Polman column: Anti-science ignorance stokes public health crisis
If you happen to watch “Veep,” the HBO show that satirizes politics, you’re surely familiar with Jonah, the notorious foot-in-mouth presidential candidate. On last week’s episode, while attempting to woo anti-vaccination voters, he boldly declared, “Why go to a doctor and get a shot for something you don’t even have?”
If only this were a laughing matter. You’ve probably heard that measles, a disease that was officially eradicated in 2000 thanks to the measles vaccine, is now making a dramatic comeback – with at least 700 documented cases – thanks to the willfully ignorant “anti-vaxxers” whose opinion of science brings to mind the foes of Galileo who refused to believe that the earth circles the sun.
We Americans don’t agree about much anymore, but at minimum, there should be a consensus that science in the decades since World War II has been a boon to public health. As Steve Salzberg, a biomedical engineering expert at Johns Hopkins University, points out, the measles vaccine alone has been “a miracle of modern medicine,” foiling a disease that typically produced 500,000 cases a year prior to the vaccine’s introduction in 1963.
Unfortunately, we’re now plagued by “the highly vocal, supremely confident, and utterly misinformed anti-vaccine movement” that amplifies its lies daily on social media. Indeed, one think tank study concluded last year that the anti-vaxxers have mastered the art of “repetitive messaging reinforcement.” The study says: “Google and Facebook algorithms inadvertently create the illusion of fact and truth out of mere ubiquity; if you can make it trend, you can make it true.”
In theory, everyone in America should be free to believe whatever they want – but not to the point when disbelief imperils the broader community and creates a public health crisis. Healthy un-vaccinated kids are not the only ones put at risk. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, says: “The anti-vaxxers are putting at risk populations that cannot be vaccinated due to health conditions or allergic reactions. Mostly children and the elderly, these people are dependent on the rest of us being vaccinated so that they can benefit.”
The anti-vaxxers keep saying – without a shred of scientific evidence – that vaccines cause everything from autism to mental retardation. They’ve been so successful, especially at the state level, where it’s legal (as in Pennsylvania) for parents to opt out for “philosophical” or “religious” beliefs, that the World Health Organization is listing what’s euphemistically called “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 global threats in 2019.
And take a wild guess which political party has been friendlier to the anti-vaxxers, giving them safe harbor. I had the burden of watching a Republican presidential primary debate on Sept. 17, 2015. The front-runner, Donald Trump, decided to share his medical expertise:
“Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control… You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump – I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
But Trump wasn’t the first Republican to bow at that altar of ignorance.
Back in 2011, ill-fated presidential candidate Michele Bachmann declared that the popular HPV vaccine, which had inoculated millions of young girls against a cancer-causing virus, was actually a public menace that triggered mental retardation. Early in 2015, candidate Rand Paul said he had “heard of” cases where vaccinated kids “wound up with profound mental disorders.” (There have been no such cases.) And candidate Chris Christie briefly toyed with an anti-science stance, suggesting that parents should have the freedom of “choice” on whether to vaccinate, before partly walking it back.
And yet, last week, when Trump was confronted with the reality of an actual measles outbreak, he suddenly riffed a rational message: “They have to get the shots. The vaccines are so important. This is really going around now. They have to get their shots.” Does he not remember what he said in 2015? Or what he tweeted about vaccines in 2014? (“AUTISM. Many such cases!”)
Our best hope is that sanity will ultimately prevail. Congress is actually planning to conduct hearings about the measles outbreak, in recognition that public health is a priority concern. As Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander warned the other day, “If vaccine hesitancy persists – or even expands – it could seriously undermine these important (scientific) advances.”
A bipartisan moment in 2019! That’s nearly as miraculous as a life-saving vaccine.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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