Death by anti-vaxxer propaganda

Published 3:27 pm Tuesday, December 31, 2019

By John Tures
LaGrange College professor

This past semester, we had a first-year student class where we focused on the book Educated by Tara Westover.  Since her family members believe in a lot of conspiracy theories, I thought I’d have the student “myth-test” some of these arguments. I had no idea that we would find such a sad case emerge, especially from the South Pacific.

Late in 2019, measles struck the island of Samoa with devastating effects. Normally this would not be a problem, but the island only had less than a third of the population vaccinated. As a result, there were more than 80 deaths, mostly small children. There were also thousands of cases. The island virtually shut down, as businesses and schools closed. The economic effects upon this tourist-dependent locale are likely to be devastating, as many decided to steer clear of Samoa. They’re ramping up vaccination, but it’s too little too late for many.

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Now you might wonder why so many decided not to take the practical decision to get vaccinated.  There are two reasons. Last year, a nurse botched the administration of the measles vaccine, and two people died. But much of the reason stems from a resident who did everything he could to convince everyone not to get vaccinated. All you need to do is drink more papaya juice, he told his online readers. 

This scoundrel has been since been arrested (defying a government order). I think that’s a little extreme, and might feed into some more conspiracy theorists, making him out to be a martyr.  But I can see why a public that was deceived would be a little more upset about this charlatan.

At the same time, Samoa was overrun by the measles, two other South Pacific islands (Fiji and Tonga) also experienced measles. But both of these places had 90 percent vaccination rates, and neither had many cases. Fiji, for example, had 15 total cases, without any fatalities.

If you follow other places in the South Pacific, you’ll find another sad case. The Philippines, led by a president (Duterte) who dabbles in wild rumors and conspiracy theories to make his democracy a lot more authoritarian under his command, has only a 67 percent vaccination rate (public health officials recommend 90 percent vaccination rates to ward off the effects of the disease). As a result, The Philippines led Southeast Asia with the most cases, at 42,000.  Singapore and Malaysia, with 95 percent vaccination rates, didn’t even top 1,000 cases.

Why are such wild rumors spread?  In the case of the anti-vaxxer family Westover writes about, the dad holds many anti-government views. He was abused by his father, a mailman, so that may be the source of such dangerous beliefs, and not rooted in science and evidence.

One of my students gave a strong argument for both sides when she covered the vaccination debate. One view was that measles isn’t so bad, and not everyone dies. But then when we looked at what would happen if every American was exposed to it, we would have a year of 60,000+ deaths in the USA. Those getting adversely affected by a measles vaccine were much fewer in number.

As we face another year where a series of diseases threaten America, be sure you’re getting some good information before making decisions. Such critical choices shouldn’t be made just because you don’t like another person or government. Let’s learn from the Samoa case and look to science for explanations, insisting that such vaccines are held to the highest standards of safety before being employed.