Thursday, July 23, 2015

Postmodernity and global polio eradication

Polio is getting closer to being eradicated. If it happens, it would join (along with smallpox among humans and rinderpest among cattle) that very rare class of pathogens that have been taken literally out of circulation by conscious human efforts.  That sounds good, but in the case of polio it also shows just how long it takes medical advances to deeply penetrate resource-limited and politically volatile settings: a safe and effective vaccine has already been around for half a century. In any case, due to the collective efforts by charitable organizations, civil society, government and religious leaders, Nigeria is getting nearer to being rid of polio, and tomorrow will mark a year since a case of polio has been diagnosed there. The remaining holdouts are Pakistan and Afghanistan. But potential threats to polio eradication may lie elsewhere, where you rationally would expect it less.

Like California. According to the California Department of Public Health, over 60% of children in the state have not received the full suite of vaccinations. This is partly a case of being victims of their own success: Americans have little experience of what it is like to be prey to infectious agents precisely because vaccines have worked so well on so many of them. It is a stance you have the luxury of taking from a position of relative privilege. But it is partly due also to a culture of gossip, suspicion and kneejerk mistrust of medical authority, and hence also from a position of ignorance. If vaccines are the product of Enlightenment faith in reason and science to improve society, rejection of vaccines -- when not itself based on sound reasoning and evidence -- is regression into a pre-scientific state where life was nasty, brutish and short. Privilege and ignorance is a toxic combination, and some people have to (re-)learn the hard way.

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