The mainstream is all-too happy to dismiss the anti-vaccination crowd as a fringe movement.
After all, the overwhelming support of the scientific community is on the side of vaccinations—not only are they effective against disease, the medical literature says, but there is also no credible evidence that they cause any of the side-effects (ranging from autism to ADHD) from which ‘anti-vaxxers’ claim they are protecting their children.
Despite assertions that the dispute hardly deserves to be called a ‘debate,’ there is more to the controversy than disparaging concerned parents and a medical community conspiracy. Here are 5 reasons why the anti-vaccination movement matters—and not in the ways you might think:
Public Health is a matter of National Security
The first major disease event of 2015 has been the measles outbreak that began at Disneyland in January. The location and timing of the sudden influx of measles cases distracted many from the Ebola outbreak that dominated the news throughout 2014. Ebola was popularly seen as a ‘foreign’ disease originating in Africa; the natural response of many was to simply isolate the affected countries and restrict travel.
Americans like having a line drawn in the sand on most issues. That is part of the reason why the public response to the Ebola outbreak focused on its origins. When the threat is at home, as in the Disneyland outbreak, it becomes more difficult to identify an enemy. For many, anti-vaxxers are close enough to an enemy to take the brunt of the fear and outrage that inevitably follows a public threat. In a globalized world, however, identifying enemies and labelling a group as “other” is less-effective than a coordinated, multi-national response.
Forcing people to get vaccinations—or banning them from public spheres, like theme parks and schools—doesn’t eliminate disease, and won’t necessarily stop it from spreading. Recognizing that public health is a vulnerable area that requires a complex, multi-faceted approach is an important step in modern national security, where terrorism is not the only non-state threat.
Anti-Vaxxers aren’t all Anti-Science
It is a public health crisis, but with many human rights elements more complex than a simple diagnose-and-cure response can account for. Calls for mandatory vaccination overlook two important facts: first, that even states that actually do have such laws still provide religious exemptions for those whose beliefs prohibit that kind of medicine. Second, there are documented cases of vaccinated children still contracting measles—in the current outbreak, and historically.
Vilifying the minority of parents who made a conscious choice is an over-simplification not just of the issue, but of public health matters as a whole. America, as a democracy, is a nation founded on the right to choose—and yes, religion does actually play into the choice not to vaccinate in some cases.
Is Climate Change Real?
The anti-vaccination movement is founded on a rejection of the scientific majority. This has led to its adherents being labeled as ‘conspiracy-theorists’ and otherwise out of touch with fact-based reality. Even President Obama said as much in an interview on the California measles outbreak.
Well, climate science is a field similarly fraught with controversy, with one side claiming an overwhelming scientific consensus, which the other side rejects as misleading, artificially constructed, or otherwise false. Again, the President has weighed in on the debate.
Using science to drive policy is not as straight-forward as the public would like to believe. Science has been co-opted by politics. Leaders on either side of scientific debates have a host of resources and experts to establish their own stance, as well as confounding variables they can use to discredit each other. Add in the power of social media and the internet to spread fact and fiction with equal zeal, and having an informed debate becomes less a matter of science, and more a question of political influence.
Research into the harmful effects of medication—even those supposed to be innocuous—is on-going, and always subject to reversal. Consider the most common, over-the-counter pain-killer (and a component of many prescriptions), acetaminophen. As public awareness catches up with scientific understanding, its ubiquity begins to look more sinister.
At its best, science provides theories that stand as fact until newer, better, more verifiable theories take their place. Building scientific theories into public policy is a dangerous, volatile way to construct policy—and further complicates the business of fact-checking by raising the stakes.
A Pro-Choice Argument
The motives of parents on both sides of the vaccination issue are essentially motivated by the same things: fear, and compassion for their children. Both sides have their own interpretation of the available facts, and both believe themselves to be superior parents. Taking that choice away from one group severely limits their ability to act, as they see it, morally.
Pro-vaccination parents will say that anti-vaxxers create a public health hazard by providing otherwise extinct diseases a foothold in the populace. Anti-vaxxers say that vaccinations are an unnecessary risk to their otherwise healthy children.
The abortion debate similarly pits the choices of a parent against the rights of a fetus to come to term. Any policy that impacts the right of adults to make potentially life-and-death choices on behalf of their children is going to set a precedent in the abortion debate, and provide ammunition for one side or the other. The parallels make the vaccination controversy a possible litmus test for using public policy to restrict or enable access to abortion services.
In a highly mobile, fast-paced era, the threat to public health posed by diseases like the measles or Ebola require a larger, comprehensive management plan. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama called out the military, as well as healthcare workers, scientists, and foreign governments for their role in containing Ebola. Considering the proportion of international tourists who visit Disneyland, the measles outbreak could very well have been started by a foreign visitor who was not exhibiting symptoms.
So what role will state law play in managing a public threat that can escalate from local to global overnight? Currently, vaccination laws are managed at the state level—as outbreaks and other public health-scares capture national attention, there is bound to be increased discussion of a national policy on the issue.
Whether states should—or even can—continue to play a lead role in disease prevention is an important question for a global era. Such questions inevitably lead straight to the core of American government and the often conflicting roles of state and federal government. The anti-vaccination issue is just shining another light on a grey area in public policy.
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