Ford: Fear and ignorance allowing resurgence of formerly eradicated diseases

Maybe the deniers have never known a five-year-old who died from measles, as I did, and whose parents spent the rest of their lives dealing with the tragedy

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Why does a supposedly eradicated childhood disease still make the news?

Didn’t Canada announce in 1998 that measles (spread by adults) had been successfully conquered? We congratulated ourselves fulsomely and, if I remember, were smug about it. Herd immunity is what doctors call it when, ideally, about 98 per cent of the population has been fully vaccinated.

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Welcome to 2024 and the reality of what lurks beneath the surface of society — diseases that have been dismissed as a threat because they have been “eradicated.”

Yet, only a single disease — smallpox — has truly been banished around the world. (Polio should also be on that list, were it not for the ignorance and fear rampant in less-developed countries that the vaccine sterilizes the population.)

The incidence of measles in Canada may be fewer than 30 cases so far this year, but that’s nothing to be proud of. The only possible cases should be among newly arrived immigrants, and I’ll bet the vast majority of those families would be happy to be vaccinated upon arrival.

The World Health Organization reports that in the past two years, there has been a 79 per cent increase in cases of measles around the world.

The trolls are still beneath the bridge, brought to the surface by ignorance, disinformation, neglect, mistrust, a growing anti-vaccination movement and sheer vanity. That final quality is a result of an “it can’t happen to me and mine” attitude.

We take clean water, sanitation and safe food for granted. Indeed, we demand them in our cities and towns. As a result, North Americans have become complacent.

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Consider the fatality rate from measles is 0.1 per cent in industrialized countries, rising to 15 per cent in developing countries. That means the chances of transmission increases depending on to whom children are exposed. Under such circumstances, not fully vaccinating children is, in a sense, child endangerment.

There should be consequences. Jail should be the least of the penalties for parents citing “freedom” and ”liberty” for neglecting to have their children immunized.

I’m angry about the rise of measles for the simple reason that a couple of hundred years of science has resulted in the eradication of most of the illnesses that kill children. When Edward Jenner realized in 1770 that milkmaids who had cowpox did not subsequently contract smallpox, it signalled the start of science taking precedence over leeches and witches’ brew.

I’m angry because most of the advances in vaccines came after I had contracted just about every “common” childhood disease — whooping cough, measles, mumps, chickenpox and the true child crippler and killer, polio.

I belong to the last generation to be decimated by common childhood diseases; the last generation that had to negotiate childhood diseases with no protection, other than quarantine to avoid spread. It was a childhood marked with fear — not on the child’s part, but our parents. (As a young adult, I also fell victim to influenza, which felled me for a couple of weeks, and every time I hear someone complain about “stomach flu” I am enraged by the diminution of that dreadful disease.)

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I’ve written about this before; I had hoped never to have to do it again.

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But the so-called “freedom-loving anti-vaxxers” have put us in this position. South of us, 17 states are reporting cases of measles and, in a startling and shameful appointment, Florida’s governor has named Dr. Joseph Ladapo that state’s surgeon-general. The Guardian reports this “vaccine-skeptic” doctor shows a Harvard education doesn’t confer common sense or, in the case of communicable diseases, common concern for other people’s children.

Ladapo also, apparently, advocates the use of leeches in public health. (Laughable if not so 15th century.)

Frankly, all adults should be free to do with their bodies whatever they wish. But no one has the right — the “liberty” — of putting other people’s children at risk. Everyone has the responsibility to protect children and to recognize some individuals medically cannot have regular doses of vaccines. They, too, have a right to live and not be threatened by exposure to preventable harm.

Maybe the deniers have never known a five-year-old who died from measles, as I did, and whose parents spent the rest of their lives dealing with the tragedy.

Maybe they equate “freedom” with laziness and “liberty” with selfishness.

Maybe they are, as I suspect, ignorant idiots.

Catherine Ford is a regular Herald columnist.

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