In today’s connected world, vaccine preventable diseases are inherently a global problem. If the disease exists anywhere, people everywhere are at risk.
The key to vaccines—what makes them work—is herd immunity. If an infected person primarily interacts with vaccinated people, the disease can’t spread, or at least spreads much more slowly than it would without vaccines. The higher the percentage of vaccinated people, the greater the herd immunity, the closer we are to eradicating a disease entirely. When a disease stops spreading, it eventually dies out. Once a vaccine preventable disease is truly gone from the entire planet, then its vaccine is no longer needed. No one can get the disease if it flat out doesn’t exist. People used to get smallpox vaccinations, but smallpox no longer exists anywhere, and hasn’t for a sufficiently long enough time for smallpox to no longer be in the vaccination schedule. If a disease still exists anywhere on the planet, we still need herd immunity. It doesn’t matter how geographically far away from the case a person is. That disease is only a plane or boat ride away.
So, why don’t parents vaccinate? Voluntary refusal of vaccination is relatively recent ailment, stemming from the fact that decades of vaccine usage have made great progress in reducing the prevalence of vaccine-preventable diseases. Most new parents have no personal context of any of these diseases being a looming threat. It’s easier to accept the risk of contracting polio or pertussis if you’ve never seen their effects. This lack of perceived immediate threat opens the door for other factors to gain weight. Stigmatization of autism and other developmental and mental disabilities, combined with inadequate understanding of the way vaccines and vaccine preventable diseases work, cause parents to see their child’s potential (but impossible) contraction of autism as a fate worse than unlikely (but more possible than they think) death or the unlikely (but more possible than they think) death of someone else. The decision not to vaccinate is a choice based upon the false belief that one individual’s healthcare does not affect the health of other individuals. Immunocompromised people, infants below a certain age, and people allergic to components of a vaccine cannot be vaccinated for some or all vaccine-preventable diseases. These unvaccinated people rely on herd immunity to protect them from those diseases. To achieve sufficient herd immunity, 90-95% of all people must be vaccinated. And some fraction of the population at any given time medically cannot be vaccinated, leaving no room for voluntary abstention.
What other ailments can we prevent? Rates of successful suicide are higher when people who want to commit suicide have access to a gun. Respiratory problems, such as asthma, are more prevalent in places with more severe air pollution. Water quality can be improved with Indoor plumbing, sanitation plans, and geologically mindful planning of water supplies. The spread of HIV/AIDS is lessened by blood testing in blood banks, better sex education, and access to condoms. Malaria is spread through mosquito bites, which can be prevented with netting, but what if mosquitos were unable to carry malaria in the first place? How do we motivate globally oriented research and innovation? Do we ail the world by placing ourselves first?