There are many conspiracy theories about vaccines, and they circulate almost continuously. Some are relatively new, but most are at least a few years old. They all tend to fall into several defined types, such as the “CDC whistleblower” story, which posits that the “CDC knew” all these years that vaccines cause autism but covered it up, even going so far as to commit scientific fraud to do so. Of the many other myths about vaccines that stubbornly persist despite all evidence showing them not only to be untrue but to be risibly, pseudoscientifically untrue, among whose number are myths that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that so resembles shaken baby syndrome (more correctly called abusive head trauma) that shaken baby syndrome is a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, the antivaccine conspiracy theory that vaccines are being used for population control is one of the most persistent. In this myth, vaccines are not designed to protect populations of impoverished nations against diseases like the measles, which still kills hundreds of thousands of people a year outside of developed countries. Oh, no. Rather, according to this myth, vaccines are in fact a surreptitious instrument of population control designed to render people sterile, for whatever nefarious reasons the powers that be have to want to control the population.
You might recall how a few years ago antivaccinationists leaped on a statement by Bill Gates that “if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that [population] by perhaps 10 or 15 percent.” They used it to accuse Gates of being a eugenicist and that vaccines were in actuality an instrument of global depopulation. It was a ridiculous charge of course. In context, it was clear that Gates was referring to how the expected population increase from 6.8 billion to 9 billion could be blunted by providing good health care, including reproductive care and vaccines, to impoverished people in regions where the population increases are expected to be greatest. He was clearly referring to decreasing the expected population increase by 10% or 15%, meaning that instead of going up to 9 billion the population would only increase to between 7.65 and 8.1 billion. In other words, he was referring to how good health care could decrease the expected rate of population growth, not how vaccines could be used to depopulate the world. However, because of the prevalence of the myth that vaccines are sterilizing agents intended for global depopulation, the charge that Gates is a eugenicist, as obviously off base as it is to reasonable people, resonated in the anti-science world of antivaccinationists. Similar claims, namely that there is “something” in vaccines that results in infertility and sterilization, have been unfortunately very effective in frightening people in Third World countries and have played a major role in antivaccine campaigns that have delayed the eradication of polio.
Since the development of the vaccine, perhaps the most effective public health measure we have yet devised, only one human disease has been completely eradicated from the world – smallpox. The last case was reported in Somalia in 1977. Eradication was the result of a deliberate and intense campaign, requiring almost complete vaccination of the population, especially in certain population dense areas. Countries such as India and Nigeria were among the last to achieve eradication. Some of the lessons learned were that very high compliance rates were needed and that even small communities could harbor the virus and prevent eradication.
Several decades later, at the beginning of the 21st century, we are on the verge of eradicating a second major human infectious disease, polio. Like smallpox, polio is a virus that has no major non-human host, so eradication is possible. The polio virus enters the anterior horn cells of the spinal cord, the lower motor neuron – cells that connect the brain to muscles. When those cells die muscles lose their connection causing weakness and atrophy. Vaccine campaigns have successfully eliminated polio from most countries, but the wild type of the virus remains endemic in Nigeria, India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
We have the potential, with one final push (which is being spearheaded by the World Health Organization – WHO) to eradicate wild type polio from the world, but these efforts are being hampered by politics and ideology.
There is an AIDS epidemic in Africa, and efforts to fight it are hampered by the endemic social problems of that continent. Chief among them are the lack of sufficient modern health resources, the spread of destructive rumors and myths about HIV/AIDS, and even the persistence of HIV denial in Africa (although this last factor is better than in the past).
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International HIV/AIDS Alliance are teaming up with the Traditional Health Practitioners Association of Zambia (THPAZ) to address the first problem – the lack of health services. Most Zambians use traditional healers for primary health care. The WHO has therefore decided to utilize traditional healers in the fight against AIDS. There are interesting pros and cons to this policy, but it must first be recognized that there is no ideal solution to the problem. The resources to provide optimal modern health care to treat and prevent HIV/AIDS (which would need to include a massive education program) in Zambia and the rest of Africa simply do not exist. One might argue that the world should provide those resources, but let’s put that issue aside and focus on what to do in the meantime.
The arguments given in favor of this WHO strategy are:
Traditional healers far outnumber biomedical workers in the rural areas.
They are consulted, not only because they are closer and more affordable than their Western-trained counterparts, but also because they are embedded, extensively and firmly, within Ugandan culture.
Traditional healers are highly respected and widely consulted by communities.