Last week Pakistan suspended its anti-polio campaign after a health worker and two policemen guarding teams performing vaccinations were killed in separate incidents, and a mob set fire to a government health facility.
The violence was sparked by rumors that children were being sickened by expired vaccines, which took its place beside older rumors that the CIA was pushing vaccines to sterilize Muslims. Officials had hoped they could eradicate the crippling disease, which exists now only in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, but their optimism is fading.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, doctors and nurses battling a troubling re-emergence of Ebola have threatened to go on strike later this week unless the government does more to protect them. An epidemiologist from Cameroon working with the World Health Organization was gunned down last week, and the government on Monday announced the arrest of 11 people in his murder.
Distrust of any information that comes from official sources is so deep in the war-torn DRC that a quarter of those surveyed recently questioned whether Ebola exists.
These incidents provide a sobering context for the controversy churned up in the United States by the current measles outbreak, which has topped 700 reported cases nationwide. Measles is not polio or Ebola. There are no mobs here burning down health centers, and in fact the angriest voices probably have been those who believe their children are being endangered by those who won’t get their families vaccinated.
But it would be a mistake not to consider the threads that connect all these responses to diseases and the means which science has found to combat them.
Germs are the ultimate political opportunists, which means they thrive in circumstances of greatest political disorganization. They attach themselves to our fears and prejudices as easily as the lining of our nostrils. The armed militias fighting the government in the DRC are, in effect, on the germs’ side. The tensions which already existed between Hasidic Jews and the communities around them in New York have only helped to spread the measles outbreak there.
It should come as no surprise that the internet has played a key role in spreading the conspiracy theories which have stirred anti-vaccination sentiments in Pakistan. The internet, that unparalleled technical achievement, has proved fertile ground not only for political extremism but for scientific misinformation. You can’t literally spread germs over the internet, but they have found a way to use it to their advantage.
The examples of the world should also encourage caution about how easily the issues raised by the measles outbreak can be dealt with. Primal fears are involved — one Pakistani official said last week that in 18 years of living in the city of Peshawar he had not seen anything like the mass hysteria and panic which led to the burning of the government building there.
An official for the medical aid group Doctors Without Borders warned last month that the heavy-handed tactics of the Congolese military have only deepened the mistrust in the communities where Ebola is once again spreading. Meanwhile, a judge last week dismissed a suit brought by a group of New York parents seeking to block Mayor Bill de Blasio’s order requiring unvaccinated people in four Brooklyn zip codes where the outbreak has been centered to get shots.
The germs which vaccinations combat should stir fears too, but they have the advantage both of familiarity and forgetting. Many of us are old enough to be familiar with infectious diseases, but forgetful of their costs.
One of my grandmothers died of the mumps, a disease more innocuous even than measles, leaving my mother with a house full of men to cook for in the middle of the Depression. I had all the childhood diseases that were common then, including one particularly excruciating bout with German measles, in the middle of summer in an un-air-conditioned house in Montgomery.
That seemed just a part of growing up, after it was over. And then decades later, covering the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, I felt something like a swarm of yellow jackets stinging my ear and the side of my head. I thought it must be something exotic, but the emergency doc informed me in a matter of minutes that it was shingles, the lurking second act to chicken pox.
If you can take a shot to avoid any of that, you should.
Tom Baxter is a veteran Georgia journalist who writes for The Saporta Report.