It has been a year since a Southern California tourist, infected with measles, reintroduced the nation to a disease everyone thought had more or less gone away.
The Disneyland measles outbreak brought many lessons: the smallness of the world, the resilience of disease, the swiftness of contagions even where immunization is taken for granted.
But one of its clearest takeaways lay in the extent to which a minority of misinformed people had been able to endanger the public, leveraging liberty and “personal choice” to the point that they nearly undid decades of public health work.
There have been many such fights in recent years, in which the rights and desires of a minority have come up against health and safety. The gun fight boils down to that. So do the fights over e-cigarettes, condoms in porn movies, lane-splitting by motorcyclists and more.
The vaccine fight was a model of the genre. Young liberal and libertarian mothers in affluent suburbs, agitated by peer pressure and scared by bogus research, had stopped vaccinating their kids, compromising the so-called “herd immunity” in pockets throughout California. When the measles outbreak put them on the defensive, social media helped them organize.
I came away from the vaccine fight with at least one hopeful lesson: The more good information got out there, the more reason was contagious.
Quacks got into the mix, bidding for credibility and attention. Scientologists got involved, as did the Nation of Islam. The red-shirted anti-vax groups disrupted the Capitol for months, jamming phone lines, rallying, brandishing children at hearings, stalking lobbyists and threatening elected officials and their families.
And the fury developed a life of its own. State Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who led the fight to tighten the anti-vax loophole, got death threats. Hate mail arrived at his wife’s dental practice.
Jodi Hicks, a friend of Pan and a lobbyist for medical associations, was heckled on the street, maligned on YouTube and stalked on Twitter by parents who wanted to continue sending their children to day care centers and schools without immunizations.
Even some of the opponents of Pan’s bill, Senate Bill 277, were attacked. Chiropractors allied with the anti-vaccine troops were trashed by the true believers for being too soft.
It’s hard to make good policy with that kind of emotional smoke swirling. And with traditional news-gathering increasingly starved for resources, the public has its work cut out for it in cutting through the noise.
But I came away from the vaccine fight with at least one hopeful lesson: The more good information got out there, the more reason was contagious.
As California examined the pros and cons of letting kids go unvaccinated just because their parents objected, Vermont cut to the chase and repealed its personal belief exemption. By May, polling done by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 87 percent of the state’s adults viewed vaccines as safe and roughly two-thirds felt children should be kept out of public school if they aren’t vaccinated.
An effort to repeal SB 277 sputtered for lack of signatures, and a recall against Pan appears doomed to a similar failure. Vaccine opponents say they’ll attack the law in court after it officially takes effect this coming summer; so far, legal precedent doesn’t appear to be with them.
So responsibility can prevail. That’s worth remembering, because the kind of political warfare exemplified by the vaccine fight is an epidemic, primitive and tribal, and not soon likely to go away.