Saturday, 4 April 2015

Welcome to Antivaxxistan by Naomi Elana Zener

It felt as though we’d been driving on the highway for days. The cornfields grew taller with every blink, consuming the landscape with their blinding yellow. I knew that all traces of civilization had disappeared when our radio could only pick up a solitary signal for a station carrying an outdated weather report on a loop.

“Are we there yet?” I pestered my folks again with the universal road trip question uttered incessantly by children the world over since the beginning of time. Accustomed to having been asked this in fifteen-minute intervals since we’d left, my parents had grown weary and tired. They’d simply stopped answering me.  Always a curious child, it was fitting that I’d been named George. And, thanks to the moniker bestowed upon me, I’d spent my twelve years of life on the planet referred to as Curious George by everyone.

“Quiet, Curious George,” my father snapped. I hate that fucking monkey and this fucking road trip, I thought. Without warning, a faded, obscure signpost—the kind that if you blink, you’d miss it—appeared out of nowhere. I caught it in a sideways glance, as my parents’ Prius rolled along. It could’ve easily been a mirage, after all, we’d been traveling to a mythical destination only spoken of in whispers and code words to shelter it from prying eyes.

WELCOME TO ANTIVAXXISTAN, the sign read on the side of the highway. Our final destination. The Promised Land.

Antivaxxistan, the nirvana for which my parents had upended our lives, was untouched by vaccines and run by a dictator named Jenny Shamefield, a former nude model and staunch vaccine critic. Anitvaxxistan, the place where not a single soul was allowed to be vaccinated ever again upon crossing its threshold, and where everyone absolutely knew your name in order to ensure no one broke rank from the commune’s antivax edict. This was the place that consumed my parents minds and was all they could talk about since the Great Outbreak.

Although the majority of my school chums had been vaccinated, myself included, about eighty percent of my classmates didn’t escape the ravages of the Great Outbreak, and were afflicted with measles. The momentum of the antivax movement sweeping North America had caused herd immunity to disintegrate. Two children died: one who’d been vaccinated, and one who hadn’t. Three unvaccinated kids went deaf, but the silver lining for them was that they didn’t have to hear their crunchy parents extol the virtues of not having been vaccinated anymore—the proof was in the viral pudding, they went deaf and finally their antivax parents shut their mouths since they’d been proven wrong. Thankfully, the rest of us had survived with a fortified immune system. With herd immunity having been eroded, I was one of the lucky ones who’d emerged unscathed and untouched by this pox on our community.

My parents, however, weren’t left unscathed. Instead, they were dizzy with worry, their heads swollen with conflicting information: antivax myths and boldfaced lies, and the sober facts of the CDC and our family’s doctors. They no longer knew what was true anymore. Scared and scarred, my once intelligent and of sound mind mother and father began spending their nights scouring the Internet for answers, despite my repeating to them the wise words of my pediatrician that “no good ever came from consulting Dr. Google.”  They couldn’t understand how the vaccinated kids could’ve fallen ill. Worse yet still, four of my unvaccinated classmates didn’t get the measles at all. My mother and father suffered from extreme guilt over both my body’s dodge of the measles draft and ultimate survival. When my parents asked how that was even possible, those kids’ parents all said the same thing: Vitamin A saves lives. 

Sensing the chink in my parents’ armor, the antivaxxer parents of my classmates who’d escaped the measles, and were being hailed as miracle children, flocked to my folks lobbying them with their pseudoscience ‘facts’ and libertarian beliefs. They’d managed to convince my highly educated parents—with two MBAs and one JD degree between them—that salvation from the pressures to vaccinate and surviving future outbreaks was to be found in Antivaxxistan—a place where all four crackpot, nutterbutter families were moving. Heralded by those in the know as the miracle colony where no one is vaccinated, or, if they are, they’ve never gotten boosters, my family became the newest citizens of Antivaxxistan, a place more difficult to find than a secret group on Facebook.

“Mom, dad, what are you going to do for work once we get there?” I asked, after we passed the signpost. They’d never answered my same question before the move, not even after they’d sold our house, quit their jobs, or packed us up. I figured they had to tell me now.

“Antivaxxistan is a self-sustaining compound. So, as long as we help to spread the antivax message, we don’t have to work. They provide us with housing, medical care, food, education for you…” my father explained.

“Oh, so they’re like Scientologists,” I interrupted.

“Don’t be disrespectful,” my father retorted, flashing me a scowl in the rearview mirror.

“So, we’re moving to Dumbfuckingstan and I get no say” I fumed.

“Watch your mouth. We’re your parents. You listen to what we tell you to do. Got it?” my father snapped.

“Sweetheart, you need to trust us. We know what’s good for you,” my mother added trying to soften my father’s stern warning. “We’re just trying to protect you.”

“But, my vaccines already have,” I pled.

“Are you going to stop?” my father shouted. “You almost made me miss my turn.”

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered.

The car heaved right.  The cornrows parted almost instinctively, as our Prius rolled along the dirt and weed covered road, leading us to our new home: a barbed-wire walled-in compound. It felt like we were dead men on our last walk of freedom before entering a giant maximum-security prison. A prison designed to keep the crazy inside and the diseases away. We slowly rolled up to the heavily armed-guarded gates of Antivaxxistan. I glanced upwards to see the name of our new home hovering above, hanging in the air, telling us that upon entry we would be made free. Our car came to a grinding halt. Two AK-47s were suddenly staring us in squarely in the face, with two more pointed at our rear.

“I guess that Jenny Shamefield figures if Vitamin A doesn’t work to keep the viruses and bacterial microbes out, bullets will, huh?” I chimed.

“Quiet,” my mother ordered.

A hulking guard, dressed for a black ops mission, knocked on my father’s window. “License and immunization records!” I sat in the backseat, my headphones on and iPad in clear view, pretending to be unaware, but surreptitiously taking in my surroundings with the keen eye of an infectious disease scientist.  I counted the number of guards: 1, 2, 3…there were six in total. They were all abnormally large; in the way that such musculature could only be the product of steroid doping. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. My father nodded his head at the guard’s command, too scared to make eye contact. My mother, quivered in the front passenger seat. She nervously handed over the demanded documentation to my father, who passed it to the gloved hand of our captor. The guard eyed the papers carefully. Then, he pulled out a walkie-talkie.

“We have fully vaxxed people at the gates. Their inoculations are up to date. Name is Wise. You expecting them boss?” the guard asked.

“I’ve been expecting them. Have them surrender their immunization records and sign the agreement before letting them in,” a female voice advised.

The guard shoved a clipboard, with some paperwork affixed to it, at my father. In addition to the agreement, there was also a brochure containing town information and instructions for where we were to go to get our housing assignment. The guard returned only my father’s driver’s license and retained our precious inoculation records. There went the proof that I was up to date with my immunizations, I thought sadly. I supposed that if I ever saw the light of a free-world day again, I’d have to get my titers checked to prove I had been immunized.

“Fill this out. When you’re done, honk and I’ll come back and get them,” the guard instructed. He returned to his guard booth, but the remaining guards kept their guns and ammo trained in our direction.

“What’s it say?” my mother whispered, despite the fact that our windows were all rolled up.

“By signing this agreement, you agree never to leave Antivaxxistan for any reason whatsoever, without the written consent of Madame Jenny Shamefield. To do so, will result in punishment in the form of exposure to that which we are here to protect you against. You hereby promise never to receive another vaccination ever again, and should you do so, you will undergo a detoxification and auditing program conducting by our sister organization at an undisclosed location out at sea,” my father read aloud.

“I knew it!” I exclaimed. “They are Scientologists.”

My father frowned. The skepticism and doubt about moving to Antivaxxistan he’d forced to recede to shadowed corners of his mind started to spread across his face. A staunch atheist, the one thing he couldn’t abide by was religion. Especially fake, cultish ones.

“You promised me these antivaxxers were not religious people,” my father admonished my mother.

“I had no idea,” she countered. “Look, we’re here. We quit our lives. There’s no going back now. Sign the damn thing and let’s get on with this. Keep your eye on the prize. We’re here to ensure that George leads a long and healthy life. As long as we do what this says, it doesn’t seem like we have to become Scientologists.”

My father perused the rest of the agreement for what seemed like an eternity. He scribbled fiercely on the signature line as if he was signing over his soul to the Devil himself. He honked the horn. The incredible hulk returned and took the executed agreement. The gates parted. The guns were retracted. And, in we drove, into the mouth of the monster, likely never to be heard of or seen again.

Once inside, it was as if we were in Disneyland. There were no signs that we’d driven through a cornfield, or passed through a frightening security checkpoint. Everything was shiny and new. For a moment, I thought I heard “It’s A Small World After All” playing on the loudspeakers overhead. Instead, what was playing was an alternate version of the famed song with a refrain of “It’s Not a Smallpox World After All.” Litter was nonexistent, as was dirt. The only time I’d ever seen something so clean was when my former pediatrician opened up a sterile, brand new needle to give me a shot. Main Street looked like it belonged in Anytown, U.S.A. The only difference being that in Antivaxxistan, everything was organic: the pharmacy, the shoe store, the family clothing store (where it turned out everything was made from organic cotton, hemp and silkworm thread), the bookstore, and the hardware store. There was even a Whole Foods. According to the brochure we were handed by the guard with our initial paperwork, there were no video rental stores, but there was Netflix. The only images, sullying the pristine mock small town landscape, were posters interspersed on the brick facades between storefronts carrying ‘truthful’ messages that every Antivaxxistanian was expected to commit to memory.

Good parents who love their kids don’t vaccinate!

Natural immunity trumps a synthesized one.

Big Pharma is Big Brother.

Vaccines cause Autism.

Vaccines are full of mercury, formaldehyde, aluminum, and sodium.

Vaccines are antiscientific.

Vaccinated kids are 5 times more likely to get diseases.

Unvaccinated people are healthier than vaccinated ones.

Risks of vaccination outweigh benefits.

Vaccines are unnecessary. We don’t live in Africa!

Proper sanitation eliminates need for vaccines!

We parked our car, per the instructions given, in front of the Welcome Center. A man attired in brightly colored clothes with a giant smile plastered to his face immediately greeted us. They may not approve of vaccines, but they clearly have no problem with getting ugly dental veneers, I thought to myself.

“Howdy there folks,” the man said. He embraced each one of us awkwardly.

“Don’t worry, I don’t have measles,” I joked when he grabbed me. “I’ve been vaccinated.”

His smile disappeared.

“I’m Tom Rubella.”

“Like the disease?” my mother asked.

“Ha! Ha! No,” Tom deadpanned. He’d heard that joke his entire life. “It’s Pennsylvanian Dutch.” We nodded. “Madame Shamefield wanted to be here to greet you, but unfortunately, there was a slight hiccup in her schedule.”

“What happened?” my father inquired. Before Rubella could answer, we heard a commotion coming from fifty feet away. A woman’s shrill voice boomed over the loudspeakers had replaced the symphonic music that had first greeted us.

“All Antivaxxistanians report to the main square for the public shaming,” the voice commanded.

“That includes you three now,” Rubella advised. His tone carried the underlying threat of infection if we didn’t cooperate.

“What happened?” I asked.

“A woman snuck out in the middle of the night and visited the closest walk-in medical clinic without permission. She’d managed to read some unsanctioned news about the spread of measles to a nearby school, so she decided to get her daughter’s vaccines brought up to date. Luckily, one of the guards saw them sneak off and followed her. He got there in the nick of time, too. The doctor was about to inject the woman’s daughter with MMR poison. Now, she needs to be made an example of.”

“Um, how does that work exactly?” my mother asked nervously.

“Each person who wants to participate gets to spend 5 minutes lecturing parent on harm of vaccines.”

“Are you fucking kidding me?” I shouted.

“Language!” my mother admonished.

“They shame us on the outside, so we’re just using the same tactic on the inside,” Tom countered. “And, watch your mouth young man.”

“Or, what. You’ll wash my mouth out with soap? I read that’s already part of your disease prevention program. I’m shaking in my vaccinated skin.”

“Quippy young man you’ve got there,” Tom spat at my parents, as he roughly tousled my hair.

“Careful,” I advised. “I am fully vaccinated. I wouldn’t want you to touch my hair and have some of the MMR coursing inside of me seep into your hands and give you the autism I don’t have.” I was armed with provax facts and ready for a fight, even if it meant being sent away as a slave at sea.

“We’ll detox your skin of those vaccines soon enough. We wouldn’t want you to develop autism, or have an adverse reaction to them, like dying.” Rubella winked at my mother, sensing that she’d been the driver behind our move to Antivaxxistan.

“Rubella, you’re full of shit. The probability of getting measles is like 1 in 500, whereas experiencing a serious adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine is 1 in 1,000,000,” I chimed in. “And, I’m twelve. If vaccines would’ve made me autistic, I’d be autistic by now, and I’m not. And, you know why I’m not autistic? Because vaccines don’t cause autism.”

Rubella ignored me. The typical antivax response when those proselytizers had none to give. We made it to the center of town, where the publicly shamed woman and her daughter stood, as if they were witches being burned at the stake. Surrounded by townspeople armed with placards carrying the same antivax messages as the posters riddled around town, the woman and her daughter hung their heads in shame.

“By sneaking out of here, you compromised our herd immunity,” Shamefield, who was standing squarely in front of the accused, shouted into her megaphone. “Now, you and your daughter have to be removed and put in isolation to protect the rest of us.”

The crowd cheered.

“Excuse me,” I piped up despite my mother and father doing their best to restrain and muzzle me, “but herd immunity is something that arises out of vaccine compliance. You need 95% of the population to be vaccinated for herd immunity to exist. Since everyone here is basically noncompliant with the required routine immunization schedule, there is no herd immunity in Antivaxxistan.”

Shamefield turned her gaze and megaphone upon me. She marched up to my family, scrutinizing each one of us with interest.

“Who are you, young man?” she barked, pointing her megaphone squarely in my face.

“George Wise. Of the once wise Wises. We moved here today.”

Shamefield stared at my parents.  My mother and father turned beet red.

“It’s ok. He’s just a child. He doesn’t know better,” Shamefield cajoled through an evil grin. “Just like he doesn’t understand the complexities of vaccines and the harm they cause.”

“Madam Jenny Shamefield and Dr. Wakefield are our saviors!” Rubella shouted to distract the crowd from my outburst.

“Wakefield was a quack and a fraud who lost his medical license and went to jail. His discredited study was based on a sample of twelve kids and had no basis in science. Plus, in Japan, once the MMR vaccine wasn’t given, but later reintroduced, autism rates remained unchanged, proving that there’s no correlation,” I countered.

“Muzzle your son!” Shamefield instructed my parents. They pulled me behind them to protect me.

“God saves!” a woman cried out.

“It’s our right not to be vaccinated!” a man screamed. “Just like it’s our right to own guns, not pay taxes, and be free from intrusion from government.”

And, just like that, the Stepford Antivaxxistanis were swept up in a frenzy chanting slogans they were brainwashed to believe. Shamefield smiled. She knew that the numbers were on her side—we’d never make it out of there alive if I kept shooting off my mouth. My parents stood there terrified. They fake smiled at Shamefield, so as not to be further singled out of the crowd. They shot me knowing glances—their eyes offering me a mea culpa. They’d regained their senses realizing they were strangers in a strange land, deluged by a flood of seriously disturbed people. Shamefield marched over to Rubella.

“I think it’s time you take them to their new home, so they can rest. We can start acclimating them to life here in the morning. I think that little Curious George may need to start off with an intensive auditing program,” Shamefield warned.

Rubella nodded his head. He led us back to our car.

“Just follow closely behind my car,” Rubella instructed, pointing at his red Prius. “In case you somehow get lost, you take the last, sharp right immediately before you reach the front gates. Ok?”

My parents nodded.

We piled into the car. My mother got behind the wheel and gripped it for dear life—my father too distracted to drive—having realized she’d made a dreadful mistake in moving us to Antivaxxistan. No one in the car uttered a single work. You could cut the tension between them with a needle so small even an infant would feel it. Rubella had already driven ahead, leaving a distance of several car lengths between us and his pox on wheels. In the semi-distance, my mom saw where Rubella made his right turn. She glanced over at my father, then at me in the rearview mirror. Summoning up all of her Thelma and Louise-like courage, she slammed on the gas pedal and gunned it for the gates. When our hybrid-Prius smashed through the barriers, I thought it was going to shatter into a million little pieces before the AK-47 bullets could tear through it. But, by some miracle, neither happened. It turned out that our Prius was fortified like a tank and crumpled the barrier as if it were stepping on an ant. And, as luck would have it, the guards hadn’t returned to their post from their union-mandated fifteen-minute coffee break.

“Shit, mom, you could drive for NASCAR.”

“Drive like a mother fucker,” my father screamed.

“Wait, what about our immunization records?” I asked. “Jenny from the Pox and her henchmen still have them!”

“Don’t worry about them. I gave them facsimiles. I stuffed the real ones in my underwear in case we needed to escape,” my mom advised.  Clearly, she hadn’t lost all of her Harvard-trained scruples. “You were right all along, honey. Those antivaxxers are out of their fucking minds.”

“Scientologists, too,” my father added.

I stared out the window. “They always said a child shall lead them.”

© 2015. Naomi Elana Zener. All Rights Reserved.

No comments:

Post a comment