If there were ever a moment to worry that anti-vaxxers could win, this could be the time.
MARCH ON WASHINGTON
On March 31, anti-vaccine activists plan to march on Washington to defend what they call their “legal right to make informed, voluntary vaccine choices.”
So far, very few people have signed up to join this group of pseudoscience promoters, thankfully. But the “call to action” at this moment in history signals something alarming: The anti-vaccine movement seems to be energized under President Trump. And that’s dangerous, given that lately, vaccine skeptics have been persuading more parents in a number of states to refuse shots for their children. And in my state of Texas Alex Jones has preached against vaccines for years and Texas is beginning to see problems crop up in some of their elementary school with measles and mumps. Alex Jones and his radio shows is where Donald Trump started building his supporters and is also the source of Donald’s news.
The trend is worrying enough that two top vaccine researchers published op-eds in the past month warning about the risk of more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and mumps.
“Even a modest decrease in [vaccine coverage] rates could be enough to cause future outbreaks,” wrote Saad Omer, a leading vaccine researcher at Emory University, in a Washington Post opinion piece.
In another piece, Peter Hotez, a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine, wrote, “I’m worried that our nation’s health will soon be threatened because we have not stood up to the pseudoscience and fake conspiracy claims of this movement.”
THEY ARE CONCERNED
They’re right to be concerned. We now have a president who courts known anti-vaccine crackpots and makes the same kinds of pseudoscience claims about lifesaving immunizations that they do. If there was ever a moment to worry that the anti-vaxxers could win, this is it.
Let’s be clear about something up front: Most American children still get their shots. More than 90 percent of kids receive vaccines for polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis B, and chickenpox, though the coverage rates are slightly lower for other routine vaccines. Most American parents also say they support school-based vaccine requirements.
States started to mandate that school children get inoculated against diseases because we need vaccination rates to remain high to sustain what’s referred to as the “herd immunity.” For any vaccine to be effective and prevent outbreaks, a certain (high) percentage of people in the population need to be immunized. This keeps diseases from spreading easily, and keeps vulnerable groups that can’t be vaccinated (such as very young babies or people with allergies to vaccines) protected.
ANTI-VAXXERS ARE BE AROUND OF 200 YEARS
And yet, since vaccination was invented more than 200 years ago, anti-vaxxers have been organizing. The seeds of the modern anti-vaccine movement can be traced back to bogus 1990s research by Andrew Wakefield, a disgraced physician-researcher who linked the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine to autism. Since then, a small but enthusiastic community of activists — abetted by doctors who enable them — have been spreading unfounded fears among parents about the safety of these vaccines.
RECENT BLOG POST
As David Gorski, a surgeon who has tracked the movement, wrote in a recent blog post, “Hard-core antivaxers are a minority. They are and remain cranks. … Unfortunately, they have an outsized influence on reasonable parents who just don’t have the scientific background to recognize their misinformation and pseudoscience for what they are, contributing to vaccine hesitancy.”
PLoS One Personal belief exemptions in Texas: K–12th grade students with nonmedical exemptions, Texas, 2003–2016.
Texas is one of those lax states that allow parents to get both religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions. And other studies have shown that people who live in places that make it easy to opt out of vaccines tend to have higher rates of exemptions. In one paper, states that allowed parents to refuse vaccines for philosophical or personal reasons had exemption rates that were 2.54 times as high as states that only permitted religious exemptions. Another older study, looking at data between 1991 and 2004, found an increase in exemption rates only in states that allowed philosophical exemptions.
ANOTHER GROWING GROUP
There’s also evidence of another growing group of vaccine skeptics: More common than outright vaccine deniers are parents who might be better described as “vaccine delayers.” They generally agree that vaccination is a public health benefit, and they don’t identify as “anti-vaxxers.” But they’re hesitant and skeptical about some areas of vaccine science, and they work with doctors to create their own vaccine schedules, choosing which vaccines to give their kids and which to skip.
A politically and geographically diverse bunch, it turns out. “In Oregon, it’s an organic movement appealing to natural things and that we shouldn’t do unnatural things to kids’ bodies,” said Hotez. “In Texas, it seems it’s more about choice and civil liberties. ‘First they take our guns away, and now they’re trying to make us vaccinate our kids.’” There are clusters of people who refuse vaccines for religious reasons across the country, too. (And they are not taking guns away in Texas).
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