Glenn Reynolds: When I was a child in the ’60s, polio was history, measles was on the way out, and diphtheria and whooping cough were maladies out of old movies. Now these contagious diseases are making a comeback. Take measles, for instance. The disease used to infect 3 to 4 million Americans per year, hospitalizing nearly 50,000 people and causing 400 to 500 deaths. In 2000 a panel of experts convened by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proclaimed that measles transmission had been eradicated in the United States, except for imported cases. But that caveat is important. An unvaccinated 7-year-old from San Diego became infected with measles while traveling with his family in Switzerland and ended up transmitting the disease back home to two siblings, five schoolmates and four other children at his doctor’s office—all of them unvaccinated. Whooping cough has also seen a resurgence: A school in the East Bay area near San Francisco was closed recently when some 16 students fell ill.
The reason for these incidents—and for recent outbreaks of polio—is that the percentage of parents vaccinating their children has fallen, perhaps because some parents see no point in warding off diseases they’ve never encountered.
It really is so easy to take the benefits of progress for granted. Just a few generations ago, people worried about real life-and-death matters, because just surviving until the morrow was of primary importance. Today, we have the luxury of worrying about whether vaccines that have saved hundreds of millions from deadly and deforming diseases are worth the ever-so-slight risks involved. Unfortunately, those who conclude that they are not gamble with more than just their own life.
Call it Maslow's Hierarchy of Worries. Once the human mind resolves one worry, it will latch onto another, even when it is irrational to do so.