Polman column: Anti-science ignorance stokes public health crisis


If you occur to observe “Veep,” the HBO present that satirizes politics, you’re absolutely conversant in Jonah, the infamous foot-in-mouth presidential candidate. On final week’s episode, whereas making an attempt 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 solely this have been a laughing matter. You’ve in all probability heard that measles, a illness that was formally eradicated in 2000 because of the measles vaccine, is now making a dramatic comeback – with no less than 700 documented circumstances – because of the willfully ignorant “anti-vaxxers” whose opinion of science brings to thoughts the foes of Galileo who refused to imagine that the earth circles the solar.

We Americans don’t agree about a lot anymore, however at minimal, there ought to be a consensus that science within the many years since World War II has been a boon to public health. As Steve Salzberg, a biomedical engineering professional at Johns Hopkins University, factors out, the measles vaccine alone has been “a miracle of modern medicine,” foiling a illness that usually produced 500,000 circumstances a 12 months previous to the vaccine’s introduction in 1963.

Unfortunately, we’re now tormented by “the highly vocal, supremely confident, and utterly misinformed anti-vaccine movement” that amplifies its lies every day on social media. Indeed, one suppose tank examine concluded final 12 months that the anti-vaxxers have mastered the artwork of “repetitive messaging reinforcement.” The examine 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 idea, everybody in America ought to be free to imagine no matter they need – however to not the purpose when disbelief imperils the broader neighborhood and creates a public health crisis. Healthy un-vaccinated youngsters are usually not the one ones put in danger. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary on 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 preserve saying – with no shred of scientific proof – that vaccines trigger every thing from autism to psychological retardation. They’ve been so profitable, particularly on the state degree, the place it’s authorized (as in Pennsylvania) for fogeys to choose out for “philosophical” or “religious” beliefs, that the World Health Organization is itemizing what’s euphemistically referred to as “vaccine hesitancy” as one of many high 10 international threats in 2019.

And take a wild guess which political occasion has been friendlier to the anti-vaxxers, giving them secure harbor. I had the burden of watching a Republican presidential main debate on Sept. 17, 2015. The front-runner, Donald Trump, determined to share his medical experience:

“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 primary Republican to bow at that altar of ignorance.

Back in 2011, ill-fated presidential candidate Michele Bachmann declared that the favored HPV vaccine, which had inoculated hundreds of thousands of younger ladies towards a cancer-causing virus, was truly a public menace that triggered psychological retardation. Early in 2015, candidate Rand Paul stated he had “heard of” circumstances the place vaccinated youngsters “wound up with profound mental disorders.” (There have been no such circumstances.) And candidate Chris Christie briefly toyed with an anti-science stance, suggesting that oldsters ought to have the liberty of “choice” on whether or not to vaccinate, earlier than partly strolling it again.

And but, final week, when Trump was confronted with the truth of an precise measles outbreak, he abruptly 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 bear in mind what he stated in 2015? Or what he tweeted about vaccines in 2014? (“AUTISM. Many such cases!”)

Our finest hope is that sanity will finally prevail. Congress is definitely planning to conduct hearings concerning the measles outbreak, in recognition that public health is a precedence concern. As Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander warned the opposite day, “If vaccine hesitancy persists – or even expands – it could seriously undermine these important (scientific) advances.”

A bipartisan second in 2019! That’s almost as miraculous as a life-saving vaccine.

Dick Polman is the nationwide political columnist at WHYY in Philadelphia and a “Writer in Residence” on the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at dickpolman7@gmail.com.



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