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Generational Ignorance On Vaccines Affects Us All

Memo Pad

Generational Ignorance On Vaccines Affects Us All

Photo: Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are displayed on a counter at a Walgreens Pharmacy on January 26, 2015 in Mill Valley, California (AFP/Justin Sullivan)

My parents didn’t fear vaccines. They feared the diseases — whooping cough, measles and polio, among them — that vaccines were meant to prevent. They saw immunizations as a godsend.

They grew up in rural Alabama in an era when medicine had not conquered common and highly contagious diseases that sickened, maimed and sometimes killed. Children and adults were stricken and entire communities assaulted by those plagues.

“I remember a polio scare when churches postponed their revival meetings” for fear that a large gathering might spread the disease, my mother told me. Then there was the time Mom got sick from eating too many fresh but not-quite-ripe plums from a tree in the woods. My grandmother panicked because she thought my mother had contracted polio, Mom remembered.

She didn’t get polio, but she did get the measles. “It was the sickest I’ve ever been. I was burning up with fever,” she recalled.

But our success in fighting those dread diseases has bred complacency. The Internet has fostered ignorance. Junk science has overtaken reason. As a result, parents who ought to know better have refused to immunize their children, and measles, declared eradicated from the U.S. in 2000, is resurgent. Whooping cough is also rebounding.

Humans are odd creatures, and our ability to calculate risks is not one of our strong suits. Remember the Ebola scare, which produced a peculiar contagion: the “freak-outs”? Republicans raged against President Obama; members of Congress wanted to bar West Africans from the country; travelers refused to go to Dallas, Texas, which had experienced exactly one Ebola death.

Measles is far more contagious than Ebola. Measles is airborne; the virus can hang in the air for a couple of hours, so the vulnerable can contract it merely by entering a room where an infected person has been, infectious disease experts say. Worldwide, the most recent outbreak of Ebola has caused about 9,000 deaths so far. Measles, meanwhile, caused about 145,700 deaths worldwide — yes, deaths — in 2013, according to the World Health Organization.

So why doesn’t every American parent get his or her children vaccinated? The vaccine is between 95 and 99 percent effective.

Once upon a time, the science deniers were mostly limited to the paranoid fringe of the ultra-right — the John Birch types who fought fluoridation of water in the 1950s. It’s still true that Republicans, especially the libertarians among them, are more likely to believe the decision to vaccinate should be voluntary, not mandated by government. About one-third of Republican voters hold that view, according to a recent poll by the Pew Center.

But the right-wing skeptics have found unlikely allies on the far left, where “crunchy moms” denounce gluten, swear by cloth diapers and insist that immunizations would do more harm than good. While most Democrats — 81 percent, according to Pew — believe government should require immunizations, ultra-liberal precincts have a high percentage of parents who have opted out of vaccines. Marin County, California, for example, had an opt-out rate that was four times the national average in 2012, according to researchers.

Still, the biggest divide on vaccinations isn’t political; rather, it’s generational. The younger you are, the more likely you are to believe that government should not require immunizations for children. Overall, 68 percent of Americans believe that vaccines should be mandated; 80 percent of people over 65 hold that view, according to Pew. But that drops to just 41 percent among adults 18 to 29 years old.

They haven’t seen what my mother’s generation saw. They’ve not lived with the fear of contagion. They haven’t seen a baby go blind or even die from measles. They’ve never seen a small child wracked by pertussis, which can cause a cough so violent the victim may vomit or faint.

Their ignorance affects us all, and we can’t afford the costs of allowing them to learn those lessons the hard way. If they want to live in a civilized society, they must be required — with very, very few exceptions — to vaccinate their kids.

Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

Photo: Vials of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine are displayed on a counter at a Walgreens Pharmacy on January 26, 2015 in Mill Valley, California (AFP/Justin Sullivan)

Cynthia Tucker Haynes

Cynthia Tucker Haynes, a veteran newspaper journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner, is a Visiting Professor of Journalism and Charlayne Hunter-Gault Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Georgia. She is also a highly-regarded commentator on TV and radio news shows.

Haynes was editorial page editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper for 17 years, where she led the development of opinion policy. More recently, she was that newspaper’s Washington-based political columnist. She maintains a syndicated column through Universal Press Syndicate, which is published in dozens of newspapers around the country. Besides winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007, Haynes has also received numerous other awards, including Journalist of the Year from the National Association of Black Journalists.

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  1. Daniel Jones February 7, 2015

    Bottom line–aren’t we all tired of the *real* percentage of people in this country whose sense of entitlement is going to get many of us sick, injured, and/or killed?
    SPOILER: It’s nothing to do with federal programs or welfare.
    The entitled are the idiots that forget or ignore that their dumbass decisions have dire consequences for the people they try to decide for and everyone in splash range.
    NIMBY. Anti-science heads of Congressional science committees. Heads of Intelligence Committees that spout nonsense and can’t keep classified data secret to save the lives of anyone that data concerns. Crunchy Moms. The lists go on and on.
    And they’re gonna get us killed.

  2. ps0rjl February 7, 2015

    I couldn’t agree more with this article. We grew up without the measles vaccine and if there was one my parents would have marched us all right down to the doctor to get one. By the way this was not when they had micro thin hypodermic needles! The only thing worse than people who are too ignorant to get their kids vaccinated are the ones who are too smart to get their kids vaccinated. Personally I would not allow their kids to go to public school or even a daycare without the vaccination. And please spare me the replies about not trusting Big Pharma or the government. This outbreak is due to ignorance and lack of real knowledge about the dangers of measles. Believe me if you ever had them you would run to get your kids vaccinated.

  3. latebloomingrandma February 7, 2015

    I never thought I would see a “controversy” about vaccines. This is part of the anti-science dumbing down of America. And to hear wishy-washy answers from those in office is pathetic.

    1. Budjob February 8, 2015

      Granny,You are right.For Christ sakes,get the children vaccinated!!

  4. neenta February 7, 2015

    I agree — I’m 70 years old and had measles, mumps, chickenpox, german measles — all the old “childhood diseases”. I knew kids who had polio in the 1955 epidemic — one later died as a result. In a previous generation, I had an uncle who died of diphtheria at age 2. Vaccinations are a good thing. If an individual has a compelling health reason not to, that should be dealt with by medical professionals. As a teacher, I could definitely see the generational divide on this issue.

    1. cthetruth February 7, 2015

      Neenta, Did our generation ever hear about autism and hyperactivity attention deficit disorder or celiac disease or peanut butter allergies etc. Or all the other ill effects we as adults and our children are going through. Healthy skepticism is good, especially when the drug companies and the medical profession are in bed together along with the government. Our generation gave our children a set of DPT vaccines and polio . The were given in intervals and some children still had seizures with this small amount . I can only guess what upwards of 30 shots before age three does to the brain, especially when they contain mercury and MSG which are toxic to the brain. What is the problem with staggering these shots up until the child is school age to err on the side of caution. The majority of parents that have autistic children say their child interacted normally until being given a certain set of shots. Could it be that their immature brains reached a breaking point with these toxins. I trust parents to know their children better than some scientists that are paid of by special interest! Read about all the MSG that is hidden in ALL our food and all the side effects associated with this poison.

      1. tue February 8, 2015

        did you breastfeed your child? if you idid he got over 30 times as much mercury from it as he “might” get from vaccines over his whole childhood

        1. cthetruth February 8, 2015

          Even if I did breast feed, why add to mercury poisoning with other added toxins. All I am saying is that 30 shots are too many too give before the age of three. There is nothing wrong with spacing them out when there is a question of safety. It’s only common sense to err on the side of safety, but too many people think that because the government says it safe that it’s true. And may I ask how you know that breast milk contains 30 times more mercury than 30 vaccines?

          1. Insinnergy February 9, 2015

            Learn to do basic math. Also statistics would be useful.

          2. cthetruth February 9, 2015

            Not worth commenting on!

          3. cthetruth February 10, 2015

            1 in 68 children now come down with Autism. How is that for a sad statistic. All I am saying is stagger those shots, get the toxins by way of coloring, pesticides, antibiotics(which is causing a number of other problems) hormones, MSG, petroleum based products, and let’s not forgot the diseased animals, out of our food and other products. While we are at it get the mercury and MSG used as preservative in vaccines out of them. These comments are all proven to be true just do your homework!

  5. johninPCFL February 7, 2015

    I wonder if the same foolishness pervades the Native American areas? They also were killed by these “childhood diseases”, and in some cases were targeted by the invaders, but that was also long ago. Do they also persist in avoiding vaccinations?
    The good news? Darwin is still correct. The children of those who make these deluded choices are the primary targets of these diseases, and cold science says that some of these choices take them right out of the gene pool.

  6. Wendy February 7, 2015

    I think this article errs when it claims vaccine critics come in part from the far left. This is actually not a political issue at all, and I imagine that in the population of skeptics you will find the same proportions of political affiliations that we have in the general population.

    And in general, if you ask Democrats, they are for government involvement, and if you ask Republicans, they will be against it. That does not tell you a thing about who is a vaccine skeptic, though.

  7. charleo1 February 8, 2015

    While being of the, “older,” generation who can remember polio. And also, the stories my Great Grandmother told me of the brother she lost as child to ‘Lock Jaw.’ (Tetanus.) How he suffered, and the powerlessness of medicine to save him. And the profound effect it had on my Grandmother, some 60 years hence, became a part of a legacy interrupted for younger generations. That said, these Libertarians, and, “Crunchy Moms,” have their reasons for objection to mandatory vaccinations. Not nearly adequate to be sure. But much more defensible than the main stream conversations would have us to believe. So, what of the FDA, and it’s cozy relationship with big pharma. Have they engendered the kind of confidence in the public’s mind that they are truly looking out for us? Or, are they little more than a meaningless rubber stamp for the drug companies to impose on us, anything they can make a dollar on? Whether or not it addicts us, ruins our liver, or may cause everything from heart attacks, to constipation, to erections lasting more than four hours? I actually do believe our gov. agencies owe the public more credibility than they’ve earned. And I hold them at least as culpable as the Right Wing, anti-science, flat Earthers, or the Yuppy Moms in the suburbs. Who are deeply concerned about their children. With autism, dyslexia, and the waters, now muddied, about the side effects of vaccines, and real fear that their gov. in the pockets of corporate writ large, and will not tell them the truth.


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