The Unspoken Legacy of Vaccinations

So I was watching this program on PBS last night about the controversy over childhood vaccinations.  Today I would like to address a related topic that no one is talking about, at least not yet, which is, are vaccinations actually lowering our collective resistance to disease?

This may sound odd, so let me explain.

Before the advent of vaccinations, standard childhood diseases took a considerable toll. It was not uncommon, before 1930 or so, for a woman to give birth to six kids and have half of them die before they were three years old. So of course, sparing families such a terrible tragedy is, I think, generally a good thing.

However, here is the problem:

All immune systems are not created equal.

In the past, we had an uneasy bargain with “survival of the fittest.” Children who had less than a top rate ability to fight off disease were removed from the gene pool on a regular basis. Now, with the advent of vaccines for everyone, if your DNA includes a less than spectacular immune system, you still have a pretty good chance of growing up and contributing to the general gene pool.

This probably won’t have any effect on the current population, or the next generation or even the one after. But one of these days, some really nasty new virus is going to come along, and it is going to be absolutely thrilled to discover a population of human beings who, on average, have the worst immune system in our species’ history.

This may be a little bit like the 16th century experience of the Native American Indian population. They had been “immunized” from most European diseases (in particular, flu and smallpox) by geography, and so their immune systems never developed to fight these diseases. Superior weapons helped a lot, but the real reason Europeans on wooden boats were able to take over two continents so easily is because the indigenous population was decimated by a lack of immunity to disease.

This is not a new concept. We understand that if we overuse penicillin, we cause various strains of bacteria to evolve into something more toxic. Evolution applies to us too. By using these vaccinations, we are evolving as well, allowing the propagation of DNA that, in the past, was systematically removed from the gene pool.

Now certainly, I’m not suggesting that we go back to the old system. I think most of us would agree that if we can save children from being killed by diphtheria and measles, that’s a good thing. But we are already experiencing one negative effect of the removal of these diseases, which is overpopulation. I just hope we are ready for the consequences down the road of a collectively compromised immune system, which will be the inevitable result of never culling the weaker offspring from the herd.

© Justin Locke

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