Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Moral (and Ironic) Choice: Getting the H1N1 Vaccine While Listening to Glen Beck

Swine flu. H1N1. Or whatever they call it now. It's in the news every day. Some people are quite worried. The good news is that the vaccine is now available. People from places such as Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, the Center for Disease Control, and the Department of Health and Human Services, all recommend that people get the safe and effective H1N1 vaccine. Especially pregnant women, parents of infants, and health care workers. Seems like a simple choice. Get the vaccine. Stay healthy. Easy enough.

But choosing to get the vaccine isn't a simple choice for everyone. Shock jocks such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill Maher claim the vaccine is unsafe and dangerous. Beck says the shot might be "deadly." Limbaugh calls it a "manufactured crisis." And Maher said that people who get the shots are "idiots." But they aren't just questioning the vaccine. They are also claiming that it's inappropriate for governmental agencies to recommend the vaccine.

Yup, the shock jocks have cooked up another conspiracy theory. Most of the time, their tirades are funny to listen to. Especially knowing that most people don't take them seriously. In fact, David Brooks recently said these guys are characterized by "remarkable volume and utter weakness." So most of the time it's safe to laugh them off. But when the shock jocks begin to put human lives at risk in such overt ways - such as telling people not to get the H1N1 vaccine - it becomes important to challenge their banter. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is just the woman for the job!

Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite wrote an insightful op-ed in the Washington Post called, "Paging Dr. Salk: Undermining Trust in Science Puts our Kids at Risk." It challenges the conspiracy theories and upholds scientific research all in one article. Here are her words:

Many Americans today no longer trust science; they would rather believe internet conspiracies that vaccinations cause autism than believe the numerous scientific studies that have found no link at all between vaccination and this condition in children. And now, in an epidemic of the H1N1 virus (swine flu) that is particularly virulent in children, they won't get their children vaccinated.

How different is the lack of trust in science today from the time when vaccination was still in its infancy. Dr. Jonas Salk (1914-1995) was the virologist famous for discovering and creating the safe and effective polio vaccine that eradicated that disease in children. Until 1955, when Salk introduced the "polio shot," polio in children was considered the greatest public health danger.

There were upwards of 300,000 cases a year, and 58,000 deaths, most of them children. When the news was broadcast that Salk had created a polio vaccine, church bells started ringing across the country, factories stopped for moments of silence, synagogues and churches held prayer meetings, and parents and teachers cried with relief and joy. Salk was hailed as a "miracle worker" and parents rushed to get their kids vaccinated.

I remember all this quite vividly, even as I remember standing in a long line with my mother, waiting to be among the first kids vaccinated. My mother cried "Thank God! Thank God!" when I received the vaccination.

But in the last few decades, religious and political conservatives have mounted an all-out assault on the validity of science. From denying evolution to denying the increasing evidence for climate change, conservatives have undermined the trust of many Americans in scientific method. Any scientific method.

This is the result. The undermining of trust in scientific method has led to parents now refusing to have their kids vaccinated for H1N1--putting their own kids' very lives at risk, let alone the lives of other children and vulnerable adults from unvaccinated kids spreading the disease.

And yes, I think it's immoral not to get your kids vaccinated, both for their own sake and the sake of the health of the whole community. Suppose parents in the 1950's had had this current attitude about the polio vaccine and refused to get their kids vaccinated? Then polio would still be killing and maiming kids and adults. Which do you think was the better moral choice?

That's a good question to ponder. This is a time when our moral standards must stand up to political rhetoric. Maybe, just for the fun of it, we should listen to Glen Beck on the drive to get our vaccines. Irony is always cool. Especially when it keeps us heathly. Now, let's go get our shots.

Also, faith-based resources for responding to H1N1 can be found here, here, and here.

And don't forget to wash your hands.

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