One of the things outgoing-mayor Mike Bloomberg will be best remembered for is the zeal with which he has tackled public health issues in this city. From his war against tobacco to his battles against trans fats to his emphasis on the importance of bike lanes and green space, Bloomberg—with the confidence of a man secure in the knowledge that he knows what’s better for you than you ever could (usually this type of man is wealthy and white)—has spent the last twelve years enacting legislation that has inspired the nickname “Nanny Bloomberg.” And now, in the last days of his administration, he’s passed through one more piece of controversial health-related legislation that has some people up in arms.
The New York Post reports that the city’s latest public health initiative mandates the flu vaccine for all kids under age 6, requiring “some 150,000 children who go to preschool or day care to get flu shots.” It’s possible to get exemptions based on valid medical or religious reasons, but in effect, this campaign will be as thorough as that for other mandated vaccines like the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and DTP (diptheria, tetanus, pertussis) shots. The Post spoke with Dr. Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control, who “said the vaccine could save lives, noting that four flu-related deaths were reported in the city in the past year. He said vaccinations could keep as many as 20,000 kids from getting sick.” Sounds good, right? Especially because young children are among the most at-risk for complications from the flu, and are around enough other booger-y little people so as to be particularly prone to contagious diseases. Basically, everyone wins here. Fewer kids get sick and crowd immunity protects those who can’t get flu vaccines. What could the problem be?
Oh, right! Some people are against vaccines because of that one time they heard Jenny McCarthy spewing fabricated bullshit about the connection between vaccines and autism. You know those people…they’re the ones who don’t vaccinate their kids, and ask you to respect their decisions, and then spend all winter wondering why their kid has that barking cough that rattles his or her frail little chest all through the night. But oh well, there’s always a bunch of crazy people out there. What’re you gonna do? It’s not like you can argue with every wacko who doesn’t believe in vaccines or who thinks the moon landing was staged or who is still pretty damned sure that Obama was born in Kenya. You just have to roll your eyes and feel superior and carry on knowing that at least your kids won’t get whooping cough because it’s the 21st-century and things don’t have to be that way! Also, polio. Kids don’t have to get polio. This is a good thing!
But here’s one thing you can do! Don’t give these anti-vaccine nut jobs a legitimate platform on which to speak. The Post spoke with the executive director of something called the Autism Action Network, a non-profit, anti-vaccine organization that doesn’t seem to have any affiliation with medical groups at all (the “About Autism” section on the website is also sort of sadly hilarious), and treated his comments on the mandatory flu vaccine seriously. John Gilmore of the AAN told the paper, “To force someone to modify their children’s body is very, very serious.” Which, well…is it? Yes, sure! But when it’s actually in the best interest of the child, so that they won’t, you know, DIE OF SMALLPOX, then it’s worth it.
I think I probably would have read this quote and let it slide without comment, but then I saw that Gothamist picked up the story with the headline—“Autism Activists Angry About Mandatory Flu Shots in Daycares and Preschools”—and I got really pissed off. I understand that describing Gilmore (and Jenny McCarthy, for that matter) as an “autism activist” is not technically wrong. But when that activism flies in the face of medical study after medical study, and promotes ideas that are dangerous to society at large? Well, then there’s a big problem. There is so much yet to be discovered about the triggers for and causes of autism, and I support those who advocate for further research and investigation, but clinging to fabricated, disproven theories doesn’t make for a good activist. Instead, it distracts from the real issue at hand and actually harms the very families it pretends to support by encouraging them to abandon proven means of staying healthy, all in a futile attempt to ward off a disease that remains a question mark for so many whom it affects. Just believing something is the problem, doesn’t make it so and such is the case with vaccines. And the toll that viral infections can take on young children (and the elderly or immune-compromised people around them) is a very real thing, one that we can address through medicine. And anyone who’s opposed to that? Isn’t much a health activist at all. In fact, they’re not much more than the same kind of nut jobs who once demanded Obama’s birth certificate. Which, fun fact, noted Obama-birth-certificate-theorist Donald Trump is also anti-vaccine. And do you really ever want to agree with Donald Trump about anything? I didn’t think so.
Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen