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HERD IMMUNITY, THE INTERNET AND YOUR PETS

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed any serious health issues as they concern our cats and dogs. Normally, I try not to get too deep into these subjects of medical philosophy because 1.) the subject matter is usually written in a professional jargon that drives normal people absolutely insane and, 2.) it’s often drop-dead boring to everyone except other medical professionals. Also, as it regards to all topics of medical ethics (for example, whether you should vaccinate your pet—or child—or not) there is a lot of confusion and misinformation out there—as well as just a bit of ignorance and down-right stupidity thrown in.

But recent events concerning outbreaks of what were thought to be nearly eradicated diseases that have taken place in both veterinary (and human) medicine have convinced me that it is again time to bring up this life and death issue. But because I can’t help myself, I’m going to start this article off with a true story; the name and place and breed of dog has been changed just only slightly to protect the guilty.

***A disclaimer:***
The only medical company stock I own is 30 shares of Pfizer, which is down 60% since I bought it. Also, no pet owners were injured during the writing of this article.

# # #

Two or three times a year, my wife and I drive out to one of our local town barns or firehouses to vaccinate dogs and cats at one of our county’s free rabies clinics. I enjoy (mostly) doing these events because it gets me out of the office, I get to catch up on the local gossip regarding the various political doings up there in our County seat, and, more importantly, I get to vaccinate a lot of beloved pets against a deadly disease who don’t otherwise get much—or any—veterinary attention.

On a lovely spring day about ten years ago, Theresa and I went to do one of the above mentioned free clinics. As we pulled into the fire station’s parking lot, I was pleased to see we had another big turnout. (We always vaccinate 300 - 400 animals at every clinic!) However, my joy quickly turned to worry with the vaccination of the very first dog.

He was a young, un-neutered, under-nourished, flea-infested, completely-out-of-control, Rottweiler; but worse, as the owners and Theresa tried their darndest to restrain the little brat so that I could inject the vaccine, he decided to let go a deluge of fetid-smelling, pipe-stream, diarrhea all over the place! In spite of the heroic efforts of the county staff to clean it up, it was impossible to completely sterilize the area, and I watched with horror as every dog that passed the poop by gave it a sniff. I asked the late-middle-aged owner if his dog had been vaccinated yet for parvo virus or even wormed against hookworm. Readers can probably guess the answer.

# # #

As I do my morning surgeries, I listen to recorded books and college lectures on everything from ancient Greece to particle physics. I’ve just recently finished a book titled The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin. The main premise of the book was to shed a bit of light on the society’s growing dependence on the internet and the infinitely-complicated, human medicine issue regarding childhood immunizations, specifically vaccinations against measles-mumps-rubella, whooping cough, and Hibs. He traces society’s dependence on the internet back to both Gutenberg, the inventor of printing with movable type (a process that made books available to everyone) and Martin Luther, who translated the Old and New Testaments from Latin into German (which allowed common people access to the Bible.) These events then essentially made it possible for lay people to bypass the “priestly class” which then allowed them to make their own interpretation of the Holy Word.

Professor Mnookin then asks the question that’s on everyone’s mind: “Why pay for doctors when we can diagnose our own ailments by consulting the internet?” He answers by stating that the first effect of the hyper-democratization (freely accessible) of data on the internet was to separate this information from the context needed to understand it. This now meant that facts could flow about freely and could be judged according to preference or intuition (hunches) rather than the rules of cognition (knowledge.) This reinterpretation of data, combined with easy access to like-minded web communities and chat rooms, then becomes reinforced by other well-intentioned, but equally un-knowledgeable people, who then applied the information in any way that fit their personal agendas.

Phew! Now I’ll attempt to make this clear by returning to the pooping Rottie story.

I’ll call the pooping Rottie’s owner Suzie. She is a recent, unemployed, political science graduate from a nearby Ivy League college. To make the world a better place—as well as have an excuse to patronize the local politically-correct dog park—Suzie adopts a cute little four-month-old Rottweiler puppy being given away at the city’s local farmer’s market. She had learned in her political science classes that all members of the medical community—including veterinarians—were part of a global, evil corporation/big pharmacy conspiracy to make tons of money on the backs of the poor and to cause cancer in their patients in order to help the funeral and crematorium industry. And so to prevent any of these money grubbers from extracting from her the hard-earned money that she and her boyfriend had made begging for spare change next to the various stop lights in town, she decided to consult the internet.

She visited ten or more websites—all of which said that dogs need to be vaccinated against diseases such as parvo, lepto, parainfluenza, etc.—until she finally found one to her liking. On this last site, there was a like-thinking blogger (I’ll call him Dork) who said that the vaccinations his evil veterinarian had given to his dog (I’ll call the dog Bozo) made the pet crazy, and that several weeks later as Bozo was chasing a cat across the Interstate, the shots caused him to get hit by a milk truck. Dork’s message to Suzie was all she needed to hear.

Soon she found other websites and chat rooms where she and other simple-minder pet owners got together discussing the evils of pet vaccinations, the serious transgressions caused by the milk trucks, and the complete unfairness of there being no jobs for political science majors. One phrase that was bandied about at nearly every discussion was the elitist concept known as “herd immunity” and this became her new rallying cry. (Herd immunity is that concept upon which a pet owner (or parent) decides not to vaccinate their pet/child because everybody else around them will.)

Which brings us to the rabies vaccination clinic. Despite her vehement opposition to vaccinating her pet (who she named Dork #2), Suzie was there because of a summons she received from the dog warden (ironically) while visiting the city’s dog park. As she waited in line, she made it a point to tell all those around her she was at this clinic under protest, that she would write her congressman to complain about the gestapo-like treatment of the local town justice in ignoring her pleas for clemency, and that if no one could resolve her problem in the future, that she would burn her bra at the SPCA. It was while she babbled on about the inequities of it all that Dork #2 let loose his shower of liquid poop.

It turns out, that the “herd immunity” theory that she based all of her pet’s vaccination decisions on had come home to roost. It seems that someone at the dog park had the same idea and when his dog let loose a deluge of parvo-infested diarrhea, Dork #2 just couldn’t resist having a smell and became infected himself. Suzie’s dog would then go on to probably die, but not before exposing every dog that walked through the firehouse that day to Parvo disease.


Thanks again.

Doctor Oz
 

Copyright © 2012 by Richard Orzeck, DVM
The information in this article is based upon the author’s personal experience and his best interpretation of veterinary data at the time of writing. It is not intended to render veterinary advice or service. Specific needs and questions concerning your pet’s health should always be addressed by his or her best friend, your local veterinarian.

   

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