Vaccine Exemptions Are Rising. Will Trump Fuel This Invented Controversy?

In eleven states the number of nonmedical exemptions are increasing. 

During a 2015 screening of the anti-vaccine film, Trace Amounts, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. compared the alleged effects of thimerosal-based vaccines on autism to a “holocaust.” While no official statement has been released by the Trump administration, Kennedy reports that the president has asked him to lead a new vaccine initiative—par for the course for Trump, who has already displayed willingness to put people in charge of departments they aim to dismantle. 


Trump himself takes part in plenty of conspiracy thinking, including the discredited vaccines-cause-autism connection. Science usually begins with a belief on a subject, though during the verification process it should be abandoned as evidence emerges. Clinging to false ideas has real world and sometimes disastrous consequences.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported that nonmedical exemptions are down nationally, but certain states—Florida, Kentucky, North Carolina, New York, and Virginia among them—the number of children not being vaccinated has reached a five-year high, increasing the risk of disease outbreak.

Witness the recurring theme: ‘choice’ is being thrown around by Secretary of Education candidate, Betsy DeVos, as a means for boosting charter and religious school enrollment. Nonmedical exemptions to vaccines work the same way. Parents are supposedly ‘empowered’ in making a decision many have little understanding of. Only in California, West Virginia, and Mississippi is it illegal to philosophically or religiously oppose vaccines. This has nothing to do with stripping choice, but of protecting children.

Because, tragically, the losers in this imagined controversy are children, who have no opportunity to combat parental ineptitude. The problem could potentially get worse if Trump, who met with disbarred physician Andrew Wakefield in Florida this past August, appoints Kennedy to lead this commission.

Wakefield’s 1998 Lancet study kicked off the anti-vaccination movement. He posited the notion that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to autism and bowel disease. The study was retracted when no researcher could replicate the results. Later it was revealed that Wakefield was hired by British lawyer Richard Barr to produce his ‘evidence.’ Barr wanted to sue drug companies that manufacture the MMR vaccine. Wakefield made a great puppet.

Yet people love a good conspiracy. While Wakefield influenced a number of British parents, his American tour created pockets of scared parents refusing vaccinations. And once a belief gets in our head, research shows it’s nearly impossible to exorcise it.

A research team based at Dartmouth mailed four separate types of pro-vaccination literature to nearly two thousand parents. One claimed no scientific evidence relating vaccines to autism; another highlighted the dangers of the diseases vaccines prevent; the third featured photos of children suffering from those diseases; the final was a story about an infant who almost died from measles. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly it didn’t matter what leaflet each parent received. If they were predisposed to believing vaccines cause autism they refused to change their mind. The notion that vaccines are damaging was so neurologically wired that no amount of contradictory evidence sufficed. If anything opposing literature fueled their resistance in what is known as the backfire effect.

The common rebuttal—the diseases MMR vaccines combat no longer exist—is ludicrous. In 2015, 130,000 people died of measles. If the scandal only affected the anti-vaxxer’s child, that would be one thing. But this debacle is similar to cigarettes. Secondhand smoke harms others. As Olga Khazan reports:

What’s more, unvaccinated people don’t just threaten their own health. Outbreaks are more likely to occur during dips in the percentage of a population that’s immune. And some people—like the immune-compromised or elderly—can’t receive certain vaccines, but they are still susceptible to getting sick if an outbreak occurs. A paper published in JAMA last year found that vaccine refusal was associated with an increased risk of measles among both the fully vaccinated and vaccine-refusers.

Like climate change, there is no actual controversy. Vaccines are not perfect; overscheduling can be a problem. Persistently failing to recognize that this ‘scandal’ is based on a fraudulent doctor and his sponsored evidence is a problem that has reached the highest office in America. The results might prove deadly. 

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Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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