TCS Daily

Overmatching the Gods

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 19, 2004 12:00 AM

"Against stupidity," Friedrich Schiller wrote, "the very gods themselves contend in vain."

The world is full of examples of this phenomenon, but today I'm going to mention just one: the wave of anti-vaccination sentiment that has led to the reappearance of pertussis, a disease that once seemed old-fashioned, but that now, thanks to stupidity (and a helping hand from avarice), is back in style.

Pertussis, also known as "whooping cough," was nearly eliminated by vaccination. Now it's back, and we see numerous reports like this:

OMAHA, Neb. -- An Omaha mother says her baby died from an illness many thought modern medicine had conquered. Baby Immanuel died May 11 of pertussis, better known as whooping cough. He was not yet 1 month old.

Or this:

Public health officials today continued trying to find people who might have come into contact with students at two Columbia schools who have contracted whooping cough.

One student each at Grant Elementary School and Smithton Middle School have been diagnosed with the highly contagious bacterial disease that's indicated by severe coughing, the health department said.

Or this:

State officials are asking doctors to be alert for cases of pertussis, which is on the rise in southeastern Wisconsin and caused a big outbreak in Fond du Lac County last year.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is ahead of last year's pace in the city and county of Milwaukee.. . . "We're not seeing epidemic, but the trend is increasing numbers of cases since the first of the year," said Paul Biedrzycki, the Milwaukee Health Department's manager of disease control and prevention.

Or, for that matter, this:

BELLINGHAM, Wash. - About 15 students in Bellingham, Wash., have come down with whooping cough - a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes severe episodes - in the past month.

All of these stories appeared during the past week. Why is whooping cough back? The main reason is that fewer people are getting vaccinated. And when that happens, not only are those people themselves at risk, but so are others -- like the infant in the first example, who was too young to be vaccinated, and who was likely exposed by someone who had not had the vaccine.

But why are fewer people getting vaccinated? After all, as this report by William Hoyt notes, it's a pretty rotten disease, and it can be deadly:

Neither the common nor the Latin name give any indication that the hacking cough and haunting whoop are often followed by vomiting. Nor does either name indicate that this distressing paroxysmal phase can last up to four weeks, and that this phase, in which the victim most clearly needs constant assistance, cruelly is also the phase in which this deadly disease is the most highly contagious. Since highly and deadly are relative terms, I should tell you that pertussis infections occur in 70 to 100 percent of all unimmunized household contacts that have been exposed to an infected person (CDNANZ 1997). In 1931, before immunization, pertussis was responsible for 1.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales (Research Defence Society 1999).

It's not the Bubonic Plague, but it's nothing you want. So what gives? Why did people abandon the vaccine?

The short answer is media hysteria and alternative-health shysterism. As Hoyt reports, dubious studies were seized on by anti-vaccination activists (described by Hoyt as "religious groups whose opposition was based on religious or moral grounds. . . [and] followers and practitioners of homeopathy, chiropractic, and natural and alternative medicine.") Those groups discouraged vaccination with scare stories, and the media picked up isolated cases of vaccine side-effects and -- by drawing a lot of attention to them, while paying little or no attention to the vaccine's benefits -- left people more afraid of the vaccine than the disease.

The result is that large numbers of people -- mostly children -- who might have stayed healthy have instead sickened and sometimes died. This is because some people were crazed, or dishonest, or hysterical, and others were stupid enough to believe them. (And it's not just in America and the West, or with whooping cough: Africa is facing a resurgence of polio as Islamic leaders encourage a boycott based on conspiracy theories.)

But there's plenty of blame for stupidity to go around, because in our world peddling quackery and scare stories is far safer than making drugs or vaccines that save lives. Drugmakers get sued for defective products; "activists" and sensational journalists do not.

If I were to start a drug company, and peddle a drug with no more evidence of its safety and efficacy than anti-vaccine activists and their media allies had to peddle their approach, and if as many people were made sick, or killed, as a result, I'd probably be in jail now. So where's the accountability for the people whose bogus claims and hysterical coverage led to this situation? Nowhere in sight. With that sort of an incentive structure, we're lucky that we're not in worse shape. Thank God...


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