Friday, May 17, 2019

Ignorance is not Bliss

My sister-in-law, a physician who specializes in infectious disease, is a member of the “Outbreak Team” with the Westchester, NY Department of Health. If you hear about a disease outbreak in the news, it’s almost certain that she is in the thick of it.

The latest outbreak of measles was no different. Wow, did she have stories to tell, most of which revolved around jaw-dropping ignorance and downright stupidity.

As you should know, unless you have been living in a cave with no 4G reception, measles, which was eradicated from the US two decades ago is now back with a vengeance. Why? Because in many communities, not enough people are vaccinated to prevent its spread.

The reasons vary. Some parents believe that vaccines are associated with a high risk of autism or that side effects are more serious than the disease itself, both of which are complete and utter nonsense.

My sister-in-law told me that another excuse is the belief that actually getting the measles or chickenpox or diphtheria or pertussis or mumps or meningitis or HPV or tetanus or hepatitis or rubella or polio will make their children somehow stronger in the long run, regardless of the fact that many of these preventable diseases carry a very high risk of death or permanent debilitation.

Are there serious health risks from vaccines? Yes, but the incidence of death, life-threatening illness, or permanent disability are literally one in a million. Compare that with your lifetime risk of being in a fatal car accident, about one in 600. Yet these same well-meaning, but misinformed, parents have no problem putting their children into the family auto.

If you looked at the risks rationally, getting vaccinated should be a no-brainer.

Rationality, in this and many other issues, seem to be in short supply these days.  According to the President, wind turbines cause cancer for crying out loud.

Distrust of science and expertise is becoming the norm, not the exception. One person’s ignorance is as good as another’s knowledge, especially when knowing how to type search terms into Google will take you to any source you need to get support for your preconceived notions.

A few months back, I had a conversation with a co-worker, very smart man, who did not think human-caused climate change was real. I asked him how he came by that opinion. His reply? He actually didn’t know much about the issue. I offered to let him borrow my textbooks on paleoclimatology, provide links to the National Academy of Science, NASA or NOAA or provide him any of the dozens of scientific journal articles I have collected. He demurred, saying he “wanted to keep an open mind.”

Seems to me that if you want to keep an open mind, the best course of action is to actually to put something in it.

It’s tempting to just smirk at this willful ignorance, but ignorance has costs.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, just a “5% reduction in measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination coverage resulted in a 3-fold increase in annual measles cases with an additional $2.1 million in public sector costs” or about $20,000 per illness. That’s just for children aged 2 to 11. This estimate neither accounts for cost of care, time off work, or hospitalization borne by the individual or family, nor includes the costs of getting these diseases as an adult.

Not dealing with what we are doing to the climate are also costly.  US Gross domestic product is projected to decline by 10% by century’s end if we do nothing. That’s $2 trillion – per year.

But you don’t need to project 80 years, just look what’s happening NOW.

Look at California’s never-ending wildfire season, which cost the state almost $1 billion last year. Look at the spring flooding in the upper mid-west. Look at what is happening right now in the south-central US.  Almost daily repeated torrential storms dumping inches of rain in 24-hour intervals are again decimating communities big and small. And we haven’t even entered hurricane season.

The Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation estimates that “. . . between $66 billion and $160 billion worth of real estate is expected to be below sea level by 2050. By the end of the century, the range is $238 billion to $507 billion”. That’s just on the US East Coast.

Billion here, a billion there. Soon you’re talking about real money.

Ignorance is costly, to yourself, to your children, to your society . . . and to your planet.