It's Time to Get Stuck Up!

The beginning of the semester represents many things. The end of summer, for instance, the beginning of a new adventure in your academic career (something that is either met with a sense of excitement or a sense of dread), and perhaps most importantly, the very first beginnings of flu season (ugh). A college campus is the perfect environment for the spread of all manner of diseases; I won’t spend too long reminding you of all the places germs hide on campus, like the large and sometimes poorly ventilated lecture halls, the finger print coated communal desks in the library, the exhausted, stressed, and sniffling classmate sitting directly behind you who will not allow illness to prevent them from going to class so long as they maintain the physical ability to drag themselves from bed... you get the idea. College is a veritable war zone for your immune system. If only there was a way to protect yourself from potential invaders before you get sick during finals… oh wait…

Despite our many painstaking efforts to get everything possible out of our classes, many collegiates will fail to take this same level of care in looking after their own health and will fail to get a flu shot this fall. Some simply forget, some are put off by the thought of being pricked by a needle, and most concerningly, there are those who are suspicious of the vaccine itself. I cannot count the number of times I have heard the excuse, “The only time I ever got the flu was after I got the flu shot”. Comments like this, especially coming from otherwise well-informed individuals, lay the foundation for the hysteria and misinformation which causes parents to not vaccinate their children against deadly diseases.

The theory behind vaccines is exceedingly easy to understand. Simply put, dead or seriously weakened bacteria and viruses which are known to cause disease are introduced to an individual via a vaccine. Upon introduction to the body, the immune system recognizes the contents of the vaccine as foreign, and triggers a mild response and increase in white blood cells. During this time, the body destroys the invaders and takes note of its characteristics such as size and shape in order to form a strategy for dealing more efficiently with the same unwelcome guests in the future. By providing your body with greater information, you are protecting yourself against future infection and illness.

The idea of vaccines is not something so abstract that it can only be understood by individuals with high levels of education. So why is it that so many people, especially people of reasonable levels of education living in one of the richest countries in the world, are now becoming so averse to this technology that has been in use and progress for over 200 years? The answer lies in the privileges medical certainty has provided recent generations. Every year there are fewer and fewer remaining individuals who remember the horrors of children crippled and killed by polio, or ravaged by typhoid fever. As a society, our collective memory is incredibly short, people have already forgotten the wonder and joy that filled people who no longer had to fear losing multiple children to diseases that we no longer think much about.

The suffering of the past is quickly forgotten during times of prosperity, and it is short sightedness that have caused many parents to turn against “Big Pharma” (vaccines are actually one of the least profitable medications a pharmaceutical company can manufacture, but we won’t go into that now) and “return” to a more “natural” approach to immunity. What many of these wealthy suburban families fail to remember is that nature is often not very kind; there’s a reason the phrase “survival of the fittest” exists. Back in the day, “naturally” building a child’s immune system involved getting sick and hopefully surviving without too many complications of the illness. I do not believe there are any loving parents who are willing to lose children in the hopes of becoming more natural. While there can be many benefits to living more naturally, allowing nature to take its course immune system of a child is the wrong way to go about it.

Ironically, it is due to widespread vaccinations that many Anti-Vaxxers are able to shout against common sense and science by relying on “herd immunity”. Herd immunity is the phenomena where the spread of infectious diseases to those who are vulnerable and/or unprotected is stopped due to the overall level of immunity found within a given population (a disease cannot spread if through a population if the individuals cannot get sick).

If this strategy sounds tenuous, it’s because it is. For one thing, herd immunity only works in preventing diseases that are passed primarily through contact with infected individuals, this means that unvaccinated individuals are still able to be infected with bacteria like tetanus, which is found on rusty objects and in soil, despite the immunity of surrounding individuals. Another issue with herd immunity, is that it only works if a large enough proportion of the population is vaccinated. We have already seen the devastating effects of the failure of herd immunity around the country in small, rural, and generally conservative pockets, where the resurgence of diseases such as measles cause great concern.

Finally, perhaps the most serious issue with Anti-Vaxxers’ reliance on herd immunity is the effect it has on those who have no choice but to rely on herd immunity for survival. It is both selfish and irresponsible for Anti-Vaxxers to refuse to vaccinate their otherwise healthy children when there are immuno-compromised individuals who, being medically unable to receive vaccines, may be unable to fight off a disease such as the Chicken Pox. Is a parent’s desire to “be more natural” or fear of a debunked theory that vaccines cause autism really worth more than the lives of cancer patients, the elderly, and newborns? I don’t think so.

We have a duty as citizens to remain well informed, rather than mindlessly accepting fake science and superstition while sitting in a position of privilege. Our responsibility as collegiates extends further, we have been given the gift of education and need to use it to better our community. Although getting a flu shot while you are young, strong, and in college may not seem as dire as a parent choosing not to vaccinate their child against the Measles, remember that your choice can, in all except the rarest of cases, protect you against a specific strain of virus as well as help protect the overall health of the community.

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