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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Pox Populi

By Phil Plait

Like many social movements, anti-vaxxers—people who are against vaccinating children (or anyone) for various but invariably wrong reasons—cover a spectrum of people. Some are frauds. Some are hugely misguided but nevertheless grab the soapbox to make their false claims. Some are honest, questioning folks who just want to know what’s what, and get mislead by the first two groups.

And some are actively doing harm. Even that group can be split into those who do so by (mistakenly) trying to be open to new ideas, and those who do so because they arrogantly reject science.

In the former group I include the administration of the Brunswick North West Primary School in Melbourne, Australia. They instituted a policy of tolerance toward the views of anti-vax parents, and—shocker—they experienced a huge outbreak of chicken pox, infecting a quarter of all the students there.

That’s bad enough. But then there’s that second group, the ones who are actively trying to spread dangerous diseases. They’ve been around a while, but now they have a new face: that of Hollie Singleton.

She is a mother of two who lives in Brisbane, Australia. Now, she claims she’s not anti-vax, but a perusal of her Facebook page shows that she really, really is (as I’ve noted before, many anti-vaxxers claim not to be—an interesting peek into the psychology of the movement).

Singleton achieved notoriety recently when she planned to hold a “chicken pox party.” Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is. Her son (who is obviously not vaccinated) became infected with varicella, the virus that causes chicken pox. She posted about it to a closed Facebook anti-vax group called “Vaccine Free Australia” (remember, she claims she’s not anti-vax), inviting other parents to bring their children to her house to become infected.

This is terribly dangerous. She—and the parents in that Facebook group who agree with her—are deliberately putting literally defenseless children at risk.

I’ll note here that it’s easy for outsiders to get fooled by anti-vaxxers in cases like this. They make a lot of claims that sound superficially logical, as long as you don’t look too hard. And in this case they rely on a very popular misconception: that chicken pox is a relatively harmless disease.

This reputation is mistaken. While most people who get it only have mild symptoms, there can be much more severe complications, including dehydration, pneumonia, encephalitis, and even death. In the U.S., before the vaccine, out of 4 million cases annually, more than 10,000 people were hospitalized and 100 to 150 died.

While these complications are not common, we’d see a lot more of them if everyone believed what Singleton does. The dangers from this disease are very real.

The vaccine for varicella was introduced into the U.S. in 1995. Two doses are 98 percent effective against the virus, and shortly after it got widespread use, deaths from chicken pox dropped by more than a factor of two.

That apparently doesn’t matter to people like Singleton, who actually said this on Facebook: “Illness keeps population in control and is meant to eliminate the weak and build a stronger species.”

Isn’t eugenics charming? The thing is, in general, humans have morality, and that would preclude letting children die simply because they might be more susceptible to a disease that we can readily inoculate against.

And it doesn’t stop there; these infected children can then go on to infect others, of course. Pregnant women are at serious risk if they contract chicken pox, as are people with HIV, or with an immunity deficiency. I have a close family member who is immunocompromised. I bet most of you reading this know someone like that too. How would you feel if they got seriously ill from a disease that’s easily preventable in healthy people, but who chose not to get vaccinated?

It’s very easy these days to get correct information about chicken pox—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has several pages on it, and when you type “chicken pox” into Google, you get information from their “Knowledge Graph” about the disease in a graphic off to the right of the search results. (Incidentally, the results are curated and vetted by health care professionals, and you won’t get an anti-vax site when you search for diseases now; I am very proud of Google for implementing this.)

Despite this, you still get anti-vaxxers making false claims about the disease. When my editor, Laura Helmuth, tweeted about the chicken pox outbreak at that Australian school, she got some responses from anti-vaxxers displaying their ignorance:

No, it’s not a healthy experience, as I’ve made clear here. And there’s this one:

No, and holy cow, NO. It’s far, far better to get the vaccine and prevent it. Besides the complications I mentioned above, in many cases varicella invades the nervous system and can lie dormant. Years later it can blossom into shingles, a painful rash that can last for many weeks, and can lead to severe pain in the area of the rash. That’s “beneficial”?

For what it’s worth, Singleton canceled her chicken pox party … but not because she woke up to the extreme danger she would be putting innocent children to. She canceled it because the symptoms in her son cleared up, so he was no longer infectious.

I’m glad her son is OK, and I certainly hope he and anyone he’s been in contact with don’t see any further complications from it. But I also hope Singleton’s distorted views on health safety didn’t put anyone else at risk, either. Anti-vaxxers have caused many outbreaks of diseases all over the world, with serious consequences. Thousands have been sickened, and in 2013 a man in Wales died due to complications from measles, which he got during an outbreak directly tied to anti-vaxxers.

In general, I’m of the opinion that you’re allowed to have whatever beliefs you want, until those beliefs start affecting—or infecting—those around you. Anti-vaxxers aren’t just exercising an alternate lifestyle; in many cases they are causing a lot of illnesses, and in some cases far worse.

Talk to your board-certified doctor. If they recommend getting vaccinated, do it. The life you save may not just be your own, but also the lives of those around you.

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