As fundamentalists appear to be taking over Iraq, the consequences of a different sort of fundamentalism seem to be rearing its head in Hamilton. A measles epidemic is sweeping through Hamilton’s schools. The epidemic could have been avoided, but over the past decade a mixture of the simple-minded, paranoid, and the over-educated have convinced themselves that the MMR vaccination (which is 98% effective in preventing measles) leads to autism. I do not wish to rehash this thoroughly disproven theory here, but I do wish to revisit the phenomenon whereby when the first rumours of this ‘link’ came out, the instant reaction of people wasn’t to say “No, can’t be!” but instead to say “I knew it!”.
The reaction is symptomatic of a growing puritanism in society around, well, purity. Increasingly there is a group within society that naturally believes in any argument that errs towards not injecting or ingesting anything ‘artificial’ into ones body. The resurgence of the anti-fluoride movement is an example of this, but equally the paleo-diet enthusiasts are a version of this too (with their insistence on living on a diet that supposedly hearkens back to the caveman days and what our bodies were originally made for), as are the more noticeably nuttier chemtrail conspiracy theorists. Of course, the more you look at it, the more you realise these movements are constructed on completely artificial notions of purity. Fluoride naturally occurs in water, and even if it didn’t there are plenty of other more harmful compounds that do. Equally, the foods of the paleo diet appear to not really represent what cavemen originally ate yet, all the same, people apparently feel a lot more pure for having eaten them. Chemtrail enthusiasts on the other hand, routinely ignore the impurities otherwise known as ‘clouds’, which are composed of water vapour in much the same way that chemtrails are.
This puritanism seems to be based not on an enlightened form of rationality but on a sort of reverse-Orwellianism. If Orwellianism is the manipulation of reality by language and a highly-centralised bureaucracy, then reverse-Orwellianism is the manipulation of reality using language to take’s advantage of everybody’s natural paranoia of decisions made by highly-centralised bureaucracies.
So, the dubious scientific study that confirmed a non-existent link between autism and vaccinations wasn’t greeted with the requisite skepticism, but with curt nods of the head and an understanding of many parents that the government and ‘the scientists’ had been lying to them all this time. Since then, almost nothing has been able to convince them otherwise.
How can freedom of choice operate in this kind of an environment? Well, in most instances it doesn’t need to. After all, it’s not of much a problem if people seek food free of pesticides or only buy Apple computers because they believe them less evil than PCs.
The measles outbreak though, shows how such puritanism can rapidly turn into a problem. With less kids immunised, a measles outbreak has the potential to shutdown whole institutions. Even if some of kids have been immunised, classes cannot continue if three-quarters of the rest of the class haven’t. Equally, the large number of un-immunised people means that the disease is better able to spread and mutate, which could potentially make the vaccine less effective in the future.
It is time to draw a line in the sand with some of this stuff. Yes, it is fine for you to distrust the government on your own time and on your own dime, but when that distrust causes needless costs and massive public health problems then you’re effectively using everybody else’s dimes to subsidise that paranoia.
I propose that in these sorts of cases it should be made insanely difficult – and downright humilating – for parents to opt-out of these choices. Make them appear before a school board and explain just how they can possibly have any semi-rational reason for believing an immunisation might cause autism. After all, if they are going to impose their fundamentalist beliefs on the rest of us, then we should at least be allowed to question why.