Vaccine Deniers and the Fear Behind ‘Contagion’

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As “Contagion” hits the big screens, moviegoers may be left in suspense, while scientists and health officials only get a glimpse of what they’ve been dealing with for years: the struggle to combat not only diseases but the spread of myths veiled as facts from anti-vaccine advocates. The results can be deadly

In the film, Kate Winslet plays an epidemiologist tracking a contagious disease as it spreads throughout the world. She and others at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must battle not only the virus but public misinformation from an anti-vaccine activist.

Jude Law appears as the conspiracy theorist blogger advocating a worthless homeopathic remedy a worthless homeopathic remedy instead of a proven vaccine to combat the disease, telling his growing (and fearful) audience that the government can’t be trusted. (In fact, scientists know that if the product truly is homeopathic, it actually cannot work, since the product would have no active ingredient in it, having been diluted far beyond the point of efficacy.)

One reason why doubts and conspiracies emerge around vaccines is that their effectiveness cannot be proven on an individual basis. Even people who are effectively vaccinated against a disease can still get it: No vaccination is completely effective. You might catch a flu from a different virus strain than the one you were inoculated against. And many unvaccinated people do not get the disease because they are already immune to it or were never exposed to it.

In other words, one individual is not an accurate bellwether of the safety or efficacy of a vaccination. Instead the vaccinations are proven in government-run studies of large groups of people.

Fear of vaccination is nothing new; it’s been around for centuries. There was vehement resistance to the very first vaccine, created for smallpox in the late 1700s. When the public learned that the smallpox vaccine was created by taking pus from the wounds of infected cows and giving it to humans, they were disgusted by the idea; some even believed that the vaccination could turn children into cows!

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