I’m not going to play games: I am pro-vaccine. This post is not meant to persuade anyone skeptical of vaccines to suddenly support their use (although it will enumerate some of the great things about vaccines), but rather to explore the relationship between vaccines and education, this month’s theme. However, I fully expect that my bias in favor of vaccination will pervade the following paragraphs. Consider yourself duly warned.
Vaccination and schools
There is a direct connection between vaccination and education. Vaccination helps make education in its modern incarnation possible; it contributes to the social and economic stability that our educational system requires to function. Globally, vaccines prevent an estimated 6 million deaths per year1, and untold incidences of disease. Vaccines accomplish this feat not only by protecting the vaccinated, but also through something called (unflatteringly, it must be said) herd immunity or herd protection.
Herd protection works by insulating the unvaccinated with the vaccinated. If enough people who are immune surround a person who is vulnerable, the likelihood of disease transmission will plummet. Vaccination benefits the population at large, immunized and not, and is a foundational concept in public health (organized efforts to prevent disease, promote health, and prolong life). In the western world, there are now more than 10 vaccines recommended for infants2. By immunizing as many people as possible, as early as possible, public health initiatives are literally creating a human shield for the unprotected. This added level of safety is one reason we can house thousands of students in one building without regular epidemics.
Vaccines not only keep students well and in class, they grant more people access to education. Vaccination reduces social inequality by improving the health of the populations most affected by disease, those in poverty. Increasing vaccinations also reduces gender disparities. Decreasing child mortality leads to a decrease in birth rates, and when women have fewer children they are more likely to pursue education1.
The economic impact of vaccines is nothing to sneeze at either. Worldwide, vaccines save the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars (US) per year1. That’s billions, with a b, that can be reallocated to other governmental initiatives, like… education.
Vaccination and disease education
The controversy surrounding childhood vaccination is a great example of a strange dichotomy in the way we educate ourselves about disease. A paper published in The Lancet (Wakefield et al. 1998), a premier medical journal, was a critical catalyst for the anti-vaccine movement. The article was hotly debated and eventually retracted. But despite its inaccuracy, its central argument for a connection between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine has endured.
This approach tacitly acknowledges that medicine is a science. However, it stops short of embracing what that really means. Science demands both evidence and open-mindedness. Science isn’t one paper, it is a dialogue between debating parties. The same (il)logic has fueled the rise of web-based self-diagnosis. Let me be clear, knowledge is power, and I think educating yourself is great, but searching the internet is not a surrogate for talking to a doctor. It remains an excruciating and infuriating reality of illness that there are often no simple answers or ready solutions on hand.
Our ignorance about the human body can come as a real kick in the teeth when you’re sick, when you’re scared and in pain, and more than anything you just want to know what’s wrong with you and how to fix it. I’m as sorry as anyone (everyone, I’d imagine) that that’s true, but here we are. We have a choice when we encounter disease: we can either cherry-pick information or we can join an on-going scientific conversation. There is satisfaction in certainty, regardless of its accuracy, but I like to think it’s not nearly as gratifying as rejecting the assurance of blame in favor of knowledge.
1. Andre, FE, R Booy, HL Bock, J Clemens, SK Datta, TJ John, BW Lee, S Lolekha, H Peltola, TA Ruff, M Santosham, and HJ Schmitt. (2008). Bulletin of the World Health Organization 86(2):81-160.
2. Rappuoli, R. (2011). Twenty-first century vaccines. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B 366:2756-2758.
Image credit: By Manokaran M (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons