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Editorials The science is clear: anti-vaxxers are immune to the truth

Just do it: A doctor administers a measles vaccine in Switzerland in 2009 after an outbreak of the disease.

Valentin Flauraud/Reuters

It is hard to imagine that parents would throw neighbourhood parties at which children were invited to suck on lollipops dipped in poliovirus, drink water contaminated with typhoid, and pet an Ebola-infected bat. And yet last week the California Department of Public Health felt it necessary to urge people in that state not to hold "measles parties," at which healthy children are exposed to the potentially lethal and highly infectious disease as a "natural" alternative to vaccination.

The hypocrisy of a "measles party" is as rank as its stupidity. The parents who reportedly exposed their children to measles clearly knew that the risks of the disease being fatal were low. There is a minute chance of death if an infected child is well-nourished, over the age of five and has access to good health care.

So why don't they also "naturally" immunize their children against polio by exposing them to that nasty little virus, too? Our bet is that they know from medical science that the odds aren't as favourable. Polio can make its way into the nervous system and do horrible things. The 1 per cent of children struck by the worst symptoms suffer from paralysis and are unable to breathe on their own, and often end up with deformed limbs.

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These same parents are doubtlessly also not planning to expose their children to typhoid as an alternative to the existing vaccine. Typhoid fever lasts for weeks and produces delirium, intestinal haemorrhages and a distended belly, among other horrors.

And, of course, they would never deliberately expose their child to Ebola, which kills half the people it touches. On the other hand, there is no vaccine yet for this disease, but the lucky ones who don't die have been naturally immunized. So there's that to consider, moms and dads of California.

It's all so preposterous. The growing number of American and Canadian parents who refuse to protect their children with the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine know, thanks to medical science, that they are not personally risking much. Their child could develop a nasty rash and a fever, but that is likely to be the worst of it.

But they unforgivingly fail to admit that the very medical knowledge from which they take their licence to act irresponsibly tells them that their non-vaccinated children will likely expose others to measles. Not everyone is well-nourished. Not everyone has a perfect immune system. Not all have access to good health care. In the worst cases, the death rate can be as high as 10 per cent. How parents who won't vaccinate their child can ignore this in good conscience is hard to fathom.

It is also ridiculous that it does not occur to these parents that the medical research that allows them to make the low-risk decision to deliberately expose their child to measles, or to forgo the vaccination for it, is the same information that tells them that the best decision, with far and away the fewest risks, is the one to vaccinate. Multiple studies of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of children given the MMR vaccine have proved its effectiveness and safety.

They also know that all those other horrible diseases that North American children are routinely vaccinated for – typhoid, polio, hepatitis A and B, tetanus, diphtheria and more – are not as forgiving as measles. So they know enough not to wager in favour of a "natural" immunization in those cases. You can bet your last dollar that we will not see outbreaks of polio in the middle-class reaches of the U.S. or Canada, as we have with measles. Parents know the risk too well; it's there in the data, as is the fact that North American polio vaccination rates are as high as they have ever been.

Worst of all, these people refuse to accept the fact that the study in 1998 that linked the MMR vaccine to autism has been exposed as a medical hoax designed to enrich its shady perpetrator. There have been few hoaxes – Piltdown Man? crop circles? – that have been as utterly debunked. The literature is exhaustive. It exists. It is categorical. It cannot be denied. And yet it is unconscionably ignored by anti-vaccination advocates.

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The only things people opposed to vaccinations are immune to are truth and logic. The New England Journal of Medicine was damning in a 2011 editorial after campaigns by "antivaccinationists" had caused a return of whooping cough in California, killing 10 people. "Antivaccinationists tend toward complete mistrust of government and manufacturers, conspiratorial thinking, denialism, low cognitive complexity in thinking patterns, reasoning flaws, and a habit of substituting emotional anecdotes for data," the editorialists wrote.

It is the denialism that is most awful to behold. As Canada's Health Minister, Rona Ambrose, said this week, "Vaccinations are, frankly, miracles of modern medicine. They are saving millions and millions of lives around the world.

"You're putting other children at risk if you don't immunize your child and you send them to school … another child who might be more vulnerable than your own."

In Somalia, the Islamic terrorist group al-Shabaab has banned the polio vaccine in the parts of the country it controls, and it spreads the lie that the vaccine causes AIDS and sterility. As a result of the ban, there is a terrible outbreak of polio. Somalians, though, are less frightened of the terrorists than they are of the disease; the UN says many are ignoring the lies and threats and are trying desperately to get to government-controlled areas in order to vaccinate their children.

Who are we, in this comfortable country, to ignore what people living in dire circumstances know too well? Vaccination is a blessing to be embraced without fear.

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