Social Distancing and The Unintended Lesson in Herd Immunity

Since the outbreak of COVID19, the debate over routine vaccinations has been all but silent. While millions of people worldwide begin to adhere to social distancing standards to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, we are all unintentionally receiving a real-life lesson on how herd immunity works and why vaccine proponents are so adamant about widely disseminated vaccines.

By now, many have seen the simulators put out to visually demonstrate the effects of social distancing on disease proliferation. The Washington Post published simulators in their article  that show small dots moving about in space, each representing an individual free to move about their environment and interact with people as they choose. In the instance where social distancing practices are avoided, the random movement of dots leads to dramatic acceleration of new cases of coronavirus. But as each individual adheres to social distancing, their representative dot stops moving. As more and more dots sit stationary, the spread of the simulated coronavirus slows dramatically. This is why governments around the world are urging people to limit interactions with the public. Essentially, the goal is to become a stationary dot. So, what does that have to do with vaccines?

There are many stated oppositions to vaccines, some ranging from the vehement and loud (i.e. the now debunked link between the MMR vaccine and autism) to the almost passive (i.e. avoidance of the influenza vaccine because “I never get the flu”). One of the most common misconceptions surrounding wide-reaching vaccination campaigns is that the goal is to protect individuals. It is true, the original goal of vaccinations was to avoid harmful or lethal primary infections such as the measles. However, the effort to vaccinate the majority of a population against these diseases is more to achieve herd immunity than it is to protect individuals. Herd immunity, which means that the majority of the population or “herd” is immune to a pathogen, creates a situation in which such pathogens are unable to proliferate within a population. Essentially, each individual that is immunized becomes one of those stationary dots on a disease simulator.

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