Vaccine skepticism is as old as the idea of inoculation itself, but the recent politicization of vaccination is putting us all at risk.
On Tuesday, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. announced that Donald Trump had tapped him to lead a special commission on “vaccine safety and scientific integrity.” Kennedy, an environmental attorney by day, is a proponent of a long-discredited conspiracy linking vaccines to autism. For public health officials, pro-vaccine advocates, and anyone trying not to get whooping cough, the news was major cause for concern.
Kennedy, an environmental attorney by day, is a proponent of a long-discredited conspiracy linking vaccines to autism. The Trump transition team temporarily quelled those fears by announcing that, though Trump is considering forming such a commission, no decisions regarding it’s leadership had been made. But an anti-vaxxer still has the ear of the president-elect, a man who has himself been sympathetic to conspiracy theories regarding autism and vaccines in the past.
While anti-vaxxing has been largely absent from presidential politics, opposition to vaccines been around for at least as long as vaccinations themselves. When Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston began rubbing slices from smallpox sores into open wounds to try to protect the healthy from outbreaks in the early 1700s, his (then unproven) inoculation method was met with immediate resistance.
Over time, evidence accumulated that vaccination was an effective method to prevent disease. In the United States, local and state authorities began implementing mandatory vaccination policies in the early 1800s; Boston was the first to do so in 1809. Today, vaccinations are considered to be one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reducing deaths from preventable diseases like polio, smallpox, and measles by nearly 100 percent. Yet opposition has never been fully eradicated.
It concludes with: Just as the media helped to create anti-vaccination groups like the NVIC, news organizations can contribute to the politicization of health issues, and influence how people behave. A 2015 paper in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science found that the politicization of the HPV vaccine, spurred by media coverage that gave a voice to politicians on both sides of the debate, reduced public support for the vaccine requirements, state immunization programs at large, and confidence in both doctors and government.
If vaccines continue to become more tightly linked to political identity than public health, it could further reduce vaccination rates. And that would endanger us all.