Like it or not, flu shots work

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, March 10, 2010 15:26 EDT
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This is super interesting. (Via.) The NY Times is understandably fascinated by the cultural and effort-related aspects of this story, which involves a bunch of researchers swooping in and using an isolated religious farming communities to conduct a test on disease transmission, but the results of the test are just as, if not more fascinating. The finding was straightforward—vaccinating a little over 80% of the children and adolescents in the community against the flu vaccine created what they deemed a 60% “protective effect” in the community. Not just in children; in the community.

First of all, those of us who always suspected children are disease-ridden monsters are proven totally correct. Just kidding! Well, sort of. It’s been a long-standing bit of folk wisdom that people who spend a lot of time around little kids get sick more. I don’t know if that’s the reason to target children with these interventions or if it’s something else entirely, though. But it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that public health officials who want to target children for mass inoculation against things like the seasonal flu or the swine flu are right to want this. To save Grandpa, vaccinate Junior. Well, ideally vaccinate both, but that doesn’t always happen. Mass vaccination of children can go a long way to preventing thousands of deaths, especially amongst the elderly, every year, though.

Of course, this sort of intervention runs up against an enormous political wall in the U.S. It’s not just the anti-vaccination movement, though that’s part of it. The anti-vaxxers have a foothold in this country, because Americans are irrationally individualistic. To make it worse, there’s a lot of zero sum thinking in our culture. I think the anti-vaccination theories take off for this reason; people are convinced that selfishly refusing to join in herd immunity that can save lives must mean some gain for the individual. And without any evidence of this, they just make shit up about the dangers of vaccines that by and large don’t exist.

Fighting this problem isn’t going to be easy. For those interested, I highly recommend checking out this interview the National Science Foundation did with Dan Kahan about research into how attitudes and cultural alliances feed into vaccination paranoia. He’s talking about HPV vaccines, so unfortunately the results are going to be skewed by prejudices about female sexuality, but he also makes some important points about accepting that you already probably have a good idea on who the opposition is when it comes to any version of this struggle.

Though the flu shot doesn’t have the sexuality aspect to get up right wing fears, there is still a lot of resistance from both right wingers who immediately reject anything perceived as done for the common good, and from the more stereotypical anti-vaxxers, who are ostensibly liberal but tend towards an individualistic framework. (You know, like the people whose environmentalist tendencies are expressed more in worrying about the toxins in non-organic food than the pollution in low income communities they don’t live in.) Kahan has a very immediate way to deal with science education on a case-by-case basis, which is to rely on tribal loyalties and authority. For right wingers, get James Dobson to push it. For yuppies, get Oprah. God, if Oprah actually had a show promoting mass immunization of children against the flu, that would change this debate overnight.

In the long term, we really have to change the culture. And not just because of resistance to public health initiatives that trip up the American loathing of having to think of themselves as members of a community instead of lone wolves triumphing over a cruel world. The continued existence of libertarianism is reason enough. I’m an optimist enough to think that people can continue to respect individuality while not being individualistic. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly obvious in our culture that individualistic thinking is correlated with a high degree of conformity, and if you don’t think that’s true, go to a teabagger rally and check out the clones. And on the flip side, check out cities that manage to have both diversity and a sense of the common good.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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