In June this year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 277, a law that made vaccines mandatory, eliminating the right to abstain due to religious or conscientious reasons. Now, only medical exemptions are granted. While this law is undoubtedly great, it has been highly polarizing, for reasons that are honestly difficult to understand. Due to the “anti-vax” movement (including Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and RFK, Jr.) an increasing number of people have been duped by the insidious lie that there is any correlation between vaccines and autism. As a result, diseases that were eradicated decades ago have returned in several large outbreaks.
The vast majority of states still allow “personal belief exemptions”, so the threat is very real. In July this year a woman from Washington (one of the states that allows personal belief exemptions) became the first person to die of measles in the U.S. since 2003. People are actually dying from diseases that science wiped out long ago, and yet only three states (California, Mississippi and West Virginia) require MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccinations to be mandatory for everyone other than those with medical exemptions.
The modern anti-vaccination movement was started by a 1998 paper by an English researcher named Andrew Wakefield. Since the publication of Wakefield’s “study” in the journal Lancet, the paper has been retracted. In addition, the British Medical Journal denounced Wakefield as “a fraud” after investigative journalist Brian Deer showed that Wakefield acted unethically and falsified his findings, in addition to standing to gain hundreds of millions of dollars by reporting a connection between MMR vaccines and autism. As a result of these findings, Wakefield is no longer allowed to practice medicine.
Despite the fact that the whole movement was predicated upon a fraudulent paper, the anti-vax movement has gained strength in recent years. Several celebrities openly denounce vaccines, and as a result media attention and the perception of credibility is bestowed upon a belief that simply is entirely false. It doesn’t help when people such as current Republican Presidential frontrunner Donald Trump are vocally anti-vaccine:
Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes – AUTISM. Many such cases!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 28, 2014
I am being proven right about massive vaccinations—the doctors lied. Save our children & their future.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2014
In 2009 a four week-old Australian girl named Dana McCaffery died of whooping cough because she was too young to be vaccinated, and the community around her had a vaccination rate that was far lower than average. As a result, the anti-vax movement, by spreading fear and ignorance, killed a child by not providing her with the necessary herd immunity.
Despite the fact that diseases are a very real and palpable threat, Congress gives credence to those who blatantly lie and continue to claim a connection between vaccines and autism. As Yale School of Medicine neurologist Steven Novella wrote in 2010:
We can add one more study to the pile of evidence showing no association between exposure to thimerosal (a mercury-based vaccine preservative) and autism. The article: Prenatal and Infant Exposure to Thimerosal From Vaccines and Immunoglobulins and Risk of Autism, is published in the latest issue of Pediatrics, and shows no association between prenatal and infant exposure to thimerosal and three forms of autism – autism, autism spectrum disorder, and regressive autism.
No one study can ever be definitive, but now we have a large body of evidence from multiple studies showing a lack of association between thimerosal and autism. This won’t stop the dedicated anti-vaccinationists and mercury militia from continuing their anti-vaccine propaganda, but hopefully it will further reassure those who actually care about the science.
However, in his conclusion Dr. Novella correctly guessed that the study would have no effect on the community of deniers:
No one study, especially an observational study, is ever very compelling. I don’t think this one new study changes the scientific picture of vaccines or thimerosal and autism. But it is one more study that fails to show any correlation between thimerosal exposure and risk of developing autism or ASD. This comes on top of multiple independent lines of evidence all pointing away from the notion that vaccines or thimerosal are a significant cause of autism.
The scientific community is likely to see this as further confirmation of a lack of association between vaccines and autism – just one more piece of the big picture. The anti-vaccine community is likely to dismiss it as either hopelessly flawed or as part of the conspiracy. In other words – this study is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on this issue.
The problem is that evidence isn’t necessarily enough to convince people that their beliefs are erroneous. Multiple studies have shown that when faced with evidence against their beliefs, those incorrect opinions are often reinforced. Facts are no match for confirmation bias, so as a result people continue to hold onto views that simply have no basis in reality. This explains many things, such as creationists (also Young Earth creationists), anti-vaxxers, and many others whose beliefs stand opposed to the clear-cut facts.
The best way to prevent the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases is to vaccinate as many people as possible. It shouldn’t matter if people have “personal beliefs” about vaccines, because the science is not subjective. Vaccines either are effective, or they are not—and all the facts show overwhelmingly that vaccines work, and that they are not harmful. In cases such as this, our government needs to make vaccines mandatory for everyone who is medically able to be vaccinated, because it’s about more than just individual beliefs that often are based on ignorance. When it’s something that affects us all, we have to do what’s in our collective best interest. Though the anti-vaxxers might never admit it, they’d owe their health to those of us who understand the importance of herd immunity. Let’s stop letting children die because they’re too young to decide for themselves, and because they have ignorant parents. As Isaac Asimov said, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.”