The Politicization of Vaccination

Anti-vaccination advocates have become increasingly prevalent in the last two decades ( Image )

Anti-vaccination advocates have become increasingly prevalent in the last two decades (Image)


In 1998, The Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, published a study led by Andrew Wakefield of twelve children who had both intestinal abnormalities and behavioral disorders, including autism. According to the study, eight of the children developed their behavioral problems soon after receiving the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Despite the small sample size and lack of a causal link, Wakefield took this as a sign that the MMR vaccine should be discontinued.

Investigative reporter Brian Deer found in 2004 that Wakefield had received undisclosed funding from lawyers seeking to sue vaccine manufacturers and in 2011 that parts of the study were fabricated. In 2010, The Lancet redacted the paper. By then, however, Wakefield’s research had become the basis for an “anti-vaxxer” movement centered around the fraudulent link between vaccines and autism.

The measles virus was once eliminated in the United States, but it is now making a comeback, and the National Institute of Health places the blame on lower rates of childhood vaccination. In response, policymakers are focusing on enforcing vaccinations in public schools. All states have school immunization requirements, but most allow exemptions for religious reasons, and 17 also permit “personal belief exemptions.” Political efforts to eliminate these exemptions are creating battles in state legislatures across the nation.

For years, the anti-vaxxer movement has been associated with Hollywood liberalism. Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey led a 2008 “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington D.C. In 2017, Robert De Niro and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. held an anti-vaccine press conference. Shows like Oprah have given such views a national platform.

But these stances have not spread to Democratic lawmakers, who are pushing for tightened vaccine laws despite Republican opposition. In Connecticut, some Republican lawmakers accuse a bill eliminating religious exemptions for vaccination of violating the First Amendment. In Arizona, Republicans have even pushed to expand religious exemptions for vaccines despite the measles outbreak. Hardline conservative Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said that he exposed all nine of his children to chicken pox in lieu of vaccination, a practice that carries serious health risks.

Indeed, anti-vaxxer currents run strong among the political right. Donald Trump himself has repeated the discredited link between autism and vaccines, most infamously in a 2014 tweet and in the 2015 Republican presidential debates.

However, this does not necessarily mean that anti-vaxxers are taking over the Republican Party. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found that trust in vaccines is consistent between parties. Today’s debate centers less on the indisputable safety of vaccines and more on Republican concerns of personal liberty.

This is especially true for religious exemptions. Preventable child deaths among religious sects such as the Christian Scientists and Followers of Christ, which reject medical science, have long sparked debate over the limits of parental autonomy. To many Republican lawmakers, the matter is one in which the government should not involve itself.

For supporters of mandatory vaccines, however, public safety trumps these concerns. They focus on the idea of herd immunity, that widespread immunization is necessary to protect those who are medically unable to be vaccinated. Pro-vaccination conservative commentator Tiana Lowe argues that even under libertarian principles, non-medical vaccine exemptions in schools are unjustifiable as they endanger all children in the school.

This argument, however, has failed to persuade the Republican lawmakers who continue to oppose stricter vaccination laws. Democrats justify their efforts through success stories such as California, where public health experts credit the elimination non-medical vaccine exemptions with a comparatively low rate of measles.

However, various public health experts speaking with Politico worry that a partisan push towards stricter laws will only proliferate anti-vaxxer attitudes in the Republican Party. Whether or not such efforts go through, it seems inevitable that political debates will get in the way of fighting the public health crisis.

NationalLiam GlenComment