Why are Unvaccinated Kids a Threat if Vaccines Work?
This morning, a friend sent me the “electronic card” you see here on the right. On it, an odd image of a woman picking at her wrist is accompanied by the question, “Why would my unvaccinated kids be a threat to your vaccinated kids, if you’re so sure that vaccines work?”
My friend doesn’t want me to actually answer this question; she has been resolutely opposed to vaccines for years now and there’s little to nothing that would change her mind. Rather, she’s trying to change my mind with what’s supposed to be a rhetorical question. Oh dear, I am supposed to respond, why I just don’t know! But I’m not going to answer that way. Instead, I’m going to treat the question as if it were a sincere one, hoping that there might be some other people out there who have heard the question themselves and who are sincerely interested in hearing how somebody might answer.
With that in mind, here are my answers. I’m not a doctor or a biologist, so it wouldn’t be fair to interpret these answers as professional or perfect. This is just what I’d say in conversation, which means I’m opening to hear your answers, further questions and other thoughts as well. There’s a comments section at the bottom of this post and I’d love it if you would use it to share what you have to say. All that said, here are my thoughts:
There’s a faulty assumption behind this “gotcha” question, one that becomes clear if we try to extend it to other kinds of risk:
These questions are clearly absurd because the understanding of how solutions “work” in the questions is so limited. Seat belts and bulletproof vests and washing your own hands “work” because they reduce the risk of car injury, projectile injury, and infection, but nobody would claim that they protect people infallibly, all the time. A drunk driver can still hurt and kill people in a collision, even if those people are wearing seat belts. Some bullets can pierce bulletproof vests, and those vests don’t cover the whole body. No matter how carefully you wash your own hands, washing just isn’t going to remove every last germ. Besides, you’re probably going to end up touching surfaces, food or drink in the world after you’ve washed, and if they’ve been touched by someone who doesn’t wash, you still can easily get infected.
These ways of protecting yourself aren’t perfect. Would we therefore say that washing one’s hands, or wearing a seat belt when on the road, or wearing a bulletproof vest in response to a shooter, is absurd and useless? Of course not. Why? Because these acts significantly lower risk of harm. I also think most reasonable people would also agree it is unsafe to drive drunk, or to shoot a pistol in a town square, or to stop washing hands after using a bathroom. Why? Because these acts significantly increase the risk of harm.
The “why would my unvaccinated kids be a threat to your vaccinated kids, if you’re so sure that vaccines work?” question is similarly absurd because it assumes that “vaccines work” means “vaccines provide 100% protection all the time.” That’s not how vaccines work. Vaccines work by reducing risk of infection for most people. But vaccines, like seat belts and bulletproof vests and washing hands, are not perfect. A small but important minority of people, due to the variety of human immune systems, fail to become immunized after receiving a shot. Vaccines “work” because they do immunize most people — just not everyone. That’s one reason why some vaccinated kids are still at risk from unvaccinated children.
Another reason why some vaccinated kids are still at risk from unvaccinated children is that vaccines don’t always provide perfect protection. Sometimes the protection afforded by a vaccine is to help the body fight off an infection, and thereby to make the infection tend to be lest serious. But that’s still just a tendency. Vaccines’ efficacy can wear off over time, too. It doesn’t make being vaccinated a bad idea, because some protection is better than none. But the result of these imperfections of vaccines is that vaccinated kids are threatened by unvaccinated children carrying viruses and spreading them around.
That yellow wrist-picking woman asking the rhetorical question assumes that “vaccinated kids” are the only people at risk of being injured by unvaccinated children. People who are very young, very old, or with health conditions that sap their immune systems become vulnerable to infection when exposed to unvaccinated carriers of disease. Often, such people are so vulnerable to exposure to germs that it’s not even safe to vaccinate them. These immuno-suppressed people are sadly the most likely to be killed when exposed to unvaccinated carriers of disease.
Finally, the typical kid comes in contact with hundreds of other people. Even if the risk of an unvaccinated kid spreading an infection to a particular other person is small, the risk of an unvaccinated kid spreading the germs they carry to someone they know will be much higher because over many contacts, the risks add up. When you fail to vaccinate your kid, your kid may be fine. But your decision may result in the ravaging or death of a vulnerable baby, senior citizen, AIDS patient or person with cancer.
If you care about other people, if you care about your community, and if you recognize that not all protections are perfect, it makes really good sense to vaccinate your kids. If you fail to do so knowing the effects of your failure, you demonstrate a callous disregard for the welfare of others. Leaving healthy children unvaccinated is not just a health disaster; it is a moral failure as well.