Why vaccine skepticism is more troubling than measles itself

April 08, 2019 17:04
A photo shows a healthcare staff member receiving a measles vaccine amid a surge in infections in Hong Kong this year. Authorities have reminded people of the importance of vaccinations, but not everyone is taking the warning seriously. Photo: CNSA

The measles outbreak in Hong Kong this year has set the entire city on edge.

Recently when I returned to Hong Kong from a Singapore trip, I noticed that airport staff at the arrivals terminal was on full alert, a scene that was reminiscent of the tense atmosphere witnessed during the swine flu epidemic in 2009 and the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Discussing the issue with an elderly person, I found the person dismissing outright the ongoing vigilance against measles, and dubbing the reaction as paranoia.

Explaining his view, the person argued that measles used to be quite common back in his childhood days, and hence he just saw no justification whatsoever for the current fuss over the disease.

To people who share this view, measles might appear just a storm in a teacup; as to vaccines, getting vaccinated against it or not basically won’t make any difference.

In my view, this kind of ignorance or skepticism toward vaccination is even more troublesome than the diseases which are containable through vaccination such as measles, seasonal influenza, pertussis and hepatitis.

Over the past decade, we have seen anti-vaccinationists sprouting across the world.

Where does the danger with anti-vaccinationism lie?

For those who lack natural immunity, vaccination is always the most effective, or sometimes the only available, means to prevent the deadly diseases.

In medicine, herd immunity refers to the form of immunity where a high percentage of population in a society is vaccinated, thus protecting those who have not developed immunity or have not been vaccinated.

As a result, people who have refused to get vaccinated out of skepticism and eventually contracted  deadly viruses would not only put their family members and co-workers at substantial health risk, they would also increase the burden on the healthcare system.

True, vaccines are not perfect, nor do they guarantee 100 percent protection against infectious diseases, but that does not mean vaccination is not an effective measure.

One needs to understand that people who aren’t vaccinated are often several times more vulnerable to life-threatening diseases than those who got their jabs.

Besides, vaccines are effective in reducing complications and alleviating symptoms. Patients who got vaccinated have a better chance of survival and recovery than those who are unvaccinated.

I believe the overwhelming majority of anti-vaccinationists or vaccine skeptics have no intention of hurting other people. Yet, absence of intent doesn’t mean they can escape responsibility, considering the medical crises that are taking place around the world every day, and which could have been avoided.

Suffice it to say that anti-vaccinationism is more worrisome than measles itself. It is a complicated political issue as well as a farcical tragedy.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 1

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review