The Risk of Contagion Nation

Challenges to science are emerging across the political spectrum from Christian fundamentalists on the Right to skeptics on the Left who question the inherent good of progress with one result a growing resistance to vaccinations for children, as Bill Moyers and Michael Winship note.

By Bill Moyers and Michael Winship

We haven’t even turned the page on the controversy over contraceptives, health care and religious freedom, when another thorny one arises involving personal conscience and public health. A flurry of stories over the past few days coincided with seeing a movie that inspires more than passing interest in their subject.

Steven Soderbergh’s film Contagion came out a few months ago and was inexplicably and completely frozen out of the Oscar nominations. But it is the most plausible experience of a global pandemic plague you’re likely to see until the real thing strikes. With outstanding performances from an ensemble cast that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Gwyneth Paltrow and Laurence Fishburne, Contagionis stark, beautiful in its own terrifying way, and all-too-believable.

The poster for the movie, “Contagion”

The story tracks the swift progress of a deadly airborne virus from Hong Kong to Minneapolis and Tokyo to London — from a handful of peanuts to a credit card to the cough of a stranger on a subway. Rarely does a film issue such an inescapable invitation to think: it could happen; that could be us. What would we do?

With Contagion making such a powerful impression, for several days news articles seemed to keep popping up about contagious disease and the conflict between religious beliefs and immunization. There was nothing new about the basics: All 50 states require some specific vaccinations for kids, yet all of them grant exemptions for medical reasons say, for a child with cancer. Almost all of them grant religious exemptions. And 20 states allow exemptions for personal, moral, or other beliefs.

According to the Feb. 15 edition of The Wall Street Journal, a number of pediatricians are dropping families from their practices when the parents refuse immunization for their kids. “In a study of Connecticut pediatricians published last year,” the paper reported, “some 30% of 133 doctors said they had asked a family to leave their practice for vaccine refusal, and a recent survey of 909 Midwestern pediatricians found that 21% reported discharging families for the same reason.

“By comparison, in 2001 and 2006 about 6% of physicians said they ‘routinely’ stopped working with families due to parents’ continued vaccine refusal and 16% ‘sometimes’ dismissed them, according to surveys conducted then by the American Academy of Pediatrics.”

But some parents still fear a link between vaccinations and autism, a possibility science has largely debunked. Some parents just want to be in charge of what’s put into their children’s bodies, as one West Virginia politician puts it.

And some parents just don’t trust science, period — a few have even been known to fake religion to avoid vaccinating their kids. So there are many loopholes. But now seven states are considering legislation to make it even easier for mothers and fathers to spare their children from vaccinations, especially on religious grounds.

In Oregon, according to a story by Jennifer Anderson in The Portland Tribune, the number of kindergartners with religious exemptions is up from 3.7 percent to 5.6 percent in just four years, and continuing to rise. This has public health officials clicking their calculators and keeping their eye on what’s called “herd immunity.”

A certain number of any population group needs to have been vaccinated 80 percent for most diseases, 92 percent for whooping cough to maintain the ability of the whole population “the herd” to resist the spread of a disease.

Ms. Anderson offers the example of what used to be called “the German measles” rubella. All it takes are five unvaccinated kids in a class of 25 for the herd immunity to break down, creating an opportunity for the disease to spread to younger siblings and other medically vulnerable people who can’t be vaccinated. If you were traveling to Europe between 2009 and 2011, you may remember warnings about the huge outbreak of measles there, brought on by a failure “to vaccinate susceptible populations.”

Here in the United States, several recent outbreaks of measles have been traced to pockets of unvaccinated children in states that allow personal belief exemptions. The Reuters news service recently reported 13 confirmed cases of measles in central Indiana. Two of them were people who showed up to party two days before the Super Bowl in Indianapolis. Patriots and Giants fans back east were alerted. So far, no news is good news.

But this is serious business, made more so by complacency. Older generations remember when measles killed up to 500 people a year before we started vaccinating against them in 1963. The great flu pandemic of 1918 killed ten times more Americans than died in the Great World War that ended that year and took the lives of as many as 40 million globally. Our generation was also stalked by small pox, polio and whooping cough before there were vaccinations.

In a country where few remember those diseases, it’s easy to think, “What’s to worry?” But as the movie Contagion so forcefully and hauntingly reminds us, the earth is now flat. Seven billion people live on it, and our human herd moves on a conveyer belt of perpetual mobility, so that a virus can travel as swiftly as a voice from one cell phone to another.

When and if a contagion strikes, we can’t count on divine intervention to spare us. That’s when you want a darn good scientist in a research lab. We’ll need all the help we can get from knowledge and her offspring.

Bill Moyers is managing editor and Michael Winship is senior writer of the new weekly public affairs program, “Moyers & Company,” airing on public television. Check local airtimes or comment at


8 comments for “The Risk of Contagion Nation

  1. M.K.
    March 4, 2012 at 11:41

    The ignorance espoused by some of the posters is breathtaking. Simply because a pharmaceutical company manufactures a vaccine does mean the injection is safe. Pharmaceutical companies are in the business of one thing and one thing only: MAKING MONEY. And they don’t care if what they make does or does not cause harm. That is NOT their first concern.

    Understand that patents of very lucrative drugs are on the verge of expiring, and pharmaceutical companies are doing everything they can to both extend those patents in any way possible and create new “diseases” that will – OF COURSE! – require drugs and vaccines.

    The new edition of the DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL DISORDERS which has just been issued – this “bible” of the psychiatric industry – now makes EVERYTHING a “mental illness”. According to this new edition, “hoarding” is a mental illness. Are you angry? Bitter? Shop till you drop? Is your home cluttered? Do you binge eat? Are you lazy? Do you sometimes becomes suddenly angry? Well, obviously you must be mentally ill!! And what’s the solution? Why, a drug of course! And who makes the drug?

    A DRUG COMPANY!!!!!!!!

    So, before you accept without thinking everything you see and hear about vaccinations and medications, do yourself a favor and THINK!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Patricia Abbott
    March 2, 2012 at 04:06

    The solution: Make vaccines safer. Institute a schedule of recommended vaccines that do not interfere with normal brain development – there are too many vaccines given at one time, too frequesntly to infants and children with brains in a vulnerable state of development.

    More research is needed as to why there are adverse effects and deaths due to vaccines. There has to be a safer way to produce vaccines. Do No Harm.

  3. F. G. Sanford
    March 1, 2012 at 23:40

    I’ve been wracking my brain to figure out just what behavior exhibited by conservatives and religious loons would be the one most likely to deselect them from the gene pool. Healthcare in America has always been a little looney when you stop and think about it. We make a big deal about having to pay by way of insurance actuarial tables for people’s bad habits. Then, medicine turns around and creates “specialties” for management of self-inflicted chronic disease. My favorite is “Sports Medicine”. Personally, I think anybody that gets brain damage from football deserves it. It’s a shame when it happens to kids, but let’s face it: their parents were morons for permitting it in the first place. Then of course, there’s all the cosmetic procedures. Like deliberately injecting someone with botulinum toxin to make them look better. My observation is that most people that get cosmetic surgery are still ugly, and the poor devils that really need it due to developmental disorders can’t get it because they can’t pay. That is a truly immoral facet of American healthcare.

    Can you imagine if we had a “Smoker’s Medicine” or a “Drinker’s Medicine” specialty? But it’s OK for some idiot to run ten miles a day for twenty years, and nobody bitches when we all have to pay for the hip and knee replacements. One of my relatives just had a knee replacement. She’s 98. Do I think that was medical malpractice? You bet I do. Especially when poor people wait for twelve hours to be seen in an Emergency Room.

    Mercury in vaccinations, mercury in fillings, there’s no end to the nonsense. I’m waiting for someone to ban cardiac patients from public places because some loon finds out there’s nitroglycerine in those patches they wear. God knows, there could be enough nitroglycerine on their breath to blow up an entire doctor’s office. “Cosmetic Dentistry” solved the “business problem” for dentists. One of those “Big Three”, and it isn’t M&M’s, pays for lots and lots of research and advertising to keep the “adhesive dentists” in the business of avoiding superior and far safer silver amalgam fillings. It seems dentists tacitly encourage mercury fear by failure to inform. But hey, dentistry isn’t without its “designer diseases” either. Take the misnomer, “TMJ disease”, for instance. They sell a lot of those expensive mouth-guards. A dentist buddy of mine told me that, “Usually, it’s women looking for a fellatio prevention program, and money never seems to be an obstacle”.

    Until science finds the courage to start belittling these superstitious, lunatic ideas for what they are, I am afraid that ‘Mother Nature’ will be left to her own devices. The reality of global warming is proof that there are too many of us, and/or that we are grotesquely irresponsible stewards of this planet. In the meantime, the religious loonies will placate themselves with their ludicrous nonsense and defiance in the face of enlightenment. I truly felt sad for a grandmother with a brain-damaged grandchild, but she wasn’t worried. She had a poster that said, “I know I’m special because God don’t make no junk”. Kinda begs the question…”Who made the dinosaurs?” It isn’t nice to fool ‘Mother Nature’.

  4. Anonymous
    March 1, 2012 at 19:38

    Well, well. I came to Consortium News to look for something other than lamestream media propaganda, and then find muck like this article which makes only one true statement, the statistic of those opting out, and the rest a bunch of rubbish. As far as the possibility of a pandemic, it most certainly will be due to a biological WMD should it happen. Shame on you, CN. There are literally hundreds of valid research studies that debunk the profitable-for-Big Pharma, pro-eugenics myth of vaccines. I suggest you start reading some of them.

    Off you go, CN, you’re being deleted from my list.

    • bobzz
      March 1, 2012 at 21:05

      Well, those of us that are older can testify to the near eradication of many of the childhood diseases that afflicted large segments of the population decades ago, e.g., measles, pertussis, polio. We don’t need studies to document the obvious; bring on the science.

    • March 3, 2012 at 15:14

      Murderous, foolish attitude on your part. I would say good riddance, you and your ignorance and superstition, except that you would probably show up somewhere that you can infect people. The only reason you think vaccines are too hazardous is because they have been so successful at ridding the world of killer diseases that the small percentages of bad reaction now seem to loom large. Polio was still a killer and crippler of millions when I grew up. Now, you almost never see it. You only see the vaccines.

      Did you really think the flu deaths in the tens of millions world wide was a deliberate WMD of the time? They didn’t have the technology to craft such a weapon, but then it didn’t really take deliberate technology in warfare, just one person after another traveling and coughing and touching and with no immunities, natural or from vaccines.

      The calculation of deaths from vaccines versus the disease is not a cold one. The coldest calculation of all is to kill many people because you don’t want to risk a tiny number of people. You always spotlight the failures and refuse to spotlight the numbers left to live their lives, who otherwise would be victims. Nothing is absolute, but we can get closer to saving more lives with medical science.

    • oona
      March 4, 2012 at 09:46

      It’s not “either/or” — that is, vaccination vs. no vaccination. Both are correct. Yes, some major diseases have been eliminated. Then, like everything else, the profit cannibals and fear mongers step in and screw the public by insisting that everyone be vaccinated for this year’s flu virus. This type vaccination frenzy is a danger in itself. Let the public, not Big Pharma, make its own health decisions. We should be more afraid of the viruses and bacteria that our Military is cooking up for use against the “enemy.” As we have found out recently with the NDAA and unPatriot Act, we Americans are now the designated enemy.

  5. Frances in California
    March 1, 2012 at 16:55

    I must belong to Mr. Moyers’s generation as opposed to the younger, “what’s to worry?” crowd. I have arthritis and take immune-suppressants – if a deadly pathogen like the all-to-plausible one in “Contagion” breaks out, I would not be able to take the vaccine as depicted in the movie – it’s live virus; I’d be toast either way. Yes, we need good researchers desperately, and not to greenwash Monsanto!

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