Annika Neklason | Endanger zone

Girl, Interrupting | The choice to forgo vaccination is personal, but its implications aren't

· July 8, 2014, 7:27 pm   ·  Updated July 9, 2014, 5:27 pm

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Six years ago, I sat in a crowded theater and watched Will Smith wander through a blighted Manhattan with only a German Shepherd for company. He spends most of “I Am Legend” in this isolation; since a mutant strain of the measles virus spread across the globe three years earlier, he has watched everyone around him become infected and die, leaving him to believe he’s the only healthy person left on Earth. Now he passes time fending off measles-stricken wild dogs and attempting to develop a treatment for the virus from his own blood.

Spoiler: At the end of the movie, he learns he isn’t entirely alone, successfully tests the treatment and passes it off to his newfound compatriots just before dying in a blaze of glory. The movie ends on that hopeful, if tragic, note, with the treatment going out into the world to ensure the continuation of the human race.

As far as epidemic films go, this plot is fairly typical. Virus spreads, survivors trek through barren landscape in search of their fellows and some sort of cure. Sometimes they meet a doctor in the wilderness. Or they make it to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or another white-walled, high-security beacon of hope. Success varies, but the pursuit remains essentially the same. It’s understood that once the cure is found, the world will be saved, the suffering will end, a new and brighter era will dawn.

In reality, a vaccine was developed for the measles virus (un-mutated by idealistic and misguided scientists) over half a century ago. Before vaccination became widespread and routine, approximately 2.6 million people died worldwide as a result of measles infection each year. The vaccine’s influence set in more slowly and less dramatically than it might on screen, but by 2012 annual global fatalities had been reduced by roughly 95 percent.

The most recent strain of the vaccine, which targets the mumps and rubella as well, has been found to successfully immunize 95 percent of people after receiving one dose. It costs less than a single dollar to vaccinate a child.

This is one instance in which I wish reality was more like the movies. Unfortunately, Americans are abandoning the script and exercising their right to opt out of inoculation — and preventable diseases are now making a comeback as a result.

By May 23, the United States logged its highest number of confirmed measles cases in any one year since 1994. From a record low of 37 cases just 10 years ago, we reportedly climbed back up to 288 with more than half the year left to go. The vast majority of those infected contracted the virus for the simple reason that they had not been vaccinated.

Measles is highly contagious, with a predicted 1-in-500 fatality rate in the unvaccinated children who contract it and an additional threat of serious complications such as blindness, deafness, encephalitis and pneumonia. For many, the decision to opt out is rooted in religion or philosophy; for others, it’s borne of health risks associated with vaccines, both real (though infinitesimal) and fabricated.

Similar resurgences of mumps, whopping cough and chicken pox have been reported in communities whose denizens are choosing to forgo vaccination.

Parents defend the decision not to vaccinate their children as a matter of personal choice. But I have a hard time reconciling myself to a personal choice that increasingly endangers those for whom inoculation is not an option due to age, medical fitness or lack of access, and that also endangers the small percentage of people whose vaccinations fail to immunize them against these viruses. Of the 26 cases of measles registered in New York City in February and March, seven of the patients were under a year old. The right to expose them to infection is, I think, a dubious one. Particularly because when time goes on, the infection balloons, and that seven becomes 10, 50, 100.

Somehow I can’t quite see people lining up to buy tickets for a persistently-preventable-disaster film, one in which the hero bravely exercises his right to stand by and watch as the world burns. “I read that water has been linked to drowning,” I imagine him shouting, just loud enough to be heard over the plaintive cries for help. “I heard that fire extinguishers can cause concussions.”

Annika Neklason is a College sophomore from Santa Cruz, Calif., studying English. Her email address is aneklason@gmail.com.

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