2019 promises to be a banner year for the number of measles outbreaks in the United States.
A disease that many thought was completely under control is making a comeback – along with whooping cough, the mumps, and rubella.
And there’s little doubt why: more and more Americans are resisting mandatory childhood vaccination.
The “Anti-Vax” movement got its start in 1998 when a researcher in the UK published a study showing a link between vaccination and autism, a childhood communications disorder that is rapidly on the rise.
No less than 12 separate researchers have tried to debunk the 1998 study, exposing numerous flaws. One investigation claimed that the lead UK researcher, Andrew Wakefield, deliberately falsified his results.
Another revealed that Wakefield was paid a large sum – a half-million dollars – by a funder interested in finding a vaccination-autism link.
It hasn’t mattered. Public distrust of government-funded medical campaigns continues to skyrocket.
Even before the autism scare, some segments of the populace disputed the need for vaccinations, especially of children.
Some argue that the vaccines, including flu vaccines, are ineffective or that they cause the very illnesses they’re supposed to prevent.
Other say vaccinations are simply unnecessary. Improved sanitation and personal hygiene are the real reason that diseases like measles and even polio began to decline in the late 1950s.
Vaccinations, they argue, are simply a way of making drug companies rich. They also help indoctrinate the citizenry into thinking they need government-funded medicine and expensive doctors to stay healthy, rather than simply taking better care of themselves.
Within the African-American community, there has long been deep distrust of the public health establishment dating to the infamous Tuskegee experiment that deliberately exposed Black men to syphilis to study the effects of the disease.
To this day African Americans resist participating in clinical trials of new drugs because of lingering fears of the contamination or even death that might result.
In recent years, some government-funded information campaigns designed to allay public fear of vaccines have actually backfired. Many parents who were unaware of the controversy have turned against vaccines once they learned of the alleged dangers.
Another factor that’s stoking the anti-vax movement is the high-level support it’s received from outspoken politicians like Sen. Rand Paul and a host of Hollywood celebrities, including Jim Carrey and Jessica Biel.
Paul, during the 2016 presidential campaign, railed against vaccines as an infringement on personal liberty and despite criticism from the medical establishment, has refused to let up.
In March of this year, Paul, who is a doctor, was the only lawmaker at a public hearing to speak out against mandatory vaccinations.
He acknowledged that his own family had been vaccinated but said it is “wrong to say there are no risks to vaccines.”
His comments drew rapturous applause from anti-vaccination advocates in attendance.
At the time of the hearing, there were just 211 confirmed measles cases in 11 states. Currently, there are nearly 1200 cases in 17 states, but more cases are expected.
Most of these cases are clustered in six “outbreaks,” primarily in the Pacific Northwest.
In response to these outbreaks, some states are moving to strengthen their vaccination laws, mainly by limiting the number and types of exemptions allowed. But they’re facing stiff opposition from increasingly well-organized parents.
In June, for example, a proposed California bill to limit medical exemptions from vaccinations for schoolchildren drew loud protests from anti-vax forces, who crammed a public hearing to voice their opposition.
Similar pressures were felt in Oregon and Washington, where a large portion of the current measles outbreaks are concentrated.
Oregon has the nation’s most lenient policies toward exemptions, allowing parents to opt-out virtually at will.
Supporters of the bills limiting the exemptions have been surprised by the strength of grassroots opposition. In most cases, legislatures have decided to table their bills, fearing the political fall-out that might result from successful passage.
The Centers for Disease Control and other medical authorities have criticized the information available online about vaccinations, saying it is heavily biased in favor of the anti-vax movement.
An analysis conducted by the left-wing Guardian newspaper in the UK found that Facebook search results for groups and pages with information about vaccines were “dominated by anti-vaccination propaganda.”
The Guardian also found that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm “steers viewers from fact-based medical information toward anti-vaccine misinformation.”
Facebook has announced that it will crack down on anti-vaccination “misinformation” content online. YouTube has announced a similar effort, though analysts are skeptical that either effort will succeed.
If anything, anti-vaccination forces seem to have grown stronger politically in recent years.
Trust in public health authorities is declining, and parents are demanding greater control over health care information and the decisions affecting their children especially.
That may mean having the right to be wrong and expecting everyone – including their own families — to live with the consequences.