Take Your Communal Medicine

The beginning of a new academic year brings such excitement for students of all ages and, for parents, the promise of a new batch of germs that these students will share with schoolmates and with us. Of course, we will then share them in the workplace. Most of these illnesses will be annoyances rather than anything else. But this is also a good time to talk about vaccination, so let’s get right to it: Think. Learn. Vaccinate your kids.

Our children are our blood. We would do anything to protect them, even at our own risk. But what about our responsibility to safeguard the children of others and to protect society as a whole, specifically by vaccinating our kids and ourselves?

For health professionals, this has got to be an easy decision. We work with vulnerable populations, many of us with children. Measles, to us otherwise healthy adults, might be a bit worse than the common cold. But carry this virus into a susceptible population and “what’s the big deal?” can become “what have we done?”

Overdramatic? Hardly.

Our practices are evidence-based, and evidence has shown that vaccinating as many people as possible in a community produces a “herd immunity” that protects all. A virus, for instance, cannot get a foothold and even the unvaccinated are thus safe. This is the way public health has been conducted in America for as long as many of us can remember. We conquered measles this way, whooping cough, too.

Whooping cough and measles are back, of course, spread as the result of an anti-vaccination movement led by some pretty big names and spurred on by a repeatedly debunked theory about autism that ignores the evidence that we health workers live by. And this is also despite CDC reports that vaccines will have prevented more than 380 million illnesses, 24 million hospitalizations, and nearly 1 million deaths for kids born between 1994 and 2016.

Of course it’s frustrating when the path seems so simple: Vaccinate everybody (aside from those whose immune systems are too fragile). But irritation isn’t the answer, education is—on why it is often in our self-interest to look beyond our door or our personal beliefs to the common good.

Let’s take Ebola. (And remember that polio was once just as scary here in America.)

In some parts of Africa, it is religious custom to anoint and touch the bodies of the deceased as a communal way of celebrating a life, saying goodbye, and guiding the spirit into the next world. We know that skin-to-skin contact with the bodies of those killed by Ebola is often fatal. So in this case it was essential that nurses, doctors, and public health workers cultivate a sense of civic duty among the mourners—to their neighbors, to their families, to themselves—in persuading populations to abandon a holy tradition and stop the disease’s rampage. It is chilling to think, without such acts of civic-mindedness and of course a great deal of leadership by health care workers, of how easily this virus could have jumped to the U.S. and elsewhere as a full-blown pandemic.

There’s now a vaccine for Ebola. Would you take it? Would you inoculate your children?

Now, about those measles shots …

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