The anti-vaccination movement, a species of stupidity that crosses party lines and is immune to evidence (if little else), has emerged from the curio cabinet of fringe lunacies and ambled into the spotlight on the heels of a public health crisis — and is now becoming an unfortunate flashpoint in the opening salvos of the 2016 primaries. Why, after all, are we even talking about this?
The Republican Party, so unmoved by science on climate change and evolution, for the most part has refreshingly come out in rousing support of vaccines. Even Ben Carson says there should be no exemptions from vaccination. So who exactly are editorials like this aimed at? Why are too many children under-vaccinated? Why are pundits and pols waffling on the merits of discredited studies and paranoid theories? In the Year of our Lord Two-Thousand-Fifteen, how has the efficacy of vaccines entered the political discussion? Into what fresh hell have we blundered?
The current measles outbreak has thrust a conversation about the supposed dangers of vaccines — as useless and noxious as a pertussal wheeze — into the mainstream. Chris Christie and Rand Paul, perhaps sensing a nucleus of vaccine skeptics in Florida or Ohio, contributed their thoughts, suggesting that vaccinations might actually become a touchstone issue for the 2016 elections (as we dread they might). And in the scrimmage of wacky one-upmanship that is a hallmark of primaries, you may reasonably expect to see a spectrum of weaselly, “teach the controversy” positions, all in a cynical bid to poach votes from anti-vaxxers of both parties.
The to-vaxx-or-not-to-vaxx issue has forged a strange fellowship between black helicopter right wingers, who believe vaccination is just a step away from martial law, and crunchy granola left wingers who buy into the fallacy of an “all-natural” lifestyle. A poll on the main page of Life Health Choices (a resource for anti-vaxxers) asks: “Is vaccination choice a fundamental human right?” — erroneously positioning the issue as one of individual liberty and a parent’s right to raise his or her child without government intervention. Such attitudes mesh with the folly of well-educated, liberal parents who want to raise their children completely free of all “chemicals.” In both cases, the cri de coeur is “I know better!”
Together they form an unholy union born of shared unreason, which an acquaintance of mine calls the “Know-Better Party.” All the studies and medical testimony in the world doesn’t nudge the Know-Betters. Their self-perception as responsible parents and free thinkers depends on their rejection of whatever wisdom they hold to be conventional: It doesn’t matter exactly where they fall along party lines; all that matters is they know better than you.
If you’re a Know-Better, then what are you doing here? Whether or not facts have any currency with you, whether or not you agree with the overwhelming majority of doctors, you’ve already made up your mind. So thanks for reading this far. Did you come here to be outraged; to shake your head in disapproval; to decry us as child murderers, cynical clickbaiters, choir preachers; to urge new research into the safety and efficacy of vaccines; to tell us that none of this is news?
In that, if nothing else, we may agree. There is no news here. There is no ethical dilemma. There is no startling research waiting in the wings. There is in fact no controversy. This article is an ouroboros decrying its own existence. The Know-Betters have taken enough of our time. All that’s left are the same old facts, to which we dutifully direct you:
- Vaccines do not cause autism or other neuropsychological outcomes.
- The 1998 study that introduced this theory was retracted.
- Like all medicines, the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine does have side effects, which are relatively rare and benign, a fact widely acknowledged by the medical community.
- In fact, the CDC makes available a list of all vaccines and their potential side effects.
- The HPV vaccine does not cause mental retardation.
- Homeopathic remedies are not an effective alternative to vaccines.
- The standard vaccine regimen does not weaken a child’s immune system.
- There is no connection between the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal and autism.
- Furthermore, thimerosal exposes the body to ethylmercury, which is different from methylmercury, the compound which builds up in the body and damages the nervous system.
- Out of an abundance of caution, in 2001 thimerosal was removed from all children’s vaccines with the exception of inactivated flu vaccine in multi-dose vials.
- Vaccines are responsible for eradicating or nearly eradicating smallpox, diphtheria, polio, among many other deadly diseases.
- Exemptions from vaccinations tend to cluster geographically, reducing herd immunity, and vaccine exemptions are correlated with higher rates of pertussis.
- An increase in flu vaccinations was correlated with fewer hospitalizations due to influenza.
But perhaps most sobering of all is a recent study in Pediatrics suggesting that whatever you believe, your mind cannot be changed:
Current public health communications about vaccines may not be effective. For some parents, they may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention. Attempts to increase concerns about communicable diseases or correct false claims about vaccines may be especially likely to be counterproductive.
If that is true — and it seems in poor taste for us to discount a study when it suits us — then, well, our bad.
Photo: v1ctor Casale via Flickr