, instead of explaining to people you can't give the vaccine to children under 12 months old, we tell them there's a year-long wait list, an interview process and that they'll need letters of recommendation from prior graduates in Not Dying From a Completely Preventable Illness. Tell them the vaccine's admission board will want to see little Skyler play the theremin. Whatever you call this place, put the word 'Einstein' in the name. Maybe try 'Einstab.' "
"Call them artisanal vaccines," someone suggests.
Selling vaccines in Mason jars is considered.
"Make vaccines an off-menu item, like the doctor's receptionist will think you're really cool if you ask for it," a sociologist recommends, adding, "Can we get that bee guy involved? 'Burt's Preventative Medicine.'"
"Tell them measles contain gluten," the suggestion is made. "They'll line up around the block."
A number of time machines will be invented – capable of transporting people back to the days when childhood death was a way of life. The best of these machines is made from an old iron lung, but still the board – while impressed with the technology – rejects it as ineffective in the face of vaccine resisters who are employing the same part of the human brain that once caused people to say, "It's okay. I know what I'm doing. I drive better when I'm drunk."
The Chamber of Perpetual Misery, an invention capable of making its occupant instantly feel exactly what it's like to be up at 4 a.m., and pacing a second mile, with a screaming, desperately sick baby, is similarly dismissed.
"The phrase 'I have a right to make the choice that's right for my family' is being wielded like a magical incantation," a board member explains. "Apparently, it includes the right to bring back nightmarish illnesses once thought eradicated."
I imagine the only invention that could actually win the prize is Polio 2.0. Although that may be wishful thinking on my part.