Anti-Vaccine Zealots Denounced in New Republic

Julia Ioffe (a Russian-American journalist and blogger, whose writings have been published by The Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Foreign Policy, Forbes, The New Republic and Russia!) has come down with the 100-day cough, also known as whooping cough or pertussis and her career has been immobilized because of the whoops for the last 2 1/2 months. In a recent article in the New Republic, you may be surprised to find out who caused her misery — Jenny McCarthy and other anti-vaccine zealots.

Pertussis, named after the elegantly latinate bacterium Bordetella pertussisstartsthe way of any cold or mild flu. Then, a week or two later, the coughing starts. That’s because B.pertussis glom onto and paralyze the cilia, the lash-like filaments in your airways that clear it out of mucus, the stuff your body uses to trap and get rid of the infection. The bacterium also emits various toxins, some of which mask the infection and don’t allow your immune system to recognize and attack it. It therefore takes longer for your body to clear it and leaves your trachea so inflamed that it is sensitive even to things like water and air, leading to those wild coughing fits that sound like this in kids and this in adults. And while my having pertussis at my age seems absurd, it can also be tragic: In babies, the infection can easily be fatal.

There’s a reason that we associate the whooping cough with the Dickensian: It is. The illness has, since the introduction of a pertussis vaccine in 1940, has been conquered in the developed world. For two or three generations, we’ve come to think of it as an ailment suffered in sub-Saharan Africa or in Brontë novels. And for two or three generations, it was.

Until, that is, the anti-vaccination movement really got going in the last few years. Led by discredited doctors and, incredibly, a former Playmate, the movement has frightened new parents with claptrap about autism, Alzheimer’s, aluminum, and formaldehyde. The movement that was once a fringe freak show has become a menace, with foot soldiers whose main weapon is their self-righteousness. For them, vaccinating their children is merely a consumer choice, like joining an organic food co-op or sending their kids to a Montessori school or drinking coconut water.

The problem is that it is not an individual choice; it is a choice that acutely affects the rest of us. Vaccinations work by creating something called herd immunity: When most of a population is immunized against a disease, it protects even those in it who are not vaccinated, either because they are pregnant or babies or old or sick. For herd immunity to work, 95 percent of the population needs to be immunized. But the anti-vaccinators have done a good job undermining it. In 2010, for example, only 91 percent of California kindergarteners were up to date on their shots. Unsurprisingly, California had a massive pertussis outbreak.

It would be an understatement to say that pertussis and other formerly conquered childhood diseases like measles and mumps are making a resurgence. Pertussis, specifically, has come roaring back. From 2011 to 2012, reported pertussis incidences rose more than threefold in 21 states. (And that’s just reported cases. Since we’re not primed to be on the look-out for it, many people may simply not realize they have it.) In 2012, the CDC said that the number of pertussis cases was higher than at any point in 50 years. That year, Washington state declared an epidemic; this year, Texas did, too. Washington, D.C. has also seen a dramatic increase. This fall, Cincinnati reporteda 283 percent increase in pertussis. It’s even gotten to the point that pertussis has become a minor celebrity cause: NASCAR hero Jeff Gordon and Sarah Michelle Gellarare now encouraging people to get vaccinated.

How responsible are these non-vaccinating parents for my pertussis? Very. A studyrecently published in the journal Pediatrics indicated that outbreaks of these antediluvian diseases clustered where parents filed non-medical exemptions—that is, where parents decided not to vaccinate their kids because of their personal beliefs. The study found that areas with high concentrations of conscientious objectors were 2.5 times more likely to have an outbreak of pertussis. (To clarify: I was vaccinated against pertussis as a child, but the vaccine wears off by adulthood, which, until recently, was rarely a problem because the disease wasn’t running rampant because of people not vaccinating their kids.)

So thanks a lot, anti-vaccine parents. You took an ethical stand against big pharma and the autism your baby was not going to get anyway, and, by doing so, killed some babies and gave me, an otherwise healthy 31-year-old woman, the whooping cough in the year 2013. I understand your wanting to raise your own children as you see fit, science be damned, but you’re selfishly jeopardizing more than your own children. Carry your baby around in a sling, feed her organic banana mash while you drink your ethical coffee, fine, but what gives you denialists the right to put my health at risk—to cause me to catch a debilitating, humiliating, and frightening cough that, two months after I finished my last course of antibiotics (how’s that for supporting big pharma?), still makes me convulse several times a day like some kind of tragic nineteenth-century heroine?

If you have an answer, I’ll be here, whooping, while I wait.

Since the blog ran, people have asked if Julia Ioffe had been vaccinated. She says she has been … and then points out:

Vaccines are rarely 100 percent effective. The reason they work is, I repeat, herd immunity. Which you people (anti-vaccine zealots) are so assiduously, strenuously undermining, therefore undermining the efficacy of those very vaccines. Below, a helpful infographic, put together by the wonderful Jen Kirby, that shows just how rich your irresponsible harvest is.

Screen Shot 2013-11-13 at 6.48.00 AM

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Here are some of my other blogs on the topic:


2 thoughts on “Anti-Vaccine Zealots Denounced in New Republic

  • melissa hammock

    Thanks, Walt.
    I’m expecting a grandson in about a week. (our first)
    and I have sent many of these blogs to my daughter.
    keep up the good work
    Melissa ps. we would still love to have dinner. lets try for after christmas

  • Melissa,

    The current recommendations are for the parents, siblings, grandparents, and any caregivers or others who will be close to the child during his/her first six months ALL be immunized against influenza and pertussis (whooping cough). I call it a “loving cocoon of affection and protection” for the newborn. You can read more about “Surround that Baby with Protection” here.

    Would love to double date some time. Just call and let Barb know when might work for you both.


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