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

In eleven states the number of nonmedical exemptions are increasing. 
MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 28: In this photo illustration, a bottle containing a measles vaccine is seen at the Miami Children's Hospital on January 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida. Photo illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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. 

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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