Life as an Extreme Sport

Risk, Memory and Vaccine

Dr. Ivan Oransky, deputy editor of The Scientist, has an interesting, if slightly biting, commentary up at the Boston Globe about the HPV vaccine and the “medical nihilists” who are forgetting that sometimes, the harm principle outweighs the individual risk. In specific, he’s got in his sight the people who claim that because a vaccine is not 100% safe, it should not be used (with implications that people who think this are following it up with some sort of thought about children being too precious to risk making ill).

This is not necessary a bad argument on its face – that we should work to mitigate the risks associated with vaccines, and that the risk of vaccination side effect shouldn’t be worse than the risk of the disease being vaccinated against. (After all, while death is a preventive measure against polio, it’s probably not the best one.) So we’d hope to see low harm, high benefit – with some people taking the proverbial public health bullet in the name of the greater good.

Unfortunately, Americans appear to have very short memories. Maybe it’s because we’re from such a young country, that we tear down and rebuild on whim – we don’t value the old things that house memories, and more than one scholar has wondered if, as we tear down those buildings, we tear down the visual cue for memory storage and retrieval, effectively removing the memory from our population.

This short-sightedness extends to vaccines. When they first came about, people lived in fear of mangling, deforming, life threatening diseases like smallpox and polio. To have the chance to prevent that, for themselves, their children, family and friends – what a wonderful advance of technology! What relief! Yes, there were side effects, and some were bad, but people were willing to gamble that in the face of never again facing an iron lung.

Today, our attitude is different. Somewhere along the line, we’ve become complacent in our beliefs about medicine, and smug in our assurance that there’s a pill out there that can cure every ill. In our medicalization of life, the disease has faded from forefront, and the people causing mischief and mayhem are those pushing the drugs – be they cure or prophylactic. In our blame-based society, we want to know who’s responsible for every ailment, and we don’t take the public good into account, just our own – maybe that of our children.

This attitude, this mistrust of medicine and drug makers, this belief in an inherent right to perfect health, a forgetfulness about the painful diseases of our recent past – all these things add up to what we have today. People refusing to vaccinate their children against a host of diseases – what’s the point, after all? Everyone else will vaccinate their kid, so why take the responsibility and risk? And people refuse to see life-saving measures where they are, as with the new HPV vaccine. We can vaccinate against cancer!

Just stop and think about that for a moment.

We can, in three simple shots, prevent cancer, one of the scariest, most terrifying diseases we modern folk are faced with. And instead of running and rushing forward, demanding our vaccine, we stand back, skeptical of the benefit and unwilling to take the risk.