Comment »Posted on Wednesday 18 March 2009 at 12:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

The BBC have a very thought provoking article on vaccines from Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol. He talks about our society’s need to classify things as “good” or “bad, “natural” or “unnatural” – vaccines often falling in the latter category. What exactly is “natural” though? Finn presents the following list and asks us to decide which is natural:

  • 1 – toilet rolls made from recycled paper
  • 2 – supermarket plastic bags you chuck away after one use
  • 3 – flying first class to New York to go shopping
  • 4 – walking to the top of a Welsh mountain
  • 5 – eating an apple you just picked in your garden
  • 6 – eating a microwaved preprepared dinner

He expects that we would pick options 1, 4 and 5. I might quibble about 1 – toilet paper seems very “unnatural” to me, even if it is recycled – but 4 and 5 fit my personal definition. He then argues that if we take natural to mean “the way it used to be before modern civilisation came along”, none of these things fit the definition. I’ll agree that the cultivation of apples has been changed by modern civilisation, but walking to the top of mountain? Not sure how that has changed, which does weaken his argument slightly.

Ultimately, I think it’s a pretty pointless distinction to make. “Natural” is not that far removed from “the way God intended”, which is certainly not an argument I want to get into. Much of the rest of the article is devoted to explaining why vaccines could be considered more “natural” than prescribing pills or performing surgery, but it is the very end that really got me thinking:

Look around any room crowded with young and middle-aged adults – next time you go to see a film for example – and imagine scores of empty seats that would be there if all those whose lives had been saved by vaccines were suddenly to vanish.

Imagine all your family and friends and then, arbitrarily, remove or cripple one in 20.

This image instantly hit me. I could picture sitting in a cinema and watching 5% of the people around me fading away. At a very rough estimate, using a population figure of 40 million aged 15-64, 2 million people are alive and healthy today because of vaccination – in other words, twice the population of Birmingham. If that’s not a convincing argument for vaccination, I’m not sure what is.


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