I recently encountered this early 19th century cartoon lampooning the smallpox vaccine. Apparently, not much has changed.
In 2008, according to a Health.com article, an unvaccinated child brought measles back to California from Europe and exposed hundreds of people to the disease. Eleven percent of the children at the child’s charter school had not been vaccinated. Last year, according to the CDC, well over 9,000 people came down with whooping cough in California. While some were quick to blame illegal immigration from Mexico, the data indicate that the wealthy and the insured are more likely to choose not to vaccinate. The Health.com article cited a study showing that “[p]arents who intentionally under-vaccinate tended to be white, college-educated and have an upper or middle-income level” and that “[m]any believe that living a ‘natural lifestyle’ will protect their children against vaccine-preventable illness . . . .”
All of this is puzzling, because immunization is not controversial in the medical community.
Which brings me to the title question, to which I will hazard an answer. In Emile, Rousseau asked about medicine “what true good this art has done for men.” To be fair, one must admit that 18th century medicine was probably not very effective; his critique, however, was directed at the fear of death and more generally at the imagination. Rousseau’s First Discourse, which won the Academy of Dijon’s prize in 1750, was in response to the question, “Whether the restoration of the Sciences and Arts has contributed to the purification of morals?” He answered in the negative.
I will hazard that underlying the reluctance to vaccinate is often a suspicion of human development with roots in Rousseau’s philosophy. No doubt the claims of anti-vaccine advocates persuade many, but many also (both on the right and on the left) are alienated from modern life and therefore perhaps disposed to be persuaded.
One might respond to Rousseau’s critique in any number of ways, but one could start with the premise it is bad when human beings die from preventable diseases.
True, modern medicine is not perfect. Some studies are flawed. Medicine also is not ethically self-regulating (witness the Tuskegee syphilis experiment and the current enthusiasm for fetal stem cell research). Modern medicine has made tremendous advances, though, the vast, vast majority of them ethically obtained. One’s doctor has had four years of medical school, plus specialty training and experience. He or she might know a little something.