Why aren’t there any ebola parties?


Yesterday, the PBS NewsHour felt compelled to inform its viewers that they should not let their children attend measles parties.

Measles parties are relatively new since, until recently, there were very few cases of measles. But now that measles is back (courtesy of anti-vax parents):

KQED Public Media told the story from Marin County of unvaccinated children being invited to a so-called measles party for intentional exposure.

The belief behind measles parties is that exposing them to the disease will protect them by allowing them to develop “natural” immunity. Of course it will also sicken them and possibly kill some before they develop that “natural” immunity. Yet what these anti-vax parents fail to realize is that the immunity is no more “natural” than the immunity developed in response to the measles vaccine.

Immunity requires that the body “see” the virus or bacterium and then develop antibodies to disable and ultimately kill it, so that the next time the child encounters the relevant virus or bacterium, it will have a head start in creating antibodies and therefore will not once again become ill with the disease.

What’s the difference between immunity developed to the disease and immunity developed to the vaccine?

Every virus or bacterium is covered with hundreds of molecules; antibodies can be created to any of those molecules. In the case of disease, the child is exposed to the entire potentially deadly organism. In the case of the vaccine, the child is exposed either to a weakened organism or a non-harmful piece of a harmful organism. That’s why a vaccine can create immunity without causing illness. The evidence that the child’s body has “seen” the virus or bacterium is usually localized inflammation (some redness and swelling at the site of injection) and possibly a fever as well. These are signs that the body is reacting to the presence of the vaccine IN THE EXACT SAME WAY that it would react to the presence of the virus or bacterium.

To use a military analogy, a vaccine is like breaking a code. Breaking the code allows one side to learn the plans of the other side and prepare to defend against them. Knowing, for example, when and where an attack will be launched as well as what weapons, air coverage and troop strength will be involved, helps the code breakers to arrange their forces in the way that will best counter the attack.

Refusing the vaccine is analogous to refusing to intercept and break the code. It’s waiting until the attack starts to figure out when and where it is taking place, and waiting for the battle to develop to determine the weapons, air coverage and troop strength arrayed against you.

Which tactic do you think gives an army the best chance of fighting off an attack? Knowing the enemy’s plans and creating a strategy to counteract them or waiting until the battle is joined to figure out what is going on and what you need to do to defend yourself?

A measles party is the equivalent of dumping your troops on to the battle field without advance intelligence. Sure, those that survive the battle will walk away with knowledge of when, where and how it took place, but lots of soldiers won’t survive to convey that knowledge.

Although measles parties are new, there is ample precendent in the anti-vax community. Chicken pox parties have been popular for years, and mothers have offered on Facebook and message boards to send lollipops licked by children with chickenpox (I’m not making this up!) to mothers whose children have no immunity.

So here’s my question:

Why are there no ebola parties?

Why aren’t mothers reaching out to African parents to get lollipops or articles of clothing from children infected with ebola in order to create “natural immunity” in their own children. After all, it is only a matter of time before an ebola epidemic occurs here.

The dearth of ebola parties harks back to the motivations of anti-vax parents. As I’ve written repeatedly, anti-vax is not about science, but about parental ego, defiance and empowerment.

There are no ebola parties (and there won’t be any for the foreseeable future) because anti-vax parents are not insulated from ebola by their privilege. Yes, they live in a wealthy, technologically advanced society and have easy access to hospitals and medications, but that isn’t always effective against ebola. Parents do not have the privilege of ostentatiously refusing vaccination against ebola because there is no vaccine as yet, And the “evil” hospitals and doctors may fail in treating it so they don’t have the privilege of turning to them to rescue their children from their own selfishness.

The element of defiance that is so important in the contemporary anti-vax movement is also missing since no authority figures have issued any recommendations about avoiding ebola. Where’s the thrill in having an ebola party when you haven’t defied anyone to do so. How much better, then, to have a measles party in order to thumb your nose at the CDC?

Finally, even for the anti-vax folks, there’s nothing empowering about ebola. It’s highly contagious and highly deadly. The chances of making an “empowering” statement of defiance on ebola are much lower than the chances of dying of ebola itself. Have a measles party, and odds are good that your child will survive the measles. Have an ebola party, and you’ll almost certainly be burying your children in the ground.

There are no ebola parties because the opportunity to broadcast your privege by refusing that privilege is non-existent; the opportunity to pat yourself on the back for defying authority is non-existent, too.

There’s no chance of bolstering parental self-esteem with an ebola party, so the anti-vax crowd will burnish their egos with measles and chickenpox parties, instead. And their children (and other people’s children!), who could have easily been protected by the vaccine without getting ill, will suffer and may die so that anti-vax parents can boast to each other that they understand vaccines better than all immunologists, pediatricians and epidemiologists the world over.