Viewpoints

Anti-vaccine hysteria is at an all-time high. Gov. Newsom isn’t helping

Here’s the scene at contentious vaccine bill hearing at state Senate

A hearing at the state Capitol on SB 276, which would require public health officials to approve exceptions to vaccination requirements, drew a large crowd outside the Senate hearing room on Wednesday, April 24, 2019.
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A hearing at the state Capitol on SB 276, which would require public health officials to approve exceptions to vaccination requirements, drew a large crowd outside the Senate hearing room on Wednesday, April 24, 2019.

At a time when vaccination standards have been thrust into the spotlight by Senate Bill 276 and remain a point of national fixation, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recent comments are deeper than political pandering to a target demographic. The remarks represent more than an everyday gaffe. They are outright irresponsible and emblematic of how policymakers and public health agents have responded to the anti-vaccination movement.

Recently, Newsom indicated concern with the role of government in SB 276. He contends that, though he believes in the importance of vaccinations, he holds reservations about inserting bureaucracy into the “very personal” decision whether to vaccinate one’s children.

The persistence of the anti-vaccination public health catastrophe can be squarely attributed to such ineffectual and poorly informed comments.

The relevance of this topic cannot be understated. This year marks a record high for measles cases in the U.S. at 981 (and counting), a level of infection not seen since 1992. With one recent outbreak in Minnesota costing an estimated $1 million, every case is a failure in public health terms.

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More than the significant cost to taxpayers for containment and tracking, the greatest concern from reduced vaccination is decreased herd-immunity protection. The most vulnerable in our communities, such as infants, the elderly and the immunocompromised, require that others are vaccinated to be safe.

To make matters worse, even when California’s statewide vaccination rate is high, danger arises where subgroups of anti-vaxxers may be concentrated. In other words, no amount of anti-vaccination philosophy is small enough to be dismissed or overlooked.

No matter his intention, Newsom’s comments are hardly received as a caution against overextended bureaucracy or concerns about the logistics of another appointed government officer. Rather, their celebration by such vaccination-opposed figures as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. shows a more dangerous aspect: the validation of fear.

Most likely, Newsom sought to avoid a conversation about government overreach. In the U.S., we pride ourselves on self-agency and independence. Mandated vaccinations are an intrusion on this, yes, in the same way that traffic signals are an intrusion on your daily commute. We make small sacrifices for safety every day. Immunization should be seen as another means to keep our communities healthy.

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Unfortunately, the anti-vax community heard a different message emerge from the head of the State of California this week. Newsom announced a validity of fear. With an audience of millions of parents both within California and across the country, he may as well have delivered the message: “You are right to be afraid.”

This acknowledgment of fear lies at the root of the anti-vaccine movement. Whether the fear is autism, as originally reported in the infamous and widely-debunked Lancet article, or a concern with ominous-sounding chemicals in vaccines, this is a movement driven by poor education and good intentions. For parents who want the best for their children, it will be easy to see Newsom’s careless comments as an acknowledgment of their fears, as an admission that being vaccinated is a risk.

Newsom’s irresponsibility presents an opportunity for the rest of us. Decades of rigorous scientific investigation have shown the safety and importance of widespread immunization. In conversations with friends and family who may be skeptical of such evidence, the basis for any productive conversation must be an empathetic understanding of fear – without conceding a gray area of unproven danger. Frustration is natural, but it’s up to every one of us to erase the image of vaccines as a modern boogeyman.

Matthew Crane works as a health policy analyst in Los Angeles.

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