In a cafe inside a suburban Mumbai hospital, a man dressed like a doctor is on the verge of cursing like a sailor.
There’s no white laboratory coat, but the stethoscope around Ajit Gajendragadkar’s neck gives away his ‘Dr’ prefix. The bespectacled paediatrician in a crisp, grey khadi shirt and black trousers alternates between animated gestures and folded arms while talking about his reviled topic of choice: the anti-vaccination (or anti-vax) movement.
Modern anti-vax sentiments can be traced to the late 19th century, when the Anti-Vaccination Society of America opposed compulsory smallpox inoculation until the 1910s. It resurfaced and gained ground in 1998, when researchers published a paper suggesting a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and child autism. The MMR-autism link has since been disproved multiple times, but the seeds of suspicion have sprouted into tendrils of misinformation.
The number of unvaccinated American children below age two today has quadrupled since 2011, but the movement also has tentacles across Europe—enough to be a suspect contributor to a measles outbreak across the continent.
That said, it may not be just a white people thing.
While there’s no official nationwide data for vaccine resistance, a 2017 38-country study on vaccine misperceptions by Ipsos showed that 44% of Indians it surveyed believed in a link between vaccines and autism. (The usual caveats apply: it was an online survey of 500 people in the country, and so is not likely to reflect trends among rural or lower-income groups.)
“These crusaders don’t understand. They’d have died at 32 [India’s life expectancy at birth at the time of independence] if it weren’t for vaccines,” says an exasperated Gajendragadkar.
We’ve spoken to Indian parents who claim herd immunity is a conspiracy, we offer.
“And what do they say?”
That if their children aren’t vaccinated but everyone else is, how can they be a risk to a group with supposedly better immunity?
“Too many people read shit on the internet but don’t use common sense,” he sighs. “Do they know about antigenic (immunological) memory, and how it wanes with age? Which is why booster shots are sometimes recommended? And the difference between live and dead (or inactivated) vaccines?”
One father said if we follow a lifestyle devoid of anything unnatural, there’d be no need for immunisation. Clean air, clean food, clean practices…
Gajendragadkar goes from a sigh to a guffaw.
“There was more natural food, better air and ways of life centuries before vaccines. By that logic, humans shouldn’t have been wracked by disease. When will this rubbish stop?”
Home birthing, homeschooling, extended breastfeeding, clean eating and natural medicine are five of six lifestyle choices Hemant and Sangeeta Chhabra made over the course of 30-odd years.