Handpicked by Gov. Ron DeSantis, the new surgeon general of Florida, Joseph Ladapo, said last week that he rejects “fear” and complained about those who advocate “almost like a religion” for COVID vaccinations. After all, who would fear the coronavirus, which has killed one of every 500 Americans? And, really, who would believe with such zeal in a medical technique that has proven, over centuries, to be an effective means of protecting oneself and others from horribly infectious diseases?
Surely Dr. Ladapo doesn’t want to be like George Washington, who ordered the inoculation of his troops in 1777 against smallpox, which was decimating the Army. “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure,” the general wrote, seeming to treat inoculation “like a religion.” True, the step probably saved both thousands of lives and the independence of the United States. And true, the terrible scourge of smallpox, which once killed millions of people each year, has been eradicated from the planet. But was this worth taking away the freedom of the troops to pass smallpox to others?
Dr. Ladapo apparently doesn’t want to be like doctors and governments in the 19th century, who found that the horrible illness of cholera, which once ran like a scythe through cities, could be prevented by ensuring that drinking water is clean. Acting as if clean water “were a religion,” they removed dirty urban pumps and pools and spent millions on pipes to bring uncontaminated water to the cities. Cholera has been all but eliminated. But imagine telling parents that they can’t give contaminated water to their family!
And both the new surgeon general and governor don’t want to be like leaders in the 20th century, who treated universal adoption of the polio vaccines of Jonas Salk and others “like a religion” in the 1960s. Once responsible for disabling thousands of young children, and sending New York politician Franklin Roosevelt into a wheelchair for the remainder of his life, polio has been obliterated in the United States simply by vaccinating young children, often as babies. The fervor for vaccination changed the world.
DeSantis and his staff must have worked hard to find a physician such as Dr. Ladapo, who was educated in North Carolina and Massachusetts and most recently worked in California, to become the surgeon general of the Sunshine State. Florida has led the nation in both new COVID cases and deaths at times in recent months. DeSantis’ choice of Dr. Ladapo might help keep us near the top of those charts by not treating vaccination “like a religion.” But history, science and logic all encourage us to be a priest, minister, preacher, rabbi, imam, and lama in favor of the proven means of successfully fighting a deadly disease.
Paul Boudreaux teaches environmental law at Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport and Tampa.