I’ve been writing about vaccines and the antivaccine movement since the turn of the millennium, first in discussion forums on Usenet, then, beginning in 2004, on my first blog (a.k.a. the still existing not-so-super-secret other blog), and finally right here on Science-Based Medicine (SBM) since 2008. Vaccines are one of the most important, if not the most important, topics on a blog like this because (1) arguably no medical intervention has prevented more deaths and suffering throughout history than vaccines; (2) few medical interventions are as safe and effective as vaccines; and (3) there is a vocal and sometimes effective contingent of people who don’t believe (1) and (2), blaming vaccines for all sorts of diseases and conditions to which science, despite many years of study, has failed to link them. The most prominent condition falsely linked to vaccines is, of course, autism, but over the years I’ve written about a host of others, including sudden infant death syndrome, shaken baby syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. In a similar vein, antivaccine activists will try to claim that vaccines are loaded with “toxins” or even tainted with fetal “parts” or cells because some vaccines’ manufacturing process involves growing virus in two cell lines that were derived from aborted fetuses many decades ago. Even the Catholic Church doesn’t say that Catholics shouldn’t use these vaccines, but that doesn’t prevent some antivaccine groups from portraying vaccines as virtually being made by scientists cackling evilly as they grind up aborted fetuses to make vaccines. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)
On a strictly scientific, medical level, antivaccine claims such as the ones described above are fringe, crank viewpoints. There is no serious scientific support for any of them and lots of scientific evidence against them, particularly the most persistent myth, namely that vaccines cause autism. It also used to be the case that, politically, antivaccine views tended to be those of the fringe. Unfortunately, in the current election cycle, those fringe views seem to be coming to the fore among prominent candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. This was most evident at the second Republican Presidential debate last week, where Donald Trump spewed antivaccine tropes and neither of the two physicians also running for the Republican nomination mounted a vigorous defense of vaccines. Even candidates who have previously issued strong statements defending vaccines (Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal) remained silent.
(Video of the exchange can be found here.)
How did we get to this point? And why is it that antivaccine views, which in the past were stereotypically associated with crunchy lefties in the mind of the public, seem now to have found another comfortable home among small government conservatives, including the man who currently appears to be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination? In the days that followed the debate, there have been many discussions of Donald Trump’s antivaccine views, but none that take the long view. All seem to flow from the idea that it’s mainly just Donald Trump and his wacky views, rather than Trump being part of a more widespread phenomenon. I’ve frequently said that antivaccine beliefs tend to be the pseudoscience that knows no political boundaries, occurring with roughly equal frequency on the left and the right. However, it’s virtually inarguable that right now, in 2015, the loudest political voices expressing antivaccine views (or at least antivaccine-sympathetic views) are in the Republican Party. Yes, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is back in a big way, partying like it’s 1999 with Bill Maher over thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, but neither he nor Bill Maher holds public office or is currently running for office. The über-liberal website The Huffington Post might have been promoting antivaccine propaganda since its inception, but its writers are not running for office, either, and of late it seems to be much less antivaccine than before. (more…)