The Vaccine Question: Part II

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This is the follow-up to The Vaccine Question: Part I

In the 1940s, the Cold War was warming up. The U.S. military hijacked the Bikini Atoll Island for nuclear tests that severely harmed the indigenous people of Bikini. By the Johnson administration in the 1960s, the U.S. was dousing Vietnam with Agent Orange and, back at home, enlisting children into the Medicaid system and its schedule of vaccinations.  The disenfranchised – Black and Brown families, for the most part – were asked to be eager recipients of their roles as patients and soldiers.

I remember when my uncle, a veteran of the Vietnam War, began reacting to his exposure to Agent Orange. It took about 17 years, but Agent Orange eventually demolished his nervous system. The Department of Veteran’s effectively denied the role of Agent Orange in various types of neurological disorder until 2013.

Several government “contractors,” including Monsanto, manufactured Agent Orange. This was part of the US military’s herbicidal warfare against the North Vietnam community. Monsanto, as it so happens, is front and center in the creation and proliferation of genetically modified seeds (GMOs). Today, some researchers link Monsanto’s GMOs and herbicides to increased rates of cancer (link 1; link 2). Fear of Monsanto and similar organizations has created a particularly strong dichotomy within U.S. society: “anti-GMO” activists and vaccine-questioners on one side vs. groups that are “pro-science” and who demand “genetic literacy” on the other side.

But, cui bono? (who benefits?)  Debates between these two sides tend to disallow an answer.

I noticed the title photograph (see above) in front of a Walgreen’s last year. It intrigued me. A racially ambiguous American girl (propped in front of a map of the world…something that characterizes the American classroom) shares a Band-Aid with a Black girl (propped in front of wind-tossed grass…probably somewhere in Haiti or on the African continent).

The thought of sharing a Band-Aid causes me great disgust. However, as a consumer, I’m supposed to disregard my disgust and embrace this symbology of the shared Band-Aid. The Band-Aid is supposed to be symbolic of global connections and new types of responsibilities to share vaccines.

When we talk about vaccines, we often don’t think about HIV/AIDS, However, fear of HIV/AIDS helped bolster fears and promises of vaccines in the late 1980s and 1990s.

In 1992, Rolling stone published an article that connected polio vaccinations (OPV) with HIV epidemics (link to discussion). Eventually, consensus developed around the roots of HIV/AIDS in Africa. The Aids Institute articulates an origin story that includes people hunting chimpanzees and becoming infected with HIV (or SIV) through contact with chimpanzee blood.

The mystery and darkness of disease and infection go hand-in-hand with other aspects of mystery and darkness. This includes race, as we can see in the recent proliferation of Ebola debate.

In 1991, NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson publicized that he was diagnosed with HIV. In the wake of White, Black, Latino, and Native American AIDS/HIV deaths, Johnson’s identity as a Black professional athlete, who quite successfully overcame HIV, placed HIV/AIDS (and it’s treatment) in the limelight. AIDS was killing thousands. Certain theories argued that Johnson received special treatments that ‘regular’ folks could not obtain. HIV/AIDS needed a miracle.

HIV/AIDS vaccines seemed to be that hope. By December of 1991, a substantial national search for HIV/AIDS vaccines was underway (link). At the same time, scholars began to discuss what it meant to address AIDS within the contexts of Africa (link).

Whoever created and controlled the vaccine was destined to be quite influential. The promise of the HIV/AIDS vaccine would cross national and racial barriers. In the aftermath of Ronald Reagan’s appeals for Gorbachev to “tear down” the walls of the Cold War, the wranglers of medical science could, with the help of the AIDS vaccine, author a sense of  common humanity by placing vaccines in the hands of humanitarian-minded peoples.

In 2008, Doctors Without Borders published an article (headlined with a photo of Black children standing in line) that begins:

Over the last few years, new vaccines to fight an increased range of childhood diseases have come to market. These new products come at a time when there is a renewed focus and international commitment to ensure that children in developing countries are also able to benefit from full protection against childhood killer diseases.

Six year later, as a customer of Walgreens, I am told that I share something with the isolated girl in Africa who, according to the picture above, grows up in grass and weeds. If we share anything, we supposedly share the hope found in the vaccine.

Vaccine pragmatism was born within the history of American public health. In the emergence of American public health, receipt of vaccines illustrated a transformation of the vaccine recipient into a new type of citizenship.

Indeed, if individuals didn’t participate in the act of vaccination, they were questioned about why they didn’t care for others. “Not only do you suffer,” a public health nurse told us at a “health day” at our middle school around 1993 when she was explaining why we should vaccinate. “You don’t care enough about the rest of us.”

A logic exists that makes anyone who resists vaccines a non-believer in vaccines and, ultimately, a non-believer in science. These “anti-science” people, it is suggested, jeopardize the world through their inability to accept the good that science does (link to a very interesting article by a pediatrician that has this tone of scientific authority). But many people who buck or disregard consensus within medical science communities often attempt to validate their human senses of awareness, especially as these senses contradict narratives from corporations, governments, and other powerful communities. (Here is a great video that brings together some interesting voices from the science community.)

In those contexts, the current ‘anti-vaxx vs. pro-vaxx’ debate becomes, in reality, a debate between the power of consensus and, on the other side, the observations and senses of people in their everyday worlds. Consensus can’t extinguish the senses of people in the early 21st century especially when contemporary human perception is facilitated by rapid and quite explicit forms of communication.

For example, parents who observe the timing of vaccines and onset of certain diseases like Autism use blogs to share stories to audiences of thousands or, perhaps, millions. Twitter is ablaze with links to videos and photographs that describe genetic science gone wrong in livestock and other biological beings. A conservative blogger states directly that:

It’s doubtful that measles cases skyrocketed last year, increasingly threefold, because of Jenny McCarthy. There was a little thing called amnesty which brought with it a border rush and plenty of other diseases.

Jenny McCarthy is a former porn-star who, according to many folks, stirs up fear and panic within the conservative/Right community in the United States through her various media appearances. However, her image as a morally questionable person (because she was a porn-star) doesn’t seem to overshadow the power of her identity as the mouthpiece for a quite large community of people in the United States who want to expose ambiguity within the economy of vaccines in the United States and globally through their personal and vicarious experiences.

During the Slavery Question, the encroachment of the federal government (as articulated by peoples in the Confederacy) helped deflect conversations away from the major American problem: the enslavement and torture of mostly Black peoples. Similarly, in the Vaccine Question, the promoters of vaccination make vaccine questioners out to be unpatriotic, unsympathetic, and “tin foil hat” wearing crazies who, at the end of the day, encroach on the importance of vaccines. These promoters ignore those who ask questions about the relationships of vaccines to human rights and medical ethics (aspects of American society that most people would say they are at least mildly concerned with).

I’m reminded in this moment of Bill Gates’ 2010 Ted Talk titled “Innovating to zero” (link). In this talk, he suggests that GreenHouse gases – carbon dioxide, to be exact – are the basis of a new ecological arithmetic. To reduce GreenHouse gases, he suggests, four factors have to be brought nearer to zero: “population,” “services,” “energy,” and “carbon dioxide per unit of energy.”

In the course of his talk, Gates slips in a quite confusing line of thought:

First we’ve got population…that’s headed up to about 9 billion…if we do a really great job on new vaccines, healthcare, reproductive services….we can lower that perhaps by 10 or 15 percent.

These words came in the midst of efforts by Gate’s Foundation to provide massive numbers of vaccines to children across the world. Interestingly, the vaccines that Gates’ Foundation distributed most widely included polio vaccine and HPV vaccine (the vaccine that, according to the billboard outside of Chicago, “is cancer prevention”… read part 1 of this post for more details).

Like in Chicago, common people who receive HPV in India describe how the HPV vaccine has destroyed the bodies of young girls (link).

So where do we go from here? This conversation ultimately spins into a discussion of how we “speak truth to power,” to follow the old Quaker saying. What do we do to separate ourselves from consensus-driving programs or hegemonies that don’t allow humans in the United States (and the world, for that matter) the freedom to take ownership of their vulnerabilities?

Vaccines remain the only communion substance (like the wafer given to a Catholic parishioner) that is truly shared between peoples across the world in the early 21st century.

In the next part, I will discuss the ramifications of this new type of communion.

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