Damn Good Reasons

There’s a damn good reason we don’t hear about kids dying of smallpox anymore.

See also: measles.

See also: polio.

See also: any number of the huge list of diseases becoming eradicated by vaccines.

If you were to condense the entirety of the history of the world down to one hour and see everything in-between the Big Bang and the present day on the face of a clock, humans would only have been introduced at 11:58:43. Less than two minutes ago.

And that is the entirety of human existence on earth by the way. So you and I have been here for less than a millisecond. It is only in the past few decades (or last few seconds), that an essential part of the human experience has faded from our memory.

Throughout history, countless numbers of diseases ravaged civilisations, destroyed cultures, and brought empires crumbling to the ground in a spectacular display of pestilence and anguish. So why is it, that in these last few seconds of time, have we forgotten the terrors that befell our ancestors?

“Vaccines are a victim of their own success,” Dr Gregory Zimet tells me, “There is limited societal memory for the horrors associated with outbreaks of polio, smallpox, measles, influenza, etc.”

I have been talking to Dr Zimet via email about vaccine hesitancy. As Professor of Pediatrics and Clinical Psychology at Indiana University, Dr Zimet knows what he is talking about. His eight or more years of training have ensured that when he speaks about this issue you can trust that he has the education to back it up. Unfortunately, it is not always the well-educated, knowledgable, highly trained individuals who are outspoken about these issues.

“What the fuck am I getting my kids vaccinated for an old ass disease like measles?” Dave Chapelle asks the audience, trademark look of bemusement crossing his face as he recalls his experience of seeing the word ‘Measles’ on the front page of the New York Times and having to check what century he had awoken to that day.

The audience laugh. They clap, they cheer. Dave waxes lyrical about diarrhoea before moving onto new territory. Just like that.

The audience claps.

The audience cheers.

Big laughs all round.

Most of them have entered the space in a shared understanding that this is a comedy show. There is an unspoken contract between performer and spectator to know that what is being watched and performed is a routine, and Dave is playing a character. But maybe there’s a few people sitting at home watching the Netflix special. They’ve put their kids to bed, they’ve eaten dinner, they’ve checked the calendar and seen there’s a doctor’s appointment tomorrow. Little Billy needs his vaccinations.

Dave comes on and asks a question like that. Mummy turns to Daddy, they look at one another and nod, Daddy goes online and types in, “are vaccinations necessary?”

A page comes up in the search results. It’s so fresh, so clean, green with a leafy icon and multiple white-toothed, hair-styled, attractive people smiling out through the screen, urging the readers to live a natural life of smashed avocado on gluten-free toast.

Superfoods! Vitamins! Supplements! Avocados!

And amongst it all, the simmering anti-vaccination rhetoric crouches and creeps like a mangy street dog, spreading its fleas amongst the pristine-looking best in show contestants at Crufts.

Dave Chapelle is not a stupid man, but what he said was stupid. There’s a damn good reason we think of polio and instantly conjure up old-timey images of frail children in iron lungs, black and white footage of children dragging their twisted legs along the ground with clunky clutches, wheelchairs that are heavier than a fridge creaking forward as the gaunt arms of an eight-year-old girl try to move the wheels.


Vaccines are, without a doubt, the biggest scientific advancement in the history of human society. The Centre for Disease Control estimate that vaccines prevent roughly 2.5 million deaths each year. New vaccinations are constantly being developed too. Within our lifetime it is likely there will be a vaccine to prevent malaria, a disease that has likely caused around half of all human deaths since the beginning of recorded human history.

So why then, do we have people in positions of relative power such as Dave Chapelle, Pauline Hanson, even President Trump, speaking out against vaccines, or at least speaking critically of vaccines?

I understand that Chapelle was performing a routine, I understand that comedy is a different beast to making a political statement, but these words are dangerous. This topic is one that requires careful consideration from any person who is in possession of the sort of responsibility celebrities, politicians and influencers have to the public.

When I met with Catherine Hughes, whose baby died of pertussis in 2015, she said something that has stuck with me. I had just started researching this topic and was interested to get her view on the comments Pauline Hanson had made not too long before.

“We have politicians like Pauline Hanson who say things like, ‘do your own research’,” she says, pausing and raising her hands in disbelief before scoffing and continuing, “and I sort of think, ‘with what laboratory?’ you know? Like, where? Parents don’t have the capabilities to do actual scientific research, all we can really do is Google things and chat to our friends.”

Catherine is right. Billy’s parents might watch Dave’s standup special and head online, but where do they go? Do they go to a peer-reviewed journal with numerous citations and multiple credible sources? Or do they go to the university of Google and the ‘studies’ shared on Facebook?

Someone who sees this on a daily basis is ReasonableHank blogger, Pete, who never gave me a second name. His blog collects anti-vaxxer comments and preserves them in an attempt to highlight their logical flaws and contradictions.

“I call them cult-like as a community,” he told me during a phone interview., “They are the same as conspiracy theorists, and they pull people in just like a cult with their misinformation paraded as facts about a healthy lifestyle being an alternative to immunisation.”

Pete laughs before asking me if I had heard the quote about the pants. I haven’t a clue what he is talking about.

“A lie can travel the world six times before the truth has had time to put its pants on,” he says, laughing again, “I think the quote used to be ‘twice around the world’, but the internet has sped it up a bit.”

People believe they can do their own research on topics such as vaccination and actually come out at the end of their two hours of surfing the web well educated. I have been researching this topic for months, talking to multitudes of people many levels of intelligence higher than me, and I feel as though I know less about this vastly complicated subject than ever.

I don’t want people to assume that I am calling anti-vaxxers stupid. They are not a group of idiots as some people designate them. There are some with high levels of education and intelligence, but they still come to these conclusions in a strange Dunning-Kruger effect that affects all levels of intellect. It results in comments from anti-vaccination activists like Brittany Kara that go like this:

“My children have been raised on organic, non-GMO foods and superfoods since they were in utero. Each day my goal is to minimize their toxic exposure and to ensure the best possible nutrition for them, which leads to very healthy bodies. Healthy bodies have the ability to handle communicable diseases.”

Superfoods! Vitamins! Supplements! Non-GMO foods! Goddamn avocados!

The quote is taken directly from a blog by Kara, who writes about the dangers of each vaccine preventable disease and uses her eight years of medical training to prove that they pose no threat in modern society.

Oh wait. No she doesn’t. Because she doesn’t have any medical training.

She is not, however, uneducated. Both she and her husband have degrees in other areas, but she has gone out and ‘researched’ the issue for herself and formed an opinion that comes from “watching documentaries, and reading books such as Dissolving Illusions, Vaccine Epidemic, and Immunization: The Myth Behind the Reality.” Which is absolutely the same thing as eight years of medical school. That’s why everyone is on a Doctor’s salary.

Of course, Billy’s parents could be different, they could go out of their way to find viewpoints that challenge their own, but I can’t help but doubt how much that actually happens. We’re all guilty of it. We find an article that confirms what we already believe and that is where we stop looking for information.

There is so much ambiguity in life we cannot hope to ever fully comprehend, but the internet and people in positions of power aren’t helping by reducing this topic down to click-bait articles, headlines, poorly written copy, and jokes.

There’s a damn good reason we don’t see these diseases anymore. We, as a society, have defeated these behemoths with our collective knowledge. Is there any more of a David and Goliath story than humankind essentially eradicating smallpox?

See also: polio.

See also: measles.

See also: hopefully soon, malaria and the zika virus.

Maybe it isn’t until you have seen a loved one suffering from a preventable disease, as Catherine and Greg Hughes had to when baby Riley was gasping for air through fits of red-faced coughs, that you fully understand the importance of vaccines. But who would ever want that? Certainly not me, but I worry that there are people out there who do not understand the importance of their words. People like Pauline Hanson and Dave Chapelle who may or may not believe what they say and underestimate the potential effect they might have on vaccine hesitant individuals.

But perhaps I am overestimating the effect these people can have. When I spoke to Associate Professor Julie Leask from the University of Sydney, she warned me of the complexities of vaccine refusal regarding the influence of the media.

“Not vaccinating comes from a complex web of causal factors,” she wrote, “different commentary can have different impacts.”

“So do you think prominent figures should be more careful when speaking about this issue?” I typed. Professor Leask replied only minutes later.

“People can and will comment on vaccines and vaccination rates whether we like it or not, most will not have 100% knowledge, even doctors.”

“They are entitled to do so in a democracy, but freedom comes with responsibility.”

It’s not just people in the spotlight that share that responsibility either. We all share the same societal duty to share correct information, information that can be backed up and proven, i.e. facts. Billy’s Mum talking to other mothers at Billy’s footy training about a friend of a cousin of the woman who does the post-game drinks having a child who might have turned autistic because of an unspecified vaccine? That isn’t research I’m afraid.

Billy’s Dad sharing an article on Facebook, written by a man who refers to himself as ‘the guru of healthy living’, writing on a website that is nothing more than an advertisement for his very own brand of supplements, vitamins, and yoga DVD’s, is not responsible information sharing.

Critical thinking is a skill that anti-vaccination activists claim to hold in the highest regard, but they are also some of the worst researchers and sharers of information out there. As Dr Bronwyn Harman from Edith Cowen University told me, “Non-vaxxers are typically very well-read; many of them research vaccinations in a lot of depth. The problem is that, firstly, many of them are reading the wrong information, and secondly, they think they are being duped by Big Pharma.”

It is our responsibility to understand this. To understand that even though Sally’s Mum from little Billy’s footy training tells you vaccines cause autism doesn’t make it so. Minimal research will tell you that the paper was redacted, that Wakefield had his medical licence revoked, and that the paper was proved to be fraudulent.

Even though we might see an article on Facebook saying the DTaP vaccine is actually giving children whooping cough which then tells you to ‘click through if you want to find out the horrifying truth’ (but only after fifty pages of supplement adverts), we need to research it properly. We unfortunately live in a time that allows for falseness to spread like a yuppy heir to millions with unlimited free flights on Daddy’s private jet, all whilst the truth is still getting that first leg through it’s pants so it can head to the airport.

“It is important to fight fear and falsehood with accurate information,” Dr Zimet tells me when I ask what people can do to prevent anti-vaccination sentiments growing, “vaccines are not 100% safe, but nothing in life is 100% safe. Getting out of bed in the morning can be risky–you could trip on a shoe and hit your head on the bed frame. One thing that is definitely true is that getting vaccinated is safer than not getting vaccinated.”

These last few seconds of our existence have proved something about vaccines, something that if researched properly, with a critical eye, will hopefully ensure that vaccine hesitant individuals continue to live on as the clock keeps ticking.

There’s a damn good reason we don’t see children dying of these diseases anymore, and it sure as hell isn’t smashed avocado and vitamin supplements.