In American political life, the right and the left exist in largely separate spheres. But there is at least one place where the two sides of the divide overlap: the anti-vaccination movement.
Despite overwhelming evidence that vaccinations are safe and protect against dangerous disease, small groups of Americans, on both the left and right, have chosen to reject vaccines for themselves and their children. Their decisions have consequences, as we have seen in Washington state’s Clark County recently. A measles outbreak there has already infected 50 people with no end in sight.
For rational people who look to science for answers, the evidence-free conclusions of the “anti-vaxers” are frustrating.
With anti-vaccine paranoia spreading, the number of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks is likely to grow.
Take my recent conversation with Becky Johnson, a left-of-center, 65-year-old mother of three in California, who attributes her chronic health issues, including migraines and the skin condition vitiligo, to the vaccines she received as a child.
When she and her husband had children, “I felt bullied by our pediatrician” to vaccinate, she said. But she resisted.
Her husband, frightened by the thought of tetanus, whisked one child off secretly for his DPT shot, Johnson said. The boy, grown now, has health issues, which Johnson blames on that one vaccination.
The recent measles outbreak doesn’t bother Johnson. “I’m not afraid of measles,” she says.
What she and many of her fellow anti-vaxxers in California fear is state-enforced vaccination because of SB 277, a California bill jointly written by state Sens. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician, and Benjamin Allen (D-Santa Monica). The bill, signed into law in 2015, abolished personal choice exemptions from vaccination requirements for children in public schools, although medical exemptions remain. The law has so far withstood court challenges.
“I see that as medical fascism,” says Johnson. “I’m the one who is going to make medical decisions for my kids.”
And then there’s Philippe Lecoin of Georgia, a Ted Cruz supporter with a degree in engineering. He might not agree with Johnson on a range of political issues, but shares her belief that vaccines are being pushed by greedy pharmaceutical companies and physicians. He told me he trusts in natural immunity; his daughter was vaccinated until age 3, but not after that because of his evolving beliefs.
It’s strange that Lecoin and Johnson fear vaccines, but not measles. The disease is both deadly and the most contagious virus known. When measles-infected foreign sailors landed on Fiji in 1875, they sparked an epidemic that killed a third of the population — the same mortality rate as the plague Black Death in 14th century Europe.
Before the vaccine was introduced in 1963, according to the World Health Organization, this “benign” childhood disease killed approximately 2.6 million children worldwide each year. In the United States alone, nearly 50,000 people a year were hospitalized with the virus, and 400 to 500 a year died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Measles can lead to pneumonia, encephalitis, blindness and a rare brain inflammation that can kill 10 to 15 years after the initial measles infection.
In 2017, despite the existence of a safe and effective measles vaccine, 110,000 children across the world still died of the disease.
But those issues, as pediatrician Paul Lantos of Duke University says, remain a distant abstraction to anti-vaccine parents. “My baby in front of me is the most basic and concrete thing that people have,” he says. “Children dying of measles in Africa is … not close enough.”
Parents who reject vaccination often begin by questioning why a foreign substance should be injected into a healthy child. Their questions quickly lead them to horror stories on the internet: of children regressing into autism after vaccinations, or becoming crippled, paralyzed, dead.
The mystery is why they choose to believe such anecdotal “evidence” instead of the vast amount of scientific research that has found vaccines to be safe. One paper still cited by vaccine skeptics was published in 1998 by British physician Andrew Wakefield and colleagues. The article, which suggested a link between the measles vaccination and autism, has since been retracted and repeatedly disproved, and Wakefield has lost his British medical license. Yet his discredited autism hypothesis still resonates in the superheated atmosphere of anti-vaccine websites.
Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and father of an autistic daughter, has watched the anti-vaccine movement closely. What surprises him, he said, is how activists “fine-tune the appeal to the local political environment. In Texas, anti-vaxxers use terms like “medical freedom” and “personal choice,” while in the Pacific Northwest, they talk about purity and toxic ingredients, said Hotez, author of “Vaccines did not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician and Autism Dad.”
Some parents who vaccinate their kids have a laissez-faire attitude toward those who don’t. “My kid is safe,” they tell themselves, “even if you choose not to protect yours.” But it’s not that simple.
The goal of vaccination is so-called herd immunity, the protection conferred on an entire community in which a high level of people have been vaccinated, limiting the possibility of a widespread outbreak even if one person gets sick. But herd immunity is waning across America. Since measles is so transmissible, and since, in rare cases, the vaccine doesn’t “take,” or produce immunity, some 95% of people must be vaccinated to prevent an outbreak. In Clark County, where the latest outbreak is raging, only 77.4 % of public school students are vaccinated.
With anti-vaccine paranoia spreading, the number of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks is likely to grow. And while many of those who fall sick will be those whose families chose to opt out of vaccinating, there will be other victims as well: those who because of immune-system issues could not be vaccinated, and also those whose vaccines simply didn’t take.
That’s why we need laws like California’s — and it’s the responsibility of all of us to see that they are passed and then enforced.
Wendy Orent is the author of “Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease” and “Ticked: The Battle Over Lyme Disease in the South.”