“Vaccine hesitancy” is a polite way of saying stupidity. It’s a mealy-mouth disguise for untenable conceit. Harsh? You bet. But there is so much at stake in the vital necessity of ending the COVID pandemic that the time for talking nice is gone. Doing what needs to be done in order to achieve an efficacious immunity level in the population is a societal imperative. This dire situation is about public health and sound science, not goofy concoctions about personal responsibility and individual freedom. Our obligation is to help shut down a virus that does not grant a passover to the self-defined personally responsible. Indeed, refusing to be vaccinated constitutes personal irresponsibility. Such egocentric vanity threatens our freedom to live, our right to life, and our reasonable expectations of being able to move about in safe places.
There are precedents in vaccination history that underscore the value of public health mandates in 2021. I remember when polio was a crippler of children and young adults in the 1950s. Fear of the disease was palpable in summer. Swimming pools and lake beaches were closed because the polio virus was transmitted by contaminated water. Several kids in my elementary school were in wheelchairs or walked with leg braces and crutches. At a hospital for chronic illness on my newspaper delivery route, I saw polio patients being kept alive in iron lungs and rocking beds. In one bed, a luminous teenager, named Joni, always had a smile and conversation when I delivered the paper to her ward. Then one day the bed was stilled and empty. Joni was gone. The images of the place, the rhythmic mechanical sounds, the stale antiseptic smell -- are etched in my memory.
Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine was the game changer.
In the 1950s, Dr. Salk and his team tested the vaccine in trials involving millions of children. It was as much as 90% effective in preventing polio. Within a few years nearly all children in the United States, including me and all my friends, had been vaccinated. We lined up in school gyms and city halls to get our shots. Given what our parents had experienced all their lives with the ravages of the poliomyelitis virus, there was little, if any, hesitancy about getting the shot for their children. The polio vaccine campaign accelerated after its initial start in 1955. Confirmed cases in the U.S. dropped from 58,000 in 1952 to 161 in 1967. As use of the Salk formulation and one other vaccine spread around the globe, polio cases dropped from an estimated high of 350,000 in 1988 to 33 in 2018. Polio was all but eliminated from the globe by universal vaccination.
In later years, new vaccines ended debilitating and sometimes fatal childhood diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and chickenpox. As modern scientific miracles go, the success of vaccine research and development measures up. That’s abundantly clear from the spectacular work that produced highly effective COVID vaccines in record time. They work as well, or better, than vaccines that have been in use for decades. That’s the science of it, the truth of it. The hesitators and anti-vaxxers who spin pseudo-science to justify their personal absurdities put us all at risk. They should be called out.
Zaleski retired in 2017 after 30 years as editorial page editor of The Forum. He is the author of a new history of Forum Communications Co. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-241-5521 or 701-566-3576.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.