Steinberg: Bebe Vio raises her foil against anti-vax hysteria

SHARE Steinberg: Bebe Vio raises her foil against anti-vax hysteria

Paralympic fencing champion Bebe Vio on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine’s Italian edition. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Follow @neilsteinbergYou don’t need to speak the language to have your attention snagged by the April issue of the Italian edition of Rolling Stone magazine.

The cover is a fashion shot of Paralympic fencing champion Bebe Vio, dressed in Dior, her dark brown hair short, her deep blue eyes staring straight at the camera. The scars on her face are concealed by makeup, but those on the stump of her right arm are on display as her left prosthetic hand points directly at the viewer.

“Vaccinatevi!” the headline reads.

In English, “Vaccinate!”

It’s tempting to think of resistance to vaccination as being a particularly American form of selfish ignorance, like belief in healing crystals or denial of climate change. But the phenomenon is, sadly, global. While some 380,000 people die each year of meningitis, mostly in Africa and other underdeveloped regions, a significant number of parents in supposedly developed countries still resist vaccinating their children. Italian Rolling Stone calls it a “real civil battle” and Vio, 20, is their poster child in the fight.

Born in Venice, Vio was 11 when she contracted meningitis — the Centers for Disease Control suggests children of 11 or 12 get inoculated against the disease, with a booster shot at 16.


Follow @neilsteinbergMeningitisis complicated; usually an infection of the brain and spinal cord caused by both viruses and bacteria.Vio got a virulent, flesh-eating form of the disease that cost her both legs to the knee and both arms to the elbow.

In a way she was lucky: 90 percent of those who get that type of meningitis die. Some lose their jaws or their eyelids.

But Vio survived. When she presented herself to the coach of the Italian Paralympic fencing team, she was told she couldn’t train. She replied, “Why?” Vio became the only quadruple amputee Paralympic fencer, taking a bronze in London in 2012 and individual gold in Rio.

Last year she posed for noted child photographer Anne Geddes — known for her oh-so-cute photos of babies sleeping, peas ina pod. Vio was portrayedwithout any prosthetics, holding an infant in front of an Italian flag, a stark portrait of the chances anti-vax parents take.

“I know how my parents suffered,” she told Rolling Stone. “So I say to every mother: Vaccinate your child, not for himself, but for yourself. Do you really want to suffer so much? If thepopulation was vaccinated, meningitis would be eradicated. How can you not want it? How?”

I’ll answer that. First, because people don’t know history, don’t realize the enormity of illness, death, disability and sorrow once cut by diseases like polio, smallpox, mumps, rubella, whooping cough, scarlet fever. Before the vaccine was introduced in 1967, a half a million children in the United States got measles every year. All they know is that science is scary, experts are bad, and the state wants to inject something into their innocent baby. That’s practically totalitarianism — though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled long ago that the government has a perfect right to protect public health by requiring vaccination.

Second, they are perfectly happy to ride on the coattails of the parents who dovaccinate their kids. Let them assume the minuscule risk. And since the anti-science ignorance of the right is so frequently remarked upon here — that’s what brought scientists into the street in Chicago and nationwide over the weekend — I feel obligated to mention that anti-vaccination, like irrational fear of GMOs, is a particularly left-wing affliction.

There is without question a slight, 1-in-10 million risk when kids get vaccinated, the way that all human activities carry risk. Track meets are not considered particularly hazardous, but a Wheaton College freshman died over the weekend, hit by a hammer throw. To decline vaccination out of safety concerns is like not letting your children go outside for the same reason: bad for your kids, bad for your community, bad for you. Yet people do it.

Anyway, Bebe Vio’s story has never appeared in an American newspaper before, and I thought you should meet her.

Tweets by @neilsteinberg

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