Zika virus tragedy offers a history lesson for anti-vaxxers


Brazil is experiencing a massive increase in a rare, devastating birth defect.

The journal Science notes:

Brazil is facing a disturbing spike in a severe birth defect called microcephaly. Babies are born with heads that are far too small, a sign that the brain failed to fully develop. Doctors there have reported nearly 3000 cases since July 2015—more than 20 times the usual rate. Scientists are scrambling to understand what is going on. The leading theory so far is that the condition is caused by a little known mosquito-borne virus called Zika that surfaced in Brazil in March and is quickly spreading through Latin America…

What is microcephaly? The CDC updated its page on microcephaly only last week:

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The developing Zika crisis gives us a window into what the crises of smallpox, diphtheria, polio, rubella and other diseases were all about.[/pullquote]

Babies with microcephaly can have a range of other problems, depending on how severe their microcephaly is. Microcephaly has been linked with the following problems:

Developmental delay, such as problems with speech or other developmental milestones (like sitting, standing, and walking)
Intellectual disability (decreased ability to learn and function in daily life)
Problems with movement and balance
Feeding problems, such as difficulty swallowing
Hearing loss
Vision problems

Zika virus is a flavivirus related to the viruses that cause yellow fever and dengue. It was identified 70 years ago in the Zika jungle of Uganda, and is spread by mosquitos. Until recently, it caused few outbreaks among humans. It hasn’t been definitively established as the cause of the epidemic of microcephaly in Brazil, but there is considerable evidence pointing in that direction; the working hypothesis is that infection of pregnant women in the first trimester can lead to microcephaly. At the moment there is no treatment for it and no vaccine.

It is devastating, it is spreading, and it is cause for alarm for pregnant women and anyone who cares about and for them … and it offers a history lesson for anti-vaxxers.

The anti-vax movement rests on several fundamental premises:

Vaccine preventable illnesses were prevalent because of poor sanitation.
They weren’t that bad.
Natural immunity to disease is preferable to vaccine induced immunity.
Vaccines cause more health problems than they prevent.
Vaccines exist just to enrich pharmaceutical companies.

The developing Zika crisis gives us a window into what the crises of smallpox, diphtheria, polio, rubella and other diseases were all about: devastating diseases, easily transmissible, with no effective treatment and no way to prevent them.

Are you afraid of Zika virus as it heads to the US? That’s how parents felt about smallpox, diphtheria, polio and other diseases a century ago. They could strike any child, at any time, and permanently maim or kill the child. Those diseases were bad, very bad, just like Zika induced microcephaly.

Do you think sanitation is going to protect you from Zika virus? You shouldn’t unless you think sanitation is going to protect you from mosquito bites. Parents in the early 1900’s knew that sanitation was not going to protect their children from smallpox, diphtheria or polio, either.

Do you think we should just let everyone get infected because natural immunity is better than anything a vaccine could produce? Are you willing to risk the health of your unborn babies rather than try to create a vaccine to protect them? Parents in the early 1900’s weren’t willing to gamble, either.

If a safe vaccine could be developed, would you refuse it and take your chances with Zika virus? Probably not, right?

Do you think that Zika virus induced microcephaly is a minor problem being hyped solely for the benefits of the pharmaceutical companies that will ultimately produce a vaccine? No? Then perhaps you can understand why a century ago parents didn’t feel that way about smallpox, diphtheria or polio.

We are watching a viral scourge unfold in real time. I have no doubt that we will eventually develop a vaccine for Zika. We’ve done it many times before; there’s no reason we can’t do it again. And I have no doubt that if vaccination for Zika virus becomes routine in order to protect the health of future generations, there will eventually be anti-vaxxers wailing that the vaccine is unnecessary, that the disease is caused by poor sanitation, that “natural” immunity is better than vaccine induced immunity and that microcephaly isn’t really that bad at all.

In the meantime anti-vaxxers might want to consider that their fundamental premises, which don’t apply to Zika virus, don’t apply to other vaccine preventable diseases, either.