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This article was published 4/2/2015 (2054 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The recent measles outbreak at the happiest place on Earth has put renewed focus on the anti-vaccination movement. With more than 100 cases in 14 states linked to the Disneyland outbreak -- and four unconnected cases in Toronto -- the vax vs. vax-not sides are trading shots on social media.
Former U.S. secretary of state and new grandmother Hillary Clinton has even injected herself into the fray. "The science is clear," Clinton tweeted. "The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let's protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest."
U.S. President Barack Obama was more blunt about it: "You should get your kids vaccinated."
It's good advice that's going unheeded. Officials in California have determined 28 of the 34 documented cases to date involved people who never got their measles shots.
Measles is a highly contagious disease, and it can be fatal. The World Health Organization says approximately 145,700 people died from measles in 2013, mostly children under the age of five. It's also an entirely preventable disease thanks to routine shots, with doses administered at 12 months and again at age four to six. Many anti-vaxxers argue vaccination is a personal choice. It's not. It's a choice that affects society.
Still, the New York Times reported, a "statistically significant" number of American parents started refusing to vaccinate their children in the past 15 years. Here at home, the Manitoba Immunization Monitoring System annual report for 2012-13 shows complete measles immunization rates for two-year-olds in Winnipeg dropped from 87.1 per cent in 2012 to 79.4 per cent in 2013. Whether the numbers are owed to the anti-vaxx movement or not, they are trending downward.
The Times interviewed a cross-section of anti-vaxxer parents in California, the epicentre of the anti-vaccination movement, where some schools are now falling below the vaccination percentage required for 'herd immunity.' These parents are wealthy, educated and seem to believe an organic, whole-foods diet rich in leafy greens and fish oil is enough to stave off a disease that still kills hundreds of people every year. As Toronto journalist Jeet Heer pithily tweeted: "The anti-vaxx thing is the ultimate First World problem: We're so privileged we'll start reviving long-eradicated diseases."
Though privilege certainly plays a big role in the anti-vaccination ethos, it's fear that is the driving force here -- fear that is often exacerbated by a deep-seated mistrust of The Man in whatever iteration they choose: Big Pharma, the government, medicine in general. It's also a generally accepted fact people fear that which they don't know or understand.
Slate's Jamelle Bouie writes, "while vaccine-anxious parents deserve our empathy, that doesn't mean they can dictate the health of the public." Much like Bouie, I don't believe publicly shaming anti-vaxxers is an effective persuasion tactic if the goal is to see more kids immunized. But I struggle with the empathy piece, especially when anti-vaxxer anxiety manifests in ugly ways. A mother tearfully describing the MMR vaccine in the Times said, "It's the worst shot. Do you want to wake up one morning and the light is gone from her eyes with autism or something?"
There it is: the fear of autism. Like so many other parents, this mother is buying into a persistent myth started by a famous but discredited Andrew Wakefield study from 1998 that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. She's also perpetuating harmful myths about autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Full disclosure: My youngest brother is on the autism spectrum. Trust me, there is plenty of light his eyes.
The pervasive ignorance and fear-mongering about ASD hurts people. Real people with full lives. People who have thoughts, opinions and feelings.
People such as Sarah Kurchak, 32, a freelance writer based in Toronto who has Asperger's syndrome. She says there is a disturbing lack of humanity in this debate. "People on the spectrum are constantly told that we lack empathy (not true) or that we're bad at expressing it (true enough), but when I look at the way neurotypical people behave over issues like this, I wonder, how exactly were we supposed to learn how to behave like an empathetic human when we don't always see it demonstrated well, and we're almost never treated with it?"
Kurchak notes many people's misguided perceptions and fears of ASD are informed by stereotyping from both autism organizations and pop-culture depictions such as "wretched caricature like Big Bang Theory or stories about how sad autism makes normal people like Rain Man." The net result, she says, "only solidifies that lie for the uneducated and unexposed."
Fear as a result of ignorance is not an excuse to use people with ASD as boogeymen in a convenient-theories-for-you argument against vaccination. ASD is not a sentence. It is not a tragedy.
Parents' failure to vaccinate their kids, however, just might be. As Kurchak says, this "completely voluntary behaviour will cost society more than any kid on the spectrum."
Should vaccinations be mandatory? Join the conversation in the comments below.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.
Updated on Wednesday, February 4, 2015 at 5:40 AM CST: Adds photo, adds question for discussion
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