Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Paul Offit

I first heard about Deadly Choices on the facebook fan page of The Jenny McCarthy Body Count, a website that documents the increasing spread of vaccine-preventable diseases thanks to McCarthy's (and a number of others') false claims that childhood vaccinations cause autism and other illnesses. As someone who has spent an excessive amount of time reading books on diseases (I read about smallpox after learning about a missionary who died of it during VBS as a small child, and the obsession continues), including both scientific and social histories of the same, I tend to be a fan of vaccines. A better way to put this is that I'm a fan of not dying of preventable disease. I am also not a fan of getting sick when I don't have to. I'm 100% vaccinated against everything I can possibly get a shot for, including the influenza that so many people my age skip because they think it's unnecessary (it was a struggle to not mock Matt and his friends when they caught it and were miserable for days).

I had a few formative experiences with vaccine-preventable diseases that have shaped my opinion on this subject. When I was in first grade (so, six and seven years old), I managed to contract chicken pox, influenza, and rotavirus in the same year. This was in 1991 and 1992, so the vaccines for rotavirus and chickenpox didn't exist yet, and influenza vaccines weren't generally given to school-aged children. I wound up missing a month of school, all told. Had I been born five or six years later, I could have avoided all three of them.

The flu was the least bad of the three, even though I recall being pretty miserable. I'm one of those people who hallucinates when they have high fevers, so any illness involving those is going to suck no matter what. Chicken pox fell in the middle of awfulness, but it was orders of magnitude worse than the flu. I had those freaking pox in my hair. My most vivid memory of that week-and-a-half was feebly scratching my head against the car upholstery, desperately trying to relieve the itching without actually scratching. My sister still has scars from it. Worst of all was the rotavirus. I became so ill that I spent a week in the hospital, hooked up to IV fluids. Torturous boredom on top of being sick as a dog? No, thanks. I consider myself lucky that I was born in the United States. Rotavirus still kills half a million children a year, mostly in developing countries, and if I had been born in one of those countries, I could very well be dead right now. It's a sobering thought, and it's not one that a rising number of people in the United States are having.

Deadly Choices traces the evolution of the anti-vaccine movement, which is as old as vaccines themselves. Apparently, people protested against getting vaccinated against smallpox because they believed that it would give them a mental defect that would cause them to behave like a cow, or that they contained the seed of Satan and other impurities (seriously), or they simply didn't understand how they worked and objected to public health officials having the temerity to demand that they protect their children from a potentially fatal disease. Those of us who are familiar with the American anti-vaccine movement are all too aware that there is nothing new under the sun. Now we get to hear about how vaccines cause autism (they don't, and even if they did, the attitude that a dead child is superior to an autistic one is, frankly, completely fucking appalling), how they are contaminated with lead, mercury, formaldehyde, anti-freeze (nope), and that injecting vaccines into children weakens their immune systems, and that risking death from any number of illnesses is the preferable course of action. Offit does an excellent job debunking these ridiculous assertions, among a number of others. Deadly Choices is very informative in that respect; not only does it show the history of the anti-vaccine movement, it also presents counter-arguments to use against its proponents.

The crux of the issue, that Offit points out, is that parents generally have the ability to inflict whatever idiotic medical opinions they have on their children with no repercussions whatsoever-- and that the trend in favor of allowing "philosophical" exemptions to vaccine mandates will only continue. He believes that the only thing that can change the minds of these parents is diseases like whooping cough, diptheria, and the mumps coming back and killing a whole bunch of children, which will cause them to re-evaluate their priorities. Unfortunately, in the meantime, children who can't get vaccines because they're too young or have health conditions that preclude vaccination and rely on herd immunity are becoming increasingly at risk, right alongside otherwise healthy, unvaccinated children. I firmly believe that the right to "philosophically" exempting one's kids from the greatest public health achievement of the twentieth century ends when your choices start to get other peoples' kids killed. And I don't think anyone should die because their parents made stupid medical decisions for them. Children are people, not property, and have the right to not die needlessly over their parents' ideological beliefs about medicine.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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