Just a Little Pin-Prick

17 12 2012

I have been remiss in not talking about a very important subject. Like most topics I deem worthy of a rant, the people at whom I direct my ire routinely disregard evidence and scientific inquiry in favor of what they believe the truth to be. The more evidence is provided which completely disproves their idiotic beliefs, the more strongly they cling to their irrational ideas. I am speaking, of course, about the anti-vaccination movement.

This could probably fall under the heading of “First World Problems”, mainly because this misguided effort to inflict misery and death in the form of preventable diseases seems to be solely the prerogative of wealthy Americans. Not content with helping measles and mumps make a comeback here in the US, these cretins are now trying to spread the misery to areas of the world already miserable from the prevalence of preventable illnesses.

Their stated objection is the presence of a chemical called Thimerisol in the vaccines intended for use by the UN World Health Organization in Africa. Thimerisol, for those of you who aren’t deeply involved in the anti-vaccination movement, is supposedly the embodiment of pure Evil which causes autism in children. Never mind that there is no evidence that Thimerisol causes autism, or that study after study has proven there is no link between vaccinations (with or without Thimerisol) and autism, a bunch of well-off white women think there’s a link, and that’s good enough for them. They’re not even content to just allow their own kids to fall victim to diseases which ought to be nearly non-existent in a First World country, they have created crusades to spread the word about this horrible conspiracy by doctors, scientists, and pharmaceutical companies to make their babies autistic.

Why is Thimerisol added to vaccines anyway, a more reasonable person might ask? It turns out that Thimerisol is a preservative, and is used to prevent the vaccine from going bad if un-refrigerated. Refrigeration is ubiquitous here in the US, but is much more rare in other parts of the world, such as a lot of Africa. If the vaccine is not kept properly refrigerated before being dispensed, the recipient can develop a nasty case of meningitis. Thimerisol prevents this from happening. Apparently the shrill suburbanites who oppose vaccinations would rather have 40,000 children die from measles in Africa (last year’s number) than be exposed to the living Hell that is life-saving medicine.

In a rational world, these frantic harpies would be ignored byeveryone with a functioning cerebellum for their willful ignorance. Sadly, the United States is apparently chock-full of people desperate to prove that it is someone else’s fault their kid has autism. “They gave my baby a shot right after delivery, and now he’s autistic!” “They’re giving our kids too many vaccinations too soon, and this overwhelms their little bodies and makes them autistic!” “It isn’t my fault- it has to be those evil pharmaceutical companies!”

Let’s see now. The doctor in the delivery room gave your baby a shot right after birth, and this somehow contaminated the poor tyke and caused permanent mental impairment. Here’s a clue for you: when your baby took its first breath, it inhaled several trillion microbes into its lungs along with the air. By comparison, the drug cocktail in the syringe is as close to sterile as medically possible. Furthermore, there’s a damned good reason to get that shot immediately- it protects the child from Hepatitis B. Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) causes chronic illness and roughly 3,000 deaths every year. 30-40% of those chronic illnesses result from childhood exposure. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has a schedule of recommended vaccinations for children, developed from research on preventing childhood diseases. Of course, to the anti-vaccination crowd, this only means that the CDC is part of the conspiracy.

How about that idea that the vaccinations are too much, too soon? Sorry, but that is also a crock of shit. Despite howls of protest from the anti-vaccination wing-nuts, yet another study has shot down this idea. There is no link between childhood vaccinations and autism- or any other neurological problem.

Every single time these anti-vaccination imbeciles come up with a new reason why no children should ever be protected from preventable and life-threatening diseases, doctors and scientists sigh heavily and conduct another study which proves that the anti-vaccination folks don;t know what the Hell they’re talking about. With every scientific defeat, these loons dredge up yet another outlandish theory about the causes of autism. They absolutely refuse to look at the scientific evidence which suggests that there’s a strong genetic component to autism. In some cases, the neurological abnormalities associated with autism have been observed in babies still in the womb. This alone should put the entire “vaccinations cause autism” bullshit to rest, and yet the “movement” continues to try and convince everyone else to refuse childhood vaccinations.

Why should we care? What does it matter if a bunch of suburban housewives refuse to let their precious snowflakes get vaccinated? It’ll be too bad for the kid when he or she gets dangerously sick from an easily preventable disease, but that’s the parent’s problem, right?

Wrong. There is a substantial minority of people in this country who cannot be vaccinated for some diseases, or who have depressed immune systems for a variety of reasons (such as cancer treatments). Very young children aren’t scheduled to get the Measles/Mumps/Rubella (MMR) shot until they’re 12 months old, so they are at risk until properly vaccinated. Older people whose vaccinations have lapsed or who may be allergic to a particular vaccine are also at risk. Ordinarily, they would all be protected by what doctors call “herd immunity”. If enough members of a group (such as the United States of America, for one example) have or are given immunity or resistance to a particular disease, there will be so few cases of the disease that the few who lack the immunity/resistance can be relatively safe.

No longer. Thanks to the anti-vaccination movement, the number of measles cases in the US doubled between 2008 and 2009, with 89% of the victims being children whose parents had refused vaccination. In 1996, there were four deaths from Pertussis (whooping cough) in the US. By 2001, the number was 17- most of them infants under one year old. Since the deeply stupid anti-vaccination craze took hold, there have been roughly 5,000 cases of mumps across the US, with roughly 15 deaths per year.

For those of you not really paying attention so far, allow me to sum up: People (including children) are dying of easily preventable diseases here in the US because of a group of anti-scientific imbeciles who refuse to listen to facts and evidence. Is that clear enough for you?

Here are some more facts for you:

Fewer youngsters worldwide are dying of childhood diseases now than at any other time in history. About 80% of children today are vaccinated against such deadly illnesses as measles and polio, compared with 20% in the early 1980s.

There were an estimated 30 to 40 million cases of measles in 2000, causing some 777,000 deaths.

…immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide. A further 16 million deaths a year could be prevented if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.

“Health officials say aggressive efforts to vaccinate young children against measles have resulted in a 74 percent global decline in the number of deaths due to the illness [between 2000 and 2007]. Experts say the biggest decline, 90 percent, occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean region.”

In England and Wales, measles cases increased 36% in 2008. Measles cases more than doubled from the year before during the first half of 2008 in the United States.

“Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans — now regarded as a third world problem — were a first world reality.”

Amy Wallace

Pay attention to the numbers above. Doctors are often accused of only providing treatments, but not cures. Vaccines have provided one of the really few bright spots in medical history, where the docs can say they have a definite win. Polio is almost extinct. Small pox now only exists in a few laboratories. Those diseases once devastated millions, and are now all but eradicated, thanks to vaccines. Are we going to throw all that away because a few deeply stupid people in the US “don’t feel right” about it?

Special thanks to Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, whose excellent writing on the subject convinced me to add my miniscule voice to the chorus.

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Youngblood by Naked and Famous

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Cliff Diving

3 12 2012

If you are considered a sentient life form and live in the United States, you should know about the “looming fiscal cliff”. In order to remain ignorant of the “fiscal cliff”, you would have to work very hard at avoiding any form of media for months on end- starting back in June. Since you are reading this on your computer, I can safely assume you might be aware of the existence of this fiduciary peril. Not many people really understand much beyond the nifty name, however. In order to do any trace amounts of justice to the topic, I’ll have to delve into some history. Try not to disturb the other students with your snoring.

Back in the bad old days (the summer of 2011), the US government was about to hit its Congressionally-set limit on how much money it could borrow. This is known as the “Debt Ceiling”. Historically, whenever the government approaches this limit, Congress harumphs loudly and raises its own credit limit. This is possible because Congress is apparently immune to cause and effect, rational thought, or any possibility of serving the public who hired them. The idea of living within our national means does not seem to have occurred to anyone in Congress, ever.

At any rate, raising the debt ceiling- particularly in the middle of a fiscal year- was never a big deal until the summer of 2011. That was when the opponents of President Obama decided to use what used to be a pro-forma action to get even with him for being insufficiently republican, or something. Despite a couple of centuries of nearly-automatic approval for raising the debt limit, the House of Representatives voted to play “chicken” with the country’s credit rating.

Mind you, a great many people whose business it is to know such things warned repeatedly that playing stupid political games over the country’s ability to borrow money would have consequences. These warnings had no observable effect on the Congress-critters who were dead set on using the issue to punish the president for some imagined transgressions. The credit ratings agencies which decide how much it costs to borrow money weighed in, warning that this sort of partisan dickery would lower the country’s credit rating, but Congress didn’t listen- even after the US credit rating was downgraded. The end result of this political bullshit? Glad you asked. First, it now costs the government more to borrow money, making our financial situation even less secure. Second, Congress decided to pass a law allowing our debt limit to increase if a certain set of conditions were met. The rest of the government agreed to meet those conditions, and the crisis was averted … sort of.

Those “conditions” in exchange for increasing the debt ceiling were pretty basic. First, Congress would have to form a special committee to negotiate budget and spending cuts to avoid such problems in future. This committee would be formed of equal numbers of democrats and republicans, from both Houses of Congress, and they had to come to an agreement by a certain date, or a bunch of extremely painful spending cuts would automatically take effect … more than a year later. If you think that all boils down to merely postponing the problem until after the next General Election, you have a lot of company in that opinion.

To no one’s surprise, the Super-Committee utterly failed to reach any sort of agreement, so- theoretically- a great many budget cuts would automatically take place on January 1st, 2013 (the so-called “Fiscal Cliff”). The problem, of course, is that Congress can always pass a law to nullify the law they passed earlier. The House republicans were confident that they’d win enough additional seats in the House and Senate (and possibly the White House) during the General Election to allow them to merely ignore the spending cuts by Congressional fiat.

Oops.

Contrary to the optimistic predictions of the republicans, they lost seats in the House and Senate and failed to win the Presidency. The ultra-faux-conservative “Tea Party” wing of the republican party took the brunt of the public ire, which might- theoretically- make it easier for House republicans to compromise with democrats and the White House to avoid the upcoming budget cuts. Early returns are in, and the same problems which prevented the “Super-Committee” from accomplishing anything are still in place. The Speaker of the House is still acting like he’s the one driving the debate, and is unwilling to compromise. The democrats are acting like they were the big winners in the General Election, and are pushing for concessions from the republicans. The People … well, we’re pretty much screwed no matter what happens.

One of the painful budget issues which start on New Year’s Day is the expiration of the “temporary” tax cuts from the previous administration. This means that everyone in the US who earns a paycheck is going to pay more in taxes. One group in the government wants to make those tax cuts permanent. Their opponents want to allow the tax cuts to expire, then re-instate them for everyone making less than $250K per year. Since neither side appears to be willing to budge on this, you can count on paying more in taxes in 2013. It will be mildly painful- basically returning to the tax levels from the end of the Clinton administration- but we, the People, have survived worse. It’s the rest of the slash-and-burn budget cutting which is going to really throw a wrench into the economy’s gears.

Here is the White House description of what is going to happen should the government go over the fiscal cliff. Note that, even in an official White House document, the President can’t resist taking a few partisan jabs at his opponents. Note also that Congress wrote a lot of exemptions into the budget butchery they approved. Things like Congressional perks are in no danger of having to make sacrifices.

Short version (the linked document is almost 400 pages long): Sweeping spending cuts to every single program in the federal budget go into effect on January 1st. These cuts will affect every program, no matter how important. The democrats are facing cuts to social welfare programs like Medicare, and the republicans are facing deep cuts in military programs. Everyone will feel the pain. Congress-critters will face lost jobs in their districts as government and military programs are reduced or eliminated. People on Welfare or Medicare will get less support from the Federal government and the States. Consumer Safety organizations will be forced to curtail inspections of workplaces, factories, and food-production facilities. The military will have to eliminate research and development of weapons systems and procurement of replacement parts. People will lose their jobs. The ripple effects from this sort of draconian budget cutting will slow the economy so badly we may slip back into recession and stay there for a long time. Among other things, our credit rating will take another hit, making it even harder for the government to borrow money.

Why is all this happening? Why is the government risking the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans on political brinksmanship? The short answer is the fact that our elected representatives are more interested in making political points than in doing the job they were hired to do (running the country, for those of you not paying attention).

Governing in a democracy- or a democratic republic like ours- is dependent upon compromise. Those who we elect to represent us in government are expected to do the work of keeping the country running. This involves providing basic functions which are beyond the ability of individuals, localities, or States to provide. Our elected representatives are expected to debate, negotiate, and compromise as necessary to provide these essential functions and services.  Despite that, our elected representatives spend most of their time trying to score points at the expense of their political rivals. The tone of political discourse has grown increasingly combative and strident over the last couple of decades. Both sides demonize the other, and issue public statements claiming that their political rivals are enemies of the people. This is hardly an environment conducive to debate, negotiation, or compromise. Why do they continue with this course of action, which is so profoundly at odds with their actual job?

Because we let them get away with it.

Too many Americans are willing to allow their elected representatives to commit any perfidy so long as they aren’t personally discomfited thereby. So long as they have a few perks of their own, too many Americans have been willing to let the government descend into partisan bickering and gridlock because there was something amusing or titillating on TV. Guess what, Sparky? The free ride is over. Best part? It’s your own damned fault.

So buckle in, everyone. We’re going for a wild ride over a fiscal cliff of our own making. Note that the safety of those buckles cannot be guaranteed, because the government regulators who are supposed to inspect them for quality were laid off. Enjoy the ride!

Wile-E-Coyote_falling

Current status: Disgusted

Current music: Young Turks by Rod Stewart