The Vaccination Furor

The measles outbreak is finally bringing into the limelight a relatively small but influential subculture of Americans who don’t allow their children to be vaccinated. The vaccines-cause-autism hoax really gave this movement momentum, but it appears to be much more deeply rooted in mistrust of the medical profession and government, and in a belief in parents’ rights. A big New York Times‘ article by Jack Healy and Michael Paulson on the subject more or less stereotypes anti-vaxxers as crunchy-granola Californians who don’t want anything “unnatural” entering their kids’ bodies.

[H]ere in California, anti-vaccine parents whose children have endured bouts of whooping cough and chickenpox largely defended their choice to raise their children on natural foods, essential oils and no vaccinations.

“There is absolutely no reason to get the shot,” said Crystal McDonald, whose 16-year-old daughter was one of 66 students sent home from Palm Desert High School for the next two weeks because they did not have full measles immunizations.

After researching the issue and reading information from a national anti-vaccine group, Ms. McDonald said she and her husband, a chiropractor, decided to raise their four children without vaccines. She said they ate well and had never been to the doctor, and she insisted that her daughter was healthier than many classmates. But when the school sent her home with a letter, Ms. McDonald’s daughter was so concerned about missing two weeks of Advanced Placement classes that she suggested simply getting a measles inoculation.

“I said, ‘No, absolutely not,’ “ Ms. McDonald said. “I said, ‘I’d rather you miss an entire semester than you get the shot.’ “

You get the drift. But I do wonder if there are just as many or more anti-vaxxers on the cultural and political right, given the rich history of mistrust of public health initiatives such as fluoridation in those sectors. You may also recall the conservative grassroots resistance to the HPV vaccinations being administered to girls in schools, which some regarded as an indirect effort to encourage early sexual activity (though Michele Bachmann got into trouble in a presidential primary debate for repeating false allegations that the vaccination had caused physical and mental damage).

The president may have created an opening for politicization of the latest dispute by impatiently insisting that kids get inoculated for measles. I doubt it was a coincidence that Chris Christie was asked about it on a trip to the United Kingdom, and the New Jersey governor (who is looking for traction in his Invisible Primary movements towards the presidency) went out of his way to suggest the scientific evidence on vaccines needed to be “balanced” against parental rights.

This is, of course, a rich vein among conservative voters if you look beyond the vaccination issue. The increasingly dominant position among grass-roots conservatives (and their attentive leaders) on educational accountability is that “objective” standards are no substitute for the subjective opinions of parents, who should be given public subsidies they can use to educate their kids however they wish, even if it’s at home or in an overtly religious school.

So maybe Christie’s on to something politically. I certainly hope not. This is not the kind of issue where we can easily tolerate partisan polarization generated by conservative hostility to government and science. Public health really does require near-universal cooperation.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.