Polio returns, thanks to anti-vaccination zealots

If ever you want evidence of the harm that fundamentalist and altie beliefs can do, look no further than Africa and Asia, where polio has returned with a vengeance, thanks to the efforts of anti-vaccination zealots and fundamentalist Islamic preachers. Skeptico and Universal Acid have already ably commented about the resurgence of polio in the Third World, and, of course, Peter Bowditch has been constantly refuting the distortions of anti-vaccine kooks for years, but I feel the need to chime in once again. I agree that we shouldn't feel too superior here in the West. As Skeptico puts it:

We shouldn’t feel too smug though: the West has its own anti-vaxers who also rely on ignorance to oppose such proven solutions. These range from quacks such as Naturopaths to celebrity idiots like Bill Maher. Whatever its source, it results in unnecessary suffering. Polio is a horrible crippling disease that has been eliminated in the Western world.

But whether polio will remain eliminated is now open to question. I had thought that anti-vaccination zealotry was a byproduct of wealth and so many years of vaccination success that have virtually eliminated once dreaded diseases like polio and smallpox. People no longer fear these diseases enough to vaccinate their children or believe that their children are vulnerable to them, even without vaccination. In this sort of background, reports that exaggerate the very small risks of vaccination, such as alties who push a non-existent vaccine-autism link, lead people who don't understand the concept of herd immunity and have never seen anyone they know come down with the disease to be vaccinated against conclude that even the tiny risks of vaccination are too high to protect against what they believe to be a (now) nonexistent disease. (Of course, recent studies have utterly failed to find any such link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, but that never stopped the alties.) However, it's clear that, even in poor countries, where preventable diseases cause considerable suffering and death, where the populace has the most to gain from aggressive vaccination programs, anti-vaccination hysteria can take root. Also, given the increasing mobility of even populations from the Third World, we can't just sit back in the U.S. and consider ourselves safe. Vaccination (or lack thereof) anywhere in the world where there are people who wish to come to the U. S. should be of concern to us, as travel between nations could allow polio or other previously "eradicated" diseases to gain a foothold here if we let our vaccination rates fall too low.

In poor countries in Africa and Asia, it is not so much "New Age" or naturopathic beliefs that fuel pseudoscientific alarmism against vaccines as they do in much of the Western world, but rather paranoid conspiracy theories postulating that vaccination is part of a U.S. plot against Muslims, usually taught by fundamentalist preachers One such myth claims that the vaccines are intentionally contaminated with anti-fertility chemicals that would leave their children sterile or (in another version) infect them with AIDS, all as a part of a plot to depopulate the developing world. But these sorts conspiracy myths are not unique to Muslims; various Christians push them as well, although the ends of the plots are usually more concerned with privacy issues. Sometimes, they claim that the Bible itself states that vaccination is against God's will, even likening it to witchcraft. One particularly disturbing example by Dr. Leonard Horowitz seems to be arguing that, because vaccinations prevent the weakest from from dying from disease, it is somehow interfering with "natural evolution" and God's will and thereby weakening the population and contributing to epidemics of disease. Remove the word "God" from the sentence and replace it with "nature," and you have an argument that is starting to get uncomfortably close to the Nazi justification for euthanizing those whom they termed "worthless eaters" or "life unworthy of life" (the mentally retarded, the schizophrenic, etc.). The only major difference is that Dr. Horowitz is not proposing actively killing those who can't hack it as far as the "survival of the fittest" goes, although he certainly does appear to be advocating not even trying to protect them from diseases that could kill them. (That hardly seems consistent with a concept of Christians showing compassion to the sick, as Jesus did.)

If, according to Dr. Horowitz, vaccination is wrong because it interfere's with God's will and His plan for natural evolution, then I have to ask him: How can he justify any aggressive treatment of the sick? After all, according to him, it is God's will that they got sick in the first place, isn't it? If they get a disease, it must be God's will. Presumably they will then either live or die, depending upon God's will. Horowitz's rationale seems to be that preventing disease allows the "unfit" to escape God's "natural selection," but if God is all-powerful (as I'm sure Horowitz would consider Him), then nothing man could do could thwart His will, could it? None of the "unfit" could escape, no matter how clever humans were at creating vaccines, could they? Horowitz seems to be saying that man can thwart God's will with vaccines; but making that argument seems to presuppose that God is not all-powerful, that His will can be thwarted by man. His handwaving that "epidemics" and resistant organisms are a smokescreen. If God is omnipotent, He shouldn't have need of such indirect actions; He could simply prevent the vaccines or antibiotics from ever working, so that His will is never thwarted. If even one "unfit" person were, through vaccination, to escape God's will that he or she contract a disease and die, then that would mean either that God failed to prevent humans from thwarting His will in this one case or that it is His will that the person saved by vaccination should not get the disease vaccinated against. Dr. Horowitz can't have it both ways, although I'm sure the inconsistency does not trouble him.

That logical inconsistency aside, how could preventing disease be against God's will for evolution and treating disease not be against God's will? We are not given much guidance about how to decide, other than that "natural cures" (whatever "natural" means) seem to be acceptable treatments, whereas drugs are not:

The drug industry, however, wants you to know that the people who heed the advice of alternative medical gurus are simply misguided, dead wrong, or placing themselves at great grave risk. If there is a God, pharmaceutical advocates claim, He must have made a mistake. Forget what science teaches about evolution of the species and survival of the fittest under God's natural laws of selection! The petrochemical-pharmaceutical cartel derived vaccination movement proposes that we also forget that the whole person, body, mind and spirit, is greater than the sum of its parts, a truism that underlies the concept of wholistic health and effective alternative therapies such as acupuncture and homeopathic medicines. Forget, too, what is taught in every religion about God's supreme omnipotence in guiding destinies and even miraculous healings. Rather than Divine intervention, natural selection, or alternatively empowered immunity, public health vaccine evangelists (from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, mostly) and medical deities (M.D.s) have become our surrogate saviors.
Scary, isn't it? Personally, couldn't one use Christian belief to counter that God gave humans the reasoning ability to produce medicines that prevent and treat disease? If He gave us these abilities, then why on earth would He not want humans to use them to relieve suffering?

In some cases, fundamentalist opposition to vaccination is rooted in their disapproval of the behavior that leads to the disease being vaccinated against, as with their opposition to the recently developed human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine. Apparently, as is the case with condoms, these fundamentalists believe that prudent prevention efforts against the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases other than their favored (and largely ineffective) abstinence-only programs will only encourage promiscuity and should thus be discouraged. (Perhaps they think that AIDS and cervical cancer are just punishments for promiscuity, although few will actually come out and say so explicitly.) These conspiracy myths can be eerily similar to some alties' conspiracy theories suggesting that vaccination is a plot by pharmaceutical companies or a plot by the government to track people and invade their privacy, and they may cost thousands their lives. Indeed, with the exception of objections on the basis of removing a negative consequence of what is seen as an immoral behavior, at the heart of anti-vaccination madness are very frequently conspiracy theories, whether religion-based or based in an extreme mistrust of the government, pharmaceutical companies, or "conventional" medicine.

All of this seems to be part of a rising tide of anti-science sentiment that only appears to be growing, particularly in the U.S. Unfortunately, it's not just fundamentalists who spread these distortions about vaccination; even self-proclaimed "skeptics" and atheists sometimes fall prey to this pseudoscience as well, making anti-vaccination mania the irrational belief that ultraconservative Christians and Muslims and even avowed atheists can embrace, albeit for different reasons. Bill Maher is a perfect example of one such outspoken atheist who expresses contempt for religion and "irrationality" but has nonetheless apparently found a way to drink deeply of the anti-vaccination Kool Aid. He demonstrated his anti-vaccination credentials recently on his show by his repeating of the myth of Pasteur's "deathbed conversion" on his show as if it were fact, stating bluntly, "I don't believe in vaccination," and adding to the mix some vague mutterings about "aggregate toxicity" and pharmaceutical companies (all standard altie conspiracy theory fare) for good measure. If we in the U. S. and the developed world let these pseudoscience-pushing alarmists influence policy and persuade people to stop vaccinating their children, the fate of Nigeria and Indonesia and their resurgence of polio may be ours a few years from now. We already see evidence that this future is not as unlikely as we'd like to admit. In very wealthy, progressive towns in Colorado, pertussis has returned, thanks to anti-vaccine propaganda. Don't think it can't happen all over the U.S.

It can.


  1. Sadly, anti-vaccinationists are helped by lack of access to and lack of education about vaccines in these developing nations.


  2. I'm pro-vaccination and all 3 of my kids have been vaccinated... with one exception. We don't get flu shots. If "the flu" were one monolithic entity that we could target, then we'd be lining up with everyone else. But every year's flu shot is different, and every year, it's just a best-guess mix of what the guys in charge think are going to be that year's big trouble makers. No, thanks -- we'll stick to rigorous handwashing, good nutrition, and lots of sleep.

  3. Everyone's *favorite* anti-women's suffrage loudmouth is also anti-vaccination...

    I'd link to the posts, but I figure you don't want his followers coming over again.

  4. Ah, Vox Day. Why am I not surprised? Of course, he probably bases it on his "libertarian" views that no government should be able to force anyone to be vaccinated. That view might persuade me if an individual's decision not to vaccinate affected only that individual, but it affects society at large.

    It's OK if you post links here. Vox Day's sycophants are nothing but an irritant, and they do have the salutory effect of boosting my hit count. I don't seek them out anymore or bother to refute Vox's silliness, but if he happens to pick up on something I've written I don't really care that much either.

  5. Witness the resurgence of Rubella in Southwestern Ontario amongst an anti-vaccination religious group. Already 9 pregnant women infected.

    Sad, sad, sad.

  6. Zebee Johnstone5/08/2005 6:07 PM

    I think you underestimate the "God's Will" types. If you say "how can we thwart God's will, he's omnipotent" then they can smile and say "it's about Free Will".

    The idea being that you can go against God, but you shouldn't because then you are being bad. God gives you the chance to do the right thing, but you have to take the chance. How you know what the right thing is, is left to the preachers to tell you, Heaven apparently forbids you to work it out for yourself.

    I find it hard to believe that the good shepherd sits back and lets his sheep die; and if they find a plant to eat that staves off disease that he's either cruel enough or stupid enough to stop them eating it. I find it hard to believe the insecure attention-seeking deity so often presented.

    At least the Greek versions didn't pretend to be anything but vain and attention seeking! And they didn't have silly ideas about the fruit of the vine and the fruit of the loins either.

  7. Excellent post! I've noted this silliness too on my blog, Zap*Germs, and now the good news that WHO is asking some of the rich Muslim oil states to ante up petrodollars to help this campaign.

  8. One small note on Thimerosal. I initially heard about it from the fuss connecting it to autism. We quickly switched to using non-thimerosal vaccines as far as possible (without ever avoiding a vaccine). This wasn't because of a fear of autism, though at the time there was still a small question mark over the issue. Instead it was because of the question that would replay in my mind whenever the subject came up:

    "You want to inject mercury into my child?"

    Now I know that we're talking about very small quantities, in a (presumably) safe form. Nevertheless, I think injections of heavy metals should be restricted to consenting adults.

  9. I won't stand on my normal soap box. Just wanted to say thank you for keeping up the good information about this issue!

  10. The Bill Maher example shows that secular fundamentalism is alive and well relating to this issue. I would argue that Don Imus has done more damage to this cause than any fringe Christian, at least in the US, with all of his ranting about Thimerosal and autism, and his support of Evidence of Harm.

    Great blog!


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