Anti-vax is the ultimate urban legend

urban legend, 3D rendering, traffic sign

In the 21st Century United States we speak disparagingly of superstition. Superstition is supposedly a feature of backward, indigenous cultures, not our culture.

According to Wikipedia:

Superstition is a pejorative term for any belief or practice that is considered irrational or supernatural: for example, if it arises from ignorance, a misunderstanding of science or causality, a positive belief in fate or magic, or fear of that which is unknown.

But industrialized cultures have supersitions, too. We just call them urban legends.

Only those privileged with easy access to the technology of vaccination could indulge the nonsensical fantasy that natural immunity is best.

Like superstitions, they are usually irrational, involving a misunderstanding of science or causality.

Like superstition they seek to explain observed phenomena in a way comprehensible to those without advanced education.

And like superstition, it often gives believers the illusion that they have more control over bad things that could happen to them than they really do.

Superstitions include things like black cats, walking under ladders and opening umbrellas indoors. Avoiding them is supposed to prevent bad luck. But since there is no way that they could cause bad luck in the first place, avoidance as a preventative merely gives the comforting illusion of control over the uncontrollable. Only the “unsophisticated” could possibly believe that and even they have trouble defending these beliefs in a rational way.

Urban legends, in contrast, are imagined by their believers, including sophisticated believers, to be true.

There are other significant differences:

Unlike superstitions that are generally spread by word of mouth, urban legends are spread by technology — talk radio, FoxNews and especially social media like Facebook.

In contrast to superstitions, they are often about technology.

They tend to invoke conspiracies in which agents of technology use that technology to harm a gullible public.

Indeed, urban legends are only possible among the technologically privileged.

What does any of this have to do with mothering?

Nearly everything encompassed by “natural mothering” has an urban legend at its heart, an urban legend that could only be believed by the technologically privileged.

Only those with easy access to modern obstetrics could believe the urban legend that “normal” birth is best.

Only those with easy access to formula and clean water could believe the urban legend that ‘breast is best.”

Only those with easy access to a steady supply of safe, nutritious food could believe the urban legend that organic food is best.

In other words, only the technologically privileged have the luxury of fantasizing natural is best.

The ultimate urban legend of our time, of course, is anti-vaccine advocacy. Only those privileged with easy access to the technology of vaccination could indulge the nonsensical fantasy that natural immunity is best.

Anti-vax has many of the classic attributes of urban legends:

The teller of an urban legend may claim it happened to a friend (or to a friend of a friend), which serves to personalize, authenticate and enhance the power of the narrative …

All anti-vaxxers have a friend, a friend of a friend, or a Facebook friend whose child was completely normal until he or she received a vaccine or multiple vaccines.

Many urban legends depict horrific crimes, contaminated foods, or other situations which would potentially affect many people.

The implicit message of anti-vax propaganda is always that this could happen to you or your child. And when it happens, it is the result of a vast global conspiracy involving nearly the entire medication profession, pharmaceutical industry and public health apparatus of every country in the world!

Anyone believing such stories might feel compelled to warn loved ones.

Anti-vaxxers imagine their ravings as a public service.

Persistent urban legends often maintain a degree of plausibility …

The idea that vaccines could cause autism or other serious side effects is theoretically possible, but it has been debunked so often and so comprehensively that it has been proven to be untrue.

But the key feature of the anti-vax urban legend is technological privilege. Anti-vaxxers invariably have no personal experience of nature. Anti-vax beliefs can only take root and flourish in societies that are capable of nearly eradicating diseases by vaccination. No one who has personal experiences of diseases like tetanus, diphtheria, polio, pertussis and measles could be ignorant enough to believe they aren’t dangerous or were disappearing before the advent of vaccines.

Only those who have no direct experience of nature as it existed before technology — not “nature” imagined as lovely vacation spots — could be gullible enough to imagine that nature creates perfection or cares whether you live or die. “Nature is red in tooth and claw” is more than poetry. Evolution, by definition, involves the survival of the fittest, which sounds nicer than acknowledging that most animals (humans included) ended up as dinner for other animals, possibly before but often after being weakened by injury, disease or age.

The same goes for birth, breastfeeding and food:

Survival of the fittest means that massive numbers of women died in childbirth often after agonizing, unproductive labors that lasted days before infection set in or the uterus ruptured leading to hemorrhage that killed both baby and mother.

Survival of the fittest means that massive numbers of babies died from insufficient breastmilk, suffering days or weeks of hunger before slowly starving to death, or being carried off by disease.

Survival of the fittest means that in a world of no fertilizers or large scale industrial production, famine and the resulting human misery were common, slowly and painfully killing massive numbers of people.

Survival of the fittest means that in a world dependent on natural immunity, massive numbers of children died of vaccine preventable diseases before they reached the age of 10. Even those fit enough to reach that age could be carried off at any moment by smallpox, plague or even flu.

Anti-vax is the ultimate urban legend: it is based on misunderstanding of both science and causality, is propagated by technological media, and imparts a false sense of control over bad outcomes where no control exists. Only those so insulated from nature by technological privilege could even pretend that natural is best.

  • LaMont

    I recently saw someone allege that a family member died within 18 hours of receiving a vaccine, and therefore vaccines shouldn’t be mandated (and in fact should best be banned, since vaccinated people are “more dangerous”). I got the same disorienting horror-movie dread I got when I hear people allege that undocumented immigrants killed a family member – and therefore all asylum seekers should be banned and immigration curtailed. The same dread of someone alleging that “one time, someone stopped a home invader with a gun – and therefore stalkers and abusers shouldn’t be red-flagged out of legal gun ownership.” There’s something broken in the empathy of people who think their vanishingly rare scenario is so special that they want ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE more people to die rather than subject a SINGLE person to what happened to them. Kill thousands with VPDs rather than let one person be hurt by a vaccine. Kill thousands of asylum seekers rather than risk one crime be committed by a brown person. Kill thousands of women by domestic violence rather than have one abuser lack the chance to “defend his home.” The statistics are clear. This is what they’re asking for.

    This isn’t even a trolley-problem case of letting thousands die *to save* a family member which I might understand – in the allegations as stated, the family member has already died/been through the life-threatening scenario, and they want vicious, outsize revenge on society to the point of genocide. It’s horror-movie stuff.

    • The Computer Ate My Nym

      Note that the argument is false, even assuming you think it’s okay to kill thousands to save one: Immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native born (in the US) so your risk of dying in a crime is lower if there are more immigrants. Letting asylum seekers in is the rational choice even if you give no fucks at all about the asylum seekers.

      Having a gun in the house is a risk for death. Suicide, homicide, and accidental death all go up in at least some series for people who have guns in the house. You are LESS likely to be shot if you don’t have a gun. Maybe partly because home invaders can’t steal what you don’t have.

      Some vaccines (i.e. measles) prevent death not only from the disease they are active against, but also against secondary infections related to immunosuppression by the original disease.Others, like VZV, prevent secondary complications from the infection. There simply isn’t any argument against admitting asylum seekers, restricting firearms, and vaccinating–unless you hate asylum seekers, fetishize guns, and fear vaccines more than you care about your own life, much less anyone else’s.

      • LaMont

        Right, the reason why it’s “thousands to one” is because of the phenomenon you’re pointing out. All these things – immigration, vaccines, red flag gun laws – will save more than they kill. But these people think “well MY kid was hurt by a vaccine, therefore the thousands who will die by VPDs don’t matter, or don’t exist”.

  • Eater of Worlds

    Does anyone remember who it was a few years ago whose family got whooping cough, and their youngest was sick for months and months on end? I want to say the youngest was an infant vs a young toddler but I can’t be sure. She talked about how little sleep her child got and how this was so much better than actually treating it or vaccinating. I know there’s someone whose toddler had it but I am unsure this is the same one. I thought her whole family got it too, the one I am thinking of.

  • Cartman36

    I have a strict look but don’t comment FB policy but I have been thoroughly enjoying the comments on Dr. Amy’s recent memes. I love how these people come in that don’t even appear to have an undergraduate degree and think they sound intelligent when they say “y’all do realize you all are here today because of breastfeeding”. Apparently, they don’t know that the human race almost went extinct around 70,000 BC (https://www.npr.org/sections/krulwich/2012/10/22/163397584/how-human-beings-almost-vanished-from-earth-in-70-000-b-c) or that multiple other lines of homo erectus died out despite being exclusively breastfed.

    Dr. Amy, have you ever considered writing about how breastmilk didn’t do anything to save the other species of homo erectus that died out like the neanderthals? Just a thought

    • The neanderthals probably didn’t have proper breastfeeding support.

      • Cartman36

        OMG…. I spit out my tea I was laughing so hard when I read this.

      • attitude devant

        My 23 and Me report says I’m 4% Neanderthal. That must be why I couldn’t make enough milk for my kids. (I’m joking)

    • Amy Tuteur, MD

      Excellent point! I’ve been thinking about a post on all the purported healing powers of breastmilk that remained undiscovered for all of human history until the advent of Facebook mommy groups.

      • Who?

        I’d read that post.

        I almost never comment on facebook but very much like your posts and the comments too.

      • Cartman36

        Yes! If breastmilk can change according to a baby’s needs and breastmilk has evolved over thousands of years to be the perfect food, wouldn’t it provide antibodies to things like the bubonic plague and tuberculosis or extra vitamin D to prevent rickets.

        • PeggySue

          And iron too. I still remember reading the blog of a BF mom of twins whose babies were both diagnosed with iron deficiency anemia and had to take vitamin drops. Mom was devastated having been delivering “the perfect food” and felt her body had betrayed her and babies.

      • Anne

        Yes, Dr. Amy, you need to write a post about the myth of antibodies in breastmilk. I have seen so many otherwise intelligent people,talk about how the mother’s breasts can make antibodies in response to the baby’s illness, also, ignoring the fact that human babies don’t absorb antibodies through their GImtract.

        • Sarah

          I’d love to read that.

        • mabelcruet

          That’s the revolting ‘spit back’ hypothesis, isn’t it? The the nipple somehow acts as an independent miniaturized molecular genetic bioengineering unit, testing the baby’s saliva for antigens and producing antibodies immediately on demand. If that was all possible, the drug companies and biological genetic companies would be in there already, working out how to monetarise it-it would revolutionise medicine-antibiotics wouldn’t be needed, biological therapeutic agents like some of the hormonally responsive cancer agents would be produced just like that-it’d be amazing!

        • AirPlant

          This is my pet peeve but OMG. The entire freaking hypothesis comes from the presence of white blood cells in the milk of the mother of a sick infant. Which for some reason one rando person decided to write fan fiction about rather than hypothesize that yeah, a sick baby probably made the mom sick or at least on the defense which probs increased her white bloodcell count which then was reflected in her milk.

          There was no proposed mechanism, no subsequent experimentation no nothing, just one person pulling a half formed idea from their ass and then going on a talk show tour to sell their book.

          And now I get to hear about it discussed constantly as a benefit of breastfeeding as if it is proven fact and it is just the worst science. How freaking hard would it be to get a population of mothers, have them pump a couple ounces for baseline, mask up the moms and swab them down with saliva from an infected person, pump some more, and then maybe toss in three more samples with a time delay to let this proposed magic do its thing? You then scope the milk and see if anything happened. It is literally the easiest possible experiment.

          Unless the point isn’t actually to prove anything but rather to make up facts whole cloth in order to sell books and be on tv.