Measles, the Anti-Vax Movement, and the Moral Imperative

I’m ticked off this week. No getting around it; I am. But I’m also sad and frustrated.

As of April 11th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that there have been 555 confirmed cases of measles so far this year. That’s more than in all of 2018 (372) and the highest number since 2014 (667). Measles was declared “eliminated” in the U.S. in 2000, but that means the disease isn’t present all the time (or “endemic”), not that it doesn’t exist at all.

Travelers from countries where measles is still endemic bring cases into the U.S. every year. Usually, there are enough people who’ve been vaccinated around them that no one else catches the disease, or a few do, and then no one else does. This is “herd immunity” at work.

But there are states and municipalities around the country where people can claim all sorts of reasons for not wanting to get vaccinated, or get their kids vaccinated. As a result, not only are they now vulnerable to this disease—and a lot of others—but so are the people around them.

Some of these people cite religious beliefs. Some of them live in relatively small, tightly knit communities like the Orthodox Jews in part of New York City. Others are scattered throughout their cities like, say, Christian Scientists. Or they live in isolated rural areas. I’m not happy about them for reasons I’ll make clear later.

I’m much more concerned about the ordinary but science-ignorant citizens who’ve been suckered by the anti-vaccine movement into believing emotion-laden allegations that vaccines cause all sorts of conditions, the most famous, or infamous, being autism. Never mind that in the case of autism, the scientist whose study started the whole thing retracted his research long ago, agreeing with his critics that he’d made some pretty serious errors in his work and conclusions.

But the virus of fear has been released into the wild.

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A Formula for the Science in Science Fiction

The fundamental element of my Eternity Plague series—The Eternity Plague (book 1), Chrysalis (book 2), and Wild Spread (book 3, currently in draft)—is that five naturally-mutated viruses have infected all of humanity and are doing all sorts of strange and not necessarily wonderful things to everyone. My heroine, Dr. Janet Hogan, discovers the viruses and has to try to stop them before they do too many awful things. Good luck with that: so far the viruses are doing more things faster than Janet and her team can respond to them. How will the series end? Sorry, no spoilers here.

But because these books are science fiction, I wanted to ground them in science, and good science at that. But having the viruses cure and prevent all viral diseases and repair the genetic mutations that cause others?

Uh, yeah, that seems like a stretch. But that’s why I write “fiction beyond the known,” right?

Now, I’m not a geneticist like Janet is, nor do I play one on TV or in the movies, so I needed to do a fair amount of research to be able to present things in a credible but futuristic way, since the series is set in the mid- to late 2030s.

A ribosome
A ribosome

For example, early in The Eternity Plague, Janet and her team are deep inside a virtual reality simulation of a gene’s DNA being run through a megamolecule called a ribosome, which “reads” the DNA and creates a protein. I invoke other genetic machinery, including something called messenger RNA to help make the protein, which it does in real life.

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The Book/Marathon Connection

The cliché “writing a book is like running a marathon” has, like all other clichés, that kernel of truth that gets worn out from overuse. But the kernel remains true.

Young man running with computer
Photo by Photostock, via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I got to thinking about this because, while I work on draft #4 of Wild Spread, I’m also getting ready for my 19th consecutive year of volunteering with the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. There are many parallels between writing the book and my volunteer work—which I do to honor the memory of a friend who was killed in the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building—the first being that they’re both important to me. I’ve also completed one half-marathon and two books, so I can speak with at least some knowledge of running and writing.

The other parallels between writing and marathoning include:

  • They require persistence. This is the obvious one. Both require continuous, steady exertion and development in order to complete the task. Runners and writers both build endurance and confidence over time, and both must learn a lot along the way, about themselves and what it takes to achieve their goal.

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