You’ve probably heard that vaccination is a medical and scientific practice. But if you take a step back you’ll see that it is very much a part of our culture too. Consider the role vaccines play in our lives:
Technology and the Industrial Revolution: Around the time of the Industrial Revolution, Americans became fascinated with the idea that technology could solve all the big problems. It was increasing efficiency in manufacturing, allowing us to have wonderful things like electricity and continues to make our lives better today. We have become enamored with medical technology. The more complex the procedure or device, the more we are in awe of our ability to conquer disease. But a high-tech solution doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Think about it. We have pacemakers, but for most people the solution for heart disease is simply to eat a better diet. We have pharmaceuticals for everything imaginable, but if you listen to the disclaimers for all those drug commercials, you’ll hear that they often come with the risk of cancer or immunocompromisation. Antibiotics were hailed as the promise of a disease free future, only to find that the bacteria are become resistant to them. Pesticides like DDT were thought to eliminate disease by ridding us of insects, but what they were really ridding us of was an ecosystem as they poisoned birds and other wildlife. Are we really trading one illness for another? Vaccines have been the same. We love the idea that some how combining complex technology and science will result in a quick and effective solution, but the reality is that despite all of our high tech solutions, we are sicker than ever before. Yet the dream of using this particular technology to conquer disease holds a powerful sway over our minds and hearts, so much so that we continue to defend it when it does not work. (Technology was conquering disease before vaccination, it was just less romantic: indoor plumbing, sewage treatment, hot tap water and sinks…)
Rites of Passage: Vaccinations mark many of the important events in our life now. When a baby is born, he receives a Hepatitis B shot and several more throughout the first year of his life. Children get a measles booster before kindergarten, the HPV vaccine is recommended for both boys and girls just before the onset of puberty, Boy Scouts are required to have vaccinations before leaving for scout camp, college students are advised to receive the meningitis vaccine the summer before leaving for college, and women are supposed to get the flu shot during pregnancy. We now associate vaccines with significant events in our lives and they have become a ritual that mark rites of passage. I think this is one reason why vaccines have become so culturally important in America. We have so few traditions and rituals left that families and communities perform, but the act of vaccination is a shared experience that we can all relate to and that is one of the reasons that we are so averse to the idea of it being dangerous or ineffective.
Civic Duty: Because vaccination is perceived as being essential to the common good, it has taken on the status of civic duty, much like voting. The culture we have created surrounding vaccination gives us a lot of positive feedback when we vaccinate ourselves or our children. Look at most vaccination campaign advertisements. You will see cute, chubby babies or smiling mothers with a band aid on the arm. The implied message is that if you love your baby, you will vaccinate. It’s a very powerful message. And when someone doesn’t vaccinate, one of the first criticisms that we throw at them is how they are endangering others. If you’ve been reading the posts here on diseases, you know that vaccination has been far less effective than we have been led to believe. One person who doesn’t vaccinate is actually not a danger to others because many vaccinated individuals are actually carrying the diseases they have been vaccinated for and modern sanitation and nutrition eliminated many of the deaths from these diseases before vaccination. This means that vaccination is not a moral or civic duty, but a matter of choice on health matters.
If you want to vaccinate yourself or your children, go right ahead. If you want to believe that it is contributing to the common good, you are entitled to that opinion. But you are not participating in a proven scientific procedure. To a large degree, you are simply participating in a traditional rite of passage.