Vaccine Wars: When skepticism goes viral

The outbreak of measles has many concerned about the resurgence of a deadly disease. But what if it is actually the symptom of something much larger?

The outbreak in January, which originated in Disneyland and has spread to over a dozen states, has brought the vaccine debate back to the national spotlight. Many people are criticizing parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. Physicians, parents and public officials point out the benefits of “herd immunity”—that a vaccine not only protects the child who is vaccinated but safeguards those who are not vaccinated by slowing the spread of the disease. Herd immunity is particularly important for infants too young to be vaccinated and children who are immunocompromised, like those battling cancer. Parents who refuse vaccination are accused of putting other people’s children at unnecessary risk for deadly diseases.

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Parents who oppose vaccines push back, claiming that it is their right as parents to decide whether to vaccinate their children. Some express a desire for a “toxin free” life for their children. Others believe big pharmaceutical companies push vaccine benefits in order to make a profit. And many, shockingly, continue to believe there is a link between vaccines and autism, a claim that has been widely discredited.

Rahm Emanuel, current mayor of Chicago, famously said, “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste.” Many public health officials believe that the most recent measles outbreak is just such a crisis and see it as their opportunity to increase vaccination rates in certain parts of the country, where they are low. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that they are “very concerned” about a widespread measles outbreak and are once again promoting vaccination campaigns. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said, “People should evaluate this for themselves with a bias toward good science and toward the advice of our public health professionals.” With all due respect to my public health colleagues and public officials, I think they are missing the point.

I am unequivocally on the side of vaccination. Yet I believe that this crisis cannot not be easily characterized as the fault of the parents who refuse to vaccinate. Some of the blame must also rest on the scientific community, which has too often refused to acknowledge that values and morals play a sometimes decisive role in our decision-making. We cannot know if these parents are violating a social expectation until we have an honest conversation about what our social expectations are.

We will never get to the heart of this issue if we keep pretending that the crisis is based simply on a lack of understanding. It is based on our failure to discuss what we mean by the common good, to have an honest debate about balancing rights and responsibilities and to talk about what we owe our neighbors.

Imagine that instead of getting vaccinated on national television, politicians actually engaged us in a conversation about the role of the common good. We could then talk about the true social consequences of an extreme libertarian philosophy. And we could entertain the notion that our individual opinions cannot, in fact, be absolutized. This moment is too serious to waste on the tired vaccine-autism debate. Let’s talk about something that matters.

Personal ‘Belief’ Exemptions

Try as one might, encouraging “a bias toward good science” will not solve the debate over vaccines. Over a decade ago, a prestigious medical journal and a Playboy playmate of the year made strange partners in laying the foundation for the anti-vaccine movement. The article in The Lancet in 1998 has been retracted, and Jenny McCarthy has been contradicted by piles of data; yet hopes that science will ultimately win the day do not seem to be coming true. Experts must be exhausted from constantly reiterating that the link between vaccines and autism has been discredited. The physician who published the Lancet article has been barred from practicing medicine. There is not much more the public health community or public officials can do to marshal scientific evidence in defense of vaccines. So what is next?

I’m sorry to say it, but in some ways leaders in the science community have contributed to the problem. Since the scientific revolution, that community has made concerted efforts to discredit other domains of knowledge and convince us that science is the one true font from which to draw. In truth, science has good reason to present itself as the most powerful explanatory model for our lives. Many aspects of the world that were once explained by magic and mystery are now very well understood, thanks to generations of scientists and their sacrifices. But some scientific leaders pushed a belief in the scientific method with a slash-and-burn strategy designed to discredit other ways of knowing. And now science is forced to dwell in the world it created. So when scientific arguments do not seem to work, what is left? In practice the solution of many of my colleagues is to keep throwing more science at the problem or to dismiss those who dare challenge it as foolish.

In this case, at least, the scientific community must seek help from an area it discarded as irrelevant long ago. The solution for the low vaccination rates, and many other crises, is to admit that values and beliefs shape people’s lives in major ways. There are domains of knowledge—although not empirically testable like gravity and germ theory—that must be debated as openly and clearly as we debate scientific theory.

Many of the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children take advantage of “personal belief exemption” laws that allow them to send their unvaccinated children to school. In Colorado, the state with the lowest vaccination rate, nearly 20 percent of children are not fully immunized. An early childhood center in Santa Monica, Calif., is reported to have a personal belief exemption rate of over 65 percent. This means that there are some communities in the United States that have lower vaccination levels than countries suffering from civil war and famine.

These personal belief exemptions are different from religious exemptions, although they are often difficult to distinguish. What we do know is that there is something motivating parents to refuse vaccinations even when their physicians give them clear evidence of their importance. Talking about more science is not working. So why aren’t we talking about the personal beliefs or values that these parents are invoking? And if we think the social expectations are settled and that these parents are violating them, then shouldn’t state laws make exemption more difficult?

Worthy Debates

If the scientific community could admit that values and morals are worthy of debate alongside science, it might find more allies than it expects.

There is scientific consensus on climate change, but there is little action. So what can another report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change actually do? But Pope Francis and his long-awaited encyclical on the environment may move hearts as well as minds. I do not expect climatologists to invoke “our moral responsibility for creation,” but they would be wise to recognize that at this point our faith leaders may be able to change more minds than they can.

Those who favor gun control continue to marshal more scientific evidence to support their positions. But, again, these public health experts and social scientists fail to recognize that their opponents will not be swayed by more science. Opponents of gun control evoke values to support their position. Therefore, gun control advocates might be better served by debating which position best fosters a culture of life. Or they might engage in a debate on what we mean by liberty—whether it is liberty from government or liberty for human flourishing. But that will require admitting that morals and values can stand alongside science in the public square.

I am not claiming that if we just talk about values we will all suddenly find we agree with each other. We will disagree on fundamental notions of how we want to construct society. But at least we won’t be talking past each other.

The Republican presidential contenders have faced an interesting dilemma during this most recent measles outbreak. Many of them are trying to thread the needle of recognizing the good vaccines do for society while evoking the political dog whistle of “freedom.” The reason it has been so difficult for them is that they are trying to hold mutually exclusive positions. You can either give parents unrestricted freedom to vaccinate or not, or you can use the government’s coercive power to limit exemptions so that the community reaches herd immunity. But this contradiction in positions will be exposed only if we include values alongside science in our public discourse.

A recent Pew Research survey revealed some noteworthy divisions in this debate. The expected division was based on political philosophy—a slight partisan divide, with Republicans less likely than Democrats to believe that parents should be required to vaccinate their children. The unexpected division was one based on age—younger adults are less likely to believe that parents should be required to vaccinate their children. Only 59 percent of adults age 18 to 29 said parents should be required to vaccinate, compared to 79 percent of adults age 65 and older. This may be attributable to the fact that older adults actually lived through the ravages of many infectious diseases that younger adults have never seen. But what if it is because younger adults are less likely to claim responsibility for the “other”? Then it is not a matter of science better explaining how deadly these diseases are, but a matter of the values that underpin our society.

We are faced with several crises that will not be resolved simply by appealing again to science. As a Jesuit priest working in the field of public health, both of my worlds are interested in the human person fully alive. It took the church far too long to admit that science had many important things to say about the workings of our world. The church was wrong in that. I hope science will be quicker to admit its mistake. We will ultimately stop this measles outbreak, but we should not be fooled into thinking that doing so solves the crisis. The real crisis runs much deeper, and it is far too serious to let it go to waste.

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Patrick Eicker
2 years 9 months ago

the political dog whistle of “freedom.” Using the word freedom is a dog whistle, eh? Well then so must be 'common good'.

Liz Webster
2 years 9 months ago
I believe that there is a general view within even educated circles that no one has truly proven "the science" behind vaccines E.g. At one time smoking was purportedly healthy based on "science" and our government agreed; GMO's are supposedly healthy, yet other countries have banned Monsanto wheat seed; "The water is safe!! they said. "Here are the scientific studies to prove it!" And Love Canal is still uninhabitable!!! Whose science are we to believe??? There is science funded by the huge pharmaceutical corporations and western medicine and hence by our legislators and government because of lobbyists and yet there are other ideas about what brings better health. What strain is this measles outbreak from? Is it the actual vaccine strain? Who is getting sick? Those who have been vaccinated? Or the unvaccinated? All we hear in media coverage is the hype of fear against and lack of responsibility of the parents who choose not to vaccinate... Yet, are they truly irresponsible??? The ability to fight infection and disease relies on a healthy immune system... there are those who believe that bombarding a small child's body with nine or more vaccines in one 2 year old appointment is making that child's immune system work overtime, sometimes to impairment, AND many pediatricians will give ALL those vaccines EVEN if the child is SICK at that time!!! Are we not giving a strain of each disease to this child that his/her immune system then has to process? Might not an already compromised immune system, process those vaccines differently and open a still unseen, unverified "scientifically as yet" pathway to harm?? Sugar, food coloring, artificial flavorings and preservatives can have observable and almost immediate behavioral changes in children with ADHD!!! I've seen it with my own eyes! Several in my family are now unable to eat or drink anything that contains wheat. They do not have Celiac's disease - what causes this? The long and the short of all this is that there is a distrust of "science" that has huge corporations, etc. behind it, trying to SELL a product that makes millions for their biggest stockholders and CEO's!!! Our leaders have sucked in before, why not now??? It isn't different values... it is doubting the science paid for by big pharmaceutical corporations, lobbied for by big pharma, etc. Why are SO many willing to pay WAY more money for organic products??? Because they distrust GMO's and the corporations that tout their safety, the corporations that LOBBY to make government tout their safety - they have the science to prove it!!!!!!!
Chris Miller
2 years 9 months ago
I was the final pastor for a parish that just closed. I was there for about 7 months, and my homilies were very well received--which makes me wonder about the previous pastor..., but anyway the ONE homily which got the most continuing comment was the one which included dealing with the issue of vaccines. I am one of those "65 and up who have seen the ravages of these diseases"...I remember one of the picture magazines (Life? Look?) did a story on polio, with one photo that haunts me today: 10 iron lungs, each occupied by a child condemned there for life. I was about 8 when the first, oral, form of the vaccine was available, and we lined up at our local school to receive it, and there was a sense of excitement that maybe, finally, this horrible scourge that returned every summer like clockwork, might be tamed. I don't remember exactly what I said--I don't retain my homily notes--after 40 years, I had to do something about the piles of paper, but I do know that the context of the discussion was framed in my final statement; Jesus said that there were only two great Commandments which summarized the law: Love of God with all our heart, mind and soul, and love of our neighbor as ourselves. We have an obligation not just to consider our own children's situation, but the greater situation of the good of our neighbor, and that means those who depend on us to help them survive. Pr Chris
Frank Lesko
2 years 9 months ago
This article falls short of adequately representing the sides of this debate. However, it is certainly much more nuanced than most of what I've read lately. The bullying and on this issue is like nothing I've seen since the rush to war after 9/11 and the so-called patriotism that was part and parcel of that effort (i.e. "if you question anything about the war, you must hate the troops"). Virtually every article on this issue is a case study in rhetoric, and it shocks me how gullible the public is and how few seem to recognize it. I get really worried whenever honest, open, critical debate is shunned on any issue. Those who question vaccines are not all invested in an all-or-nothing stance. Few may question the polio vaccines, especially how they were used historically. However, Hep A & B, measles, for example, are another thing entirely. Much of the concern has to do with the amount of vaccines and their schedule. Kids today are vaccinated several times more than kids were 1-2 generations ago. The age at which they are given, the cocktails of different vaccines, and the toxins (not just mercury, but the proteins themselves which normally never enter the bloodstream directly) are all important factors to consider. Vaccinating your kids is playing Russian roulette. Whenever death is a possible side effect, no one should push you into it. Do certain vaccines even work? Are the strains even relevant? All that usually is demonstrated in studies is that the body produces antibodies, but that may not relate at all to whether a person can stave off an infection. Is herd immunity even a valid phenomenon and are current vaccination levels even high enough to achieve it? Stepping back a minute, the medical community has a serious credibility problem. Until this is addressed, the public is not going to fall in line and do something just because "the medical community said so." The narrowness and arrogance of western medicine (with its symptom-only focus) and the fact that it is absolutely beholden to big pharma money interests are major issues in this. There are dozens of major examples of colossal failures of the medical establishment, here's just one: For the past 6 decades, the medical establishment told us that saturated fats were dangerous and urged us to avoid them. A multi-billion dollar infrastructure was built up to deliver this message and treat people according to it, especially in regards to heart disease. Every seemingly brilliant doctor peddled this information like it came from Mt Sinai. It turns out that the science was NEVER good on this, and much of the promulgation of this idea was laced with ego interests at the start. This was not an occasional mistake. This was a catastrophic, systemic failure of epic proportions. There should be Congressional hearings on this. The public was misled, money was being made and God only know how many people suffered and died as a result of this blunder. The science was never good enough to warrant that level of action. Common sense'll tell you that we spent most of human history stealing ostrich eggs on the African savannah, and there is probably no other food source better suited for our health than eggs and the saturated fats they contain, yet they were vilified for decades. There is very little effort to coach people in cultivating lifestyle wellness. It's all drugs and surgery even when simple exercises and nutrition changes can not only treat diseases but often solve the root causes in the first place. And the Holy Grail: Lifestyle maintenance meds that people never wean off off.... blood pressure meds, thyroid, statins, PPI’s, the list goes on and on. And vaccines. Let’s not forget. Another major issue is that the health of young people is horrific these days. When did the peanut become a deadly substance? Numerous chronic health problems are at epidemic proportions, and the number is growing--childhood diabetes, autism, ADHD, you name it. It used to be that it was rare for an elementary school to have a kid with a chronic health condition, but nowadays every class has a handful. Ask any teacher. Where is the public debate on this?? We don't know what's causing it. GMO’s? Obliteration of gut bacteria? Pharmaceuticals? Vaccines? Environmental toxins? The only research on this seems to be related to genetics, when in fact our genes worked perfectly fine just a generation or two ago. Madness. When does the precautionary principle come into play? The establishment refuses to discuss these things and as a result we have a booming holistic/alternative health movement and massive skepticism of the medical establishment.
Jacqueline O'Brien
2 years 9 months ago
I regret to remind the writer that the topic of vaccines is not a black or white issue. Most parents who seek an alternate schedule, or "clean vaccines" or single dose vaccines (rather than the triple disease, such as MMR) are seen as trouble-makers rather than parents who are aware of vaccine injuries and want to diminish any potential injury for their child. America Magazine, why no mention of the legitimate links between vaccines and injury? I was once a "go-along" mom, with my first child, who received mercury vaccines without full disclosure to me prior to vaccination, as well as the MMR, two days after round-the-clock diarrhea and vomiting, "since we were in the office." What did I know? The vaccine program is a golden cow. My son has severe allergies, eczema, and yes, autism. Proven link? No. But do you think I was going to give my younger son the same triple dose vaccine? Most people understand that the gut is the epicenter of all health, and when you shoot a triple disease into a young toddler who has poor gut flora due to gastroenteritis, there is likely to be an ill effect. Parents have every right to know about the Big Pharma business that is the vaccine program, as well as the right to point out that our children are not cookie cutters, and are often not in "perfect health" when they come in for well-baby visits. Can you imagine what the positive impact would be on our children's cognitive, physical and emotional health if doctor's prescribed probiotics, healthful food and provided reliable and consistent support for breastfeeding?
Veronica Meidus-Heilpern
2 years 9 months ago
There is more to this than just the "science." Not only is personal belief (and/or religious belief) crucial here; so also is the apparent relationships between vaccines and post-vac effects on infants' and toddlers' health. There have been too many reports of long-term or lifetime auto-immune circumstances showing up right after the vaccine regimen has been administered; these cannot be ignored with the claim "there's no evidence of a cause/effect relationship." Even medical personnel are seeing and reporting more evidence in their practices. Yes, there is also danger of infection that can be hazardous to some people, like the child in the photo accompanying the article. It seems to be a "no-win" situation. Can this mom have her son vaccinated? Or would that also be life-threatening? If it is, it makes my point.
WILLIAM BARRY SJ REV
2 years 9 months ago
Finally some sense on this issue. As a society we have to begin to talk about what we value and how we can, as a country, live together given our different values. The need for such conversations is evident, not only on the issue of vaccines, but on many others, including how we will care for those most in need. Thanks for these words of wisdom. William A. Barry, S.J.
Charles Erlinger
2 years 9 months ago
Reference the author's expressed need for a "conversation about the role of the common good." I suggest that a conversation won't get the job done. There is a need for a rigorous intellectual examination of the concept of the common good, where the idea comes from, what, exactly are the goods that are common, and what is the share that each person in a community is owed, of the common good.
Sarah Weigert
2 years 9 months ago
As a 63 year old grandmother with an autoimmune disease of 30-plus years, I have to take a biologic medication to suppress my immune system. As a result, my disease is in remission, however the side effects are horrific. I am extremely susceptible to life-threatening infections, including pneumonia and TB. I must arrange my life around potential exposure from my beloved children and grandchildren in addition to a constant anxiety I will be exposed even at mass. So to all who refuse to vaccinate curable disease, I am here to say you are putting lives at risk with your misguided intentions of protecting your children. I believe the CDC and government should mandate certain vaccinations as mandatory for the greater good of our society as a whole and the most vulnerable among us; the very young who cannot be vaccinated until a certain age, the elderly and any others at risk like me. I had double pneumonia January of this year which is my third hospitalization in fifteen years. Please parents, reconsider your anti-vaccination stance for all our sakes. Thanks and God bless us all with good health.

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