Monday, January 7, 2013

Taken for Granted

We take a lot of things for granted. And by we, I mean the majority of gainfully employed people living in developed nations. Shelter is a given. Food is available whenever we want. Clothing, transportation, entertainment are all available to us, generally any time we need them. We don't give these things much thought.

We also take our health for granted. Sure, we get sick and injured now and then, but we have ready access to health care (at least, those of us who can afford private insurance or who live in countries with universal care). And above all, many take for granted the fact that we no longer need to worry about many diseases, like polio, tetanus or measles.

Not everyone in the world is so, lucky, however. For instance, let's take a look at Pakistan. Pakistan has seen quite a number of problems related to health care and disease.

Problems with Polio

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
In the northern regions of the country, particularly the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Islamist extremists (who, I must point out, are not representative of the religion as a whole) have targeted health workers providing polio vaccinations. Last week, on Tuesday, January 1, gunmen murdered seven aid workers who worked for an organization providing education and polio immunizations to Pakistani children. Two more were killed on Saturday. These attacks come after nine other vaccination volunteers had been killed in December.

Much of this violence stems from anti-U.S. sentiments and conspiracy theories, with suspicion that the Pakistan Taliban is behind the attacks. But why target vaccinators? Long-standing issues with vaccine administration, including corruption and delivery into hazardous regions, were made just a bit worse in 2011 when the CIA faked a vaccination drive in Abbottabad in order to get DNA to verify that members of Osama bin Laden's family were in a particular house. Since then, those giving polio vaccines have been suspected of being spies for the U.S. or of trying to sterilize Muslims, and that has been used as a justification for banning vaccination drives and even resorting to violence like the murders mentioned above.

These attacks, along with politically or religiously motivated anti-vaccinationism, are a major setback to the global polio eradication program. Polio, a viral disease that causes paralysis, muscle weakness and even death, is now endemic in only three countries: Afghanistan (17 cases in 2012), Nigeria (88 cases) and Pakistan (35 cases).

Measles Misery

Meanwhile, in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh, measles has been running rampant. Overall, the country saw around 14,000 cases of the disease in 2012, but Sindh has been the hardest hit. According to the World Health Organization, of the 336 children who died of measles in 2012 in the country, 240 were in Sindh. Poor vaccination coverage has allowed the disease to spread rapidly. The risks of the disease have been increased even more due to poor nutrition in many of the affected areas, making an already deadly disease even more so. (And lest anyone think that measles is only dangerous in developing nations, bear in mind the experience in France from 2010-2011.)

In response to the current epidemic, the WHO has launched an immunization campaign targeting about 2.9 million children. If successful, the effort may curb the rampant spread of measles. It is a vital effort, particularly considering Pakistan had a meager 67% uptake rate for measles immunization in 2007 and has continued to have low coverage.

Taking It All for Granted

Like I said, it's easy for us to take for granted that which is readily available to us. In the case of communicable diseases, we easily forget just what they can do. Some people even go to such lengths as writing children's books to promote anti-vaccine misinformation, coloring diseases like measles as being just fine and dandy:

Please, mummy, can't I have SSPE?
This book, by Australian anti-vaccine activist Stephanie Messenger (and reviewed by Skepticat here), lays out a number of whoppers to brainwash feed your kids. I admit that I have yet to read this book (if anyone has a copy and would like to lend it to me, I'd happily subject my neurons to it in order to do a proper review), but if Skepticat's account of it is accurate, then it is truly a despicable, not to mention logically challenged, book. At any rate, it is the brain droppings of someone who takes for granted the amazing advances in medicine that allow her to ignore what measles can really do. Instead, she substitutes her fantasy of a benign boon to children everywhere. Worse, she hopes to spread that dangerous belief to children.

It's time we stop taking our good fortune and well-being for granted, like Ms. Messenger and others do. Take a look at the real world around us. Learn what nature is really like. And then help keep our communities safe from these diseases. Start by getting yourself and your family vaccinated, and, if it is within your means, support organizations that protect the health of others around the world.


  1. What makes Ms. Messenger's book even more horrible is that the title closely resembles Roald Dahl' George's Marvellous Medicine. His perfectly healthy daughter died from measles, which deeply affected him.

    By the way, when I ask the defenders of "natural immunity by getting measles" what happened to his daughter Olivia, and why his book The BFG is dedicated to her memory: I get no answer. One clueless fellow claimed it was like I "describing autistic children."

  2. I am very encouraged by the reviews on that book. It really brought out the regular people who are old enough to have survived a measles epidemic. I noticed the anti-vax people seem to have left it alone.

  3. @Sullivan ThePoop

    I've likewise been encouraged by the critical reception. There do seem to be a couple people (e.g., Chelsea E.) popping around to every site carrying the book for sale and giving it 5-star reviews.


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