The Vaccine Question: Part I

IMG_0610 In 2013, MIT News announced the development of a technology that may eventually make it obsolete to obtain vaccinations through injections. The new vaccination method is similar to a bandage that sits on top of the skin. MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) is home to rigorous undergraduate and graduate communities that pride themselves on advancement via intellectual and physical labor. (MIT’s slogan is “Mind and Hand.”) The Institute began in the 1850s when William Rogers, a professor in Virginia, chose to begin his polytechnic university (the future MIT) in a non-Southern part of the United States so that conditions of slavery and pre-Civil War tension weren’t witnessed everyday. By 1859, Rogers submitted paperwork to the state of Massachusetts to build the first buildings of what eventually became MIT. But MIT labor always existed in the shadow of slave labor and the predicaments of human torture. The beginning of MIT coincided with the emergence of the “Slavery Question” debate in the United States. The Slavery Question wasn’t just about whether or not slaves should be freed from their bondage in the U.S. South. The Slavery Question was a debate about religion in the United States. The Slavery Question was a debate about financial power within the United States. The Slavery Question was a debate about the intervention of the Federal Government in the lives of Americans (including slaveholders). The Slavery Question was a debate about how human dignity is defended. In the early 20th century, after the Civil War and the Slavery Question, MIT became a resource for the powerbrokers who controlled the nation. Much of what MIT created was questionably used to help enforce regimes of terror against peoples and communities around the world.  MIT helped develop the U.S. Navy of the early 20th century. MIT was a major hub for nuclear physics in the era between 1950 and 1985 (the “Cold War” era). MIT, in the late 20th century, was a hub for developments in computer science that are the foundation for CIA and NSA policing throughout the world today. MIT has not acknowledged its proximity to various types of terrorism. Indeed, MIT remains silent within contemporary slavery questions. One of these 21st Century slavery questions is something that I’ve titled “The Vaccine Question.” I’m not the first one in the anthropology blogosphere to talk about this national vaccine debacle. A fellow anthropologist over at Anthropology In Practice described the fear of vaccines back in 2009 during the H1N1 scare. But over the last few months, vaccinations have become a hot topic within the news media in the United States. NHL players such as Sidney Crosby have been diagnosed with mumps. At Disneyland, a recent epidemic of measles has caused panic in child-centered communities such as pediatric offices and nurseries. One of my “connections” on a social media network is a physician who posted a message that derided parents for not vaccinating their children. Yet, there are many people within the United States and North America who are growing more and more fearful of vaccines and what we don’t know about them. While physicians and public health officials count on MIT and other organizations to help make vaccination and other biotechnological treatments easier, parents and emerging social groups related to anti-vaccine advocacy believe that contemporary biomedical conditions in children are reasons for us to reconsider the innocence of vaccines and similar biotechnologies. There are many vaccines with many possible negative side effects. In Chicago, a billboard along the interstate reads “HPV vaccine is cancer prevention” (see photograph above). It provides a 311 phone number that links the caller to a Chicago based non-emergency call center where callers can receive information about the HPV vaccine. I recently overheard a group of young females who discussed the role of HPV vaccine in their everyday lives. They discussed how some of their friends were sterile because of the HPV vaccine. These types of stories are part of an emerging anti-vaccine consciousness in the United States. The history of vaccination in the United States is blended with a long history of eugenics projects that often targeted certain subaltern/undesirable peoples in the United States. American eugenics was born within very established, highly praised universities and medical schools that utilized the protection of federalized eugenics projects to connect vulnerable Americans with treatments that would ultimately take away fertility and other human capabilities. Some anti-vaccine advocates are descendants of Black and Native American peoples who were targeted by eugenics. Other anti-vaccine advocates are witnesses of a recent epidemic of Autism, which is a disease that many people believe is connected to the use of childhood vaccines such as the MMR (measles/mumps/rubella) vaccine. Some anti-vaccine advocates are “conspiracy theorists” who argue that the Federal Government and pharmaceutical companies are in cahoots and know that vaccines damage the human body. When I lived in Washington DC, many of the pharmacists I worked with in pharmacy (I was a pharmacy technician) were employees of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They described how doctors and pharmacists who worked with the FDA wouldn’t allow their children to receive vaccines. The Vaccine Question, like the Slavery Question 150 years ago, opens up a dialogue about the coexistence of consensus and vulnerability within American society. In “Part II,” I will continue this discussion.