So far the revival of V has been fairly reliably dull and nonsensical, but this week’s episode brought the first throw-the-remote moment when Our Heroes discover that a key part of the alien invaders’ plan is… flu shots. In what may be the most needlessly convoluted plan in the history of convoluted plans, the Visitors, or “Vs” because apparently “Visitors” takes too long to say (and just FTR, Internet, it’s not “V’s”; learn to pluralize correctly and keep that apostrophe in its holster) introduce some sort of vitamin shot that promises to do all kinds of wonderful things. Our Heroes naturally are suspicious, but discover that the miracle drug is in fact just a blind for the real threat: a chemical to be added to flu vaccine that causes people to die horribly (and I mean horribly: the “test subjects” look like they’ve suffered spontaneous combustion, not a bad drug reaction.) Of course, it seems likely that after the first couple of deaths a) the contaminant will be discovered and b) people will stop getting flu shots, meaning that at best this whole elaborate plan will kill a few dozen people. Or is it actually an insidious alien plot to spread the flu and increase absenteeism, thereby hurting our productivity at this already fragile economic time?
To be honest I don’t really care, and I’m already bored of talking about V. What does interest me is the persistent fascination with vaccines among conspiracy theorists of all stripes. It’s the one thing paranoid right-wingers and paranoid left-wingers have in common: a conviction that vaccination is somehow bad, though the reasons why it’s bad vary somewhat. Now, of all the health innovations of the last few hundred years, vaccines and antibiotics have to be pretty near the top in terms of improving public health (general antiseptics and reliable supplies of clean drinking water would be the only competition I can think of.) Vaccines are probably the more important of the two because antibiotics are primarily of use in a) curing venereal disease and b) surviving trauma and surgery — both worthy causes, but not really that significant on a population-wide scale. If you want evidence, look at the Spanish conquest of North America: the conquistadors had been more-or-less inoculated against smallpox (mostly by having survived it as children, or being exposed to it and developing antibodies while reacting asymptomatically), while the defenceless Aztecs died by the millions. Or look at the persistent use of milkmaids as icons of beauty in Western art: it’s not just because they look so fetching covered in cow manure, it’s because exposure to cowpox protected them from smallpox and the associated “small pocks” that marred the face of nearly every other person in Europe. (Next time you’re reading one of those epic fantasy novels with the embossed covers, try to imagine every single character’s face with little scars, pits and boils. Your desire for time-travel will drop substantially.)
So what is it about vaccines? Why are people so willing to believe anything bad about them, no matter how flimsy or nonexistent the evidence? (There have, it’s true, been a small number of bad or tainted vaccines distributed, but on average vaccines are still much safer than, say, cars or hamburgers.) Some of it is probably just reflexive post-’60s anti-authoritarianism — if the government, or doctors, or scientists, or any other authority figure wants you to do something, it must be bad — but vaccines are a special case. (We don’t see a similar resistance to antibiotics, for instance; in fact parents insist on getting antibiotics prescribed for children’s ear infections even though the evidence shows they have no positive effect whatsoever and help spread antibiotic resistance in bacteria.) The method of delivery no doubt has a role to play as well: taking a pill has little emotional resonance, but having something injected into you has an instinctive ick factor, with connotations of violence, poisoning and penetration. But the biggest reason, I think, is the power dynamic involved. Even though a doctor prescribes antibiotics, we control the act of ingesting them. Vaccines, on the other hand, are administered to us — and for most of us, our main experience with inoculations is as children. What inspires more terror in an elementary school than “shot day”? Unlike visits to the dentist, which are a solitary trauma, inoculations are often done in large groups, encouraging an “us” versus “them” feeling. Just as children fantasize that their real parents will someday whisk them away to the life of splendour and luxury they deserve, or that ice cream will eventually be deemed healthy and spinach poison, so too do we find it easy to believe that this awful experience — given to us “for our own good,” like so many childhood horrors — is part of some evil plot. We knew it all along.