Bruce Maiman: Opposed to vaccinations? Welcome to the new Dark Ages

Published: Tuesday, Mar. 25, 2014 - 12:00 am

Let’s not mince words. The explosion of vaccine-preventable diseases in recent years is largely due to one thing: the misinformed paranoia of the anti-vaccination movement.

This is not about lack of access in underdeveloped countries. It’s about parents in the developed world – presumably educated, or at least with access to well-established scientific data – being Pied-Pipered by cranks, conspiracy theorists and homeopathic quacks, trusting that over the superior knowledge of medical professionals.

How else do you explain it? Measles was considered eradicated in 2000. In the decade thereafter, cases numbered about 60 per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They’ve since jumped: 245 cases in 2011; 303 last year. So far, there are 80 cases in 2014, including 36 in California – up from 32 last week (compared to three at this time last year), according to the California Department of Public Health.

Fourteen of those California cases are in families that eschewed inoculation, a pattern similar in measles outbreaks nationwide.

An interactive map by the Council on Foreign Relations graphically depicts the recent global spread of communicable diseases all but wiped out two generations ago. It’s stupefying.

Vaccination rates plummeted in Europe after a 1998 British study claimed the vaccine for MMR – measles, mumps and rubella – was linked to autism.

That study was debunked in 2010 when investigative reporters found that facts were falsified to support the autism link. The medical journal that published the study withdrew it. Study author Andrew Wakefield, who was paid more than $675,000 by lawyers hoping to sue vaccine makers, lost his medical license.

But pathogens took full advantage of that 12-year gap, aided and abetted by “anti-vax” starlets like Jenny McCarthy.

The pertussis outbreak of 2005 cost California $17 million, according to state hospital discharge data, including at least $12 million for Medi-Cal beneficiaries.

By 2010, more than 12,000 of California’s roughly 470,000 kindergartners had opted out of vaccinations through California’s personal belief exemption law. That same year, California saw 9,120 cases of pertussis – one-third of all U.S. cases.

Coincidence? Not to researchers whose study in the journal Pediatrics last September noted striking parallels between outbreaks and the clusters of “nonmedical exemptions.”

It doesn’t matter that anti-vax parents may mean well. The evidence is clear: They are dead wrong.

And please don’t tell me this is about forcing people to vaccinate their kids. Choosing to opt out of immunization increases the pool of susceptible individuals, which leads to increased transmission, and that becomes a danger not only to those who aren’t vaccinated but also to those who are.

When that happens, a fundamental question then confronts us: If your personal freedom jeopardizes public safety, to which should society give greater credence?

Coincidentally, the University of Chicago published a survey last week concluding that half of all Americans believe in at least one of six medical conspiracy theories, including that cell phones cause cancer and that companies use water fluoridation to cover up pollution, which is interesting, since people used to think fluoridation was a Communist plot to “sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.” See what happens when you end a Cold War?

Only 44 percent disagreed that vaccines cause autism; 20 percent believed it. The rest neither agreed nor disagreed, which just might reflect a broader problem.

The fact anti-vaxers get any traction at all is a side effect of a 50-year anti-science propaganda campaign. For decades, pro-business think tanks launched smear campaigns against scientists who had shown smoking causes cancer.

When toxicologists uncovered the problem with lead in paint and gasoline, the think tanks went after them. When population biology showed the timber industry was driving certain species to extinction, the same firms went after them. Nowadays they’re smearing climate scientists. Same organizations. Same tactics.

It raises another troubling question about our priorities. Which is more important: Public safety or corporate profit? Should society allow anyone to make a profit at the expense of public safety?

The theme of all these smear campaigns is to create doubt where none reasonably exists. Congratulate them. They’ve succeeded in undermining Americans’ confidence in scientific institutions so much that superstitious beliefs are now given equal treatment in the media as if they were credible.

And then we wonder why our school kids are falling behind in science.

Welcome to the new Dark Ages. Without this campaign running in the media background, it’s doubtful significant numbers of people would take crackpots like Jenny McCarthy seriously.

Maybe what’s happened is that we’ve forgotten what real poverty, endemic disease and infant mortality are like. But if we follow the anti-vaxer path, some of us may find out sooner rather than later that we should’ve been careful what we wished for. Or fell for.

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Reach him at

Read more articles by Bruce Maiman

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