Missing the point

I finally got around to reading The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin last week. It’s a pretty good roadmap of how we got where we are, from the crude beginnings of deliberate infection to today’s controversies. There were a couple quotes that really stood out to me, though, and struck me as examples of taking things for granted.

From page 19–“And because I live in a country where the norm is vaccine, I can delay my vaccines.” In short, I don’t have to because everyone else does.

At an individual level, this is fairly true because of herd immunity–the more people who are vaccinated, the harder it is to spread, giving protection even to those who haven’t gotten vaccinated. A single person delaying or skipping a shot isn’t likely to seriously affect anything. The problem is when those individual choices add up. It’s kind of like voting–a single person’s choice isn’t going to really affect the outcome most of the time, but it’s the aggregate of everyone’s individual choices that determine the outcome. It would be like not voting because your riding is ‘safe’ for your preferred candidate. If enough people come to that conclusion, then ze might not get enough votes to win even though ze is who most people want to win.

The second quote comes near the end of the book, on page 273–“I believe our nation can tolerate a certain percentage of unvaccinated children without risking the overall public health in any significant way.”

Sadly, this second quote comes not from a random parent, but from one Dr. Sears, who has written several books, including The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child where he promotes an alternative schedule. In other words, this quote comes from someone people listen to. While again, his statement is true, it’s missing the point somewhat. He’s not able to determine which children will or will not get their shots on the recommended schedule on a large scale (which would at least let him control the uptake rate to keep uptake high enough to protect herd immunity), but he IS able to affect choices on the individual level, which is the more dangerous one for him to be influencing because of how the aggregate of those individual choices can drop the uptake rate until outbreaks can happen.

Both of these quotes count on a high rate of vaccination to justify delaying shots–others use the same reasoning to opt out entirely. And the more people who follow this train of thought, the less true it becomes. It’s a self-defeating prophesy.

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