Is the Antivax Movement Being Used as a Scapegoat?
Vaccination is important, but the medical community is too quick to blame the antivax movement for recent measles outbreaks.
I’ve been interested in vaccine research and epidemiology for some time. I do have a background in biology, along with other areas of study that’re useful for the topic. Most of my research focuses on Whooping Cough, but recently I’ve been switching my focus to measles, because of the amount it keeps coming up in the news. This research is part of a larger project that I’ve been developing on ResearchGate.
Before I go any further, I’m not advocating that people refuse vaccination. Listen to your doctor. There’s so much science which suggests that vaccines protect us from deadly pathogens. Measles is not fun and it can be deadly. It’s a disease that has been plaguing us for quite some time, as we can see by this Aztec depiction of someone suffering from the disease.
You don’t want to get it. And there is a lot of misinformation out there, leading some to refuse vaccination. But neither the medical community nor the general population should engage in what may very well be a witch hunt.
Again, even though a number of diseases are seeing a resurgence, this article focuses on measles. And part of the reason why is the recent outbreak in Clark County Washington.
It’s never fun to see a government issue a state of emergency. And it’s concerning that there are so many cases in Washington at the moment. Unfortunately these events are fueling rhetoric that’s been building for a while.
The WHO has labeled vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten health threats. Australia is starting to take legal action against those who refuse vaccination, though currently only financially, for now. But some are starting to call for more severe action. People are calling for the imprisonment of antivax parents. Now, if you’re going to throw someone into prison, one has to be very certain that their actions have led to a negative outcome. And not just that it could, but has. But what’s the data say?
So, obviously I can’t just raise this kind of concern without some argument and data. I’m not even popular, so I can’t get away with celebrisplaining. I have done a significant amount of primarily literature analysis, and analysis of vaccination rates across HHS regions and states. There are ten HHS regions, which divide the country into groups of states that are next to each other.
The analysis was actually fairly straightforward. If the antivax movement is causing a decline in vaccination rates, we shouldn’t expect to see the minimum vaccination rate across states to be increasing in time. But they are. We’d also expect these communities to be clustered and that vaccination rates become increasingly varied across states. Nope. That didn’t seem to be the case either. A similar argument could be made for HHS regions. Again, not happening.
More analysis is necessary to truly rule out changes in measles vaccination rates. But so far there doesn’t seem to be a solid indication that rates are changing for the worse! In other words, the antivax movement, at least when it comes to mostly bark with little bite. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to improve dialog with the movement and convince these people that vaccines work. But it does mean that we might be placing far more blame on these people than we should. And that’s never a good thing. Even if people are doing something wrong, we shouldn’t hold them accountable for things that we can’t justify that they’re doing.
Yes; more research is definitely going to be needed, to really understand what’s happening to measles vaccination habits, but the good news is that at least in the United States, while there may be some impact due to the antivax movement, it’s not as bad as we thought. The bad news is that the medical community is going to have to really look into the reason why there’s been an increase in cases. And the general population, is going to have to do two things: keep getting vaccinated and stop the violent rhetoric directed at the antivax movement. It isn’t helpful.
Association vs Causation
One of the common arguments that I’ve seen when discussing the topic is that the majority of cases are in unvaccinated individuals. That’s true. And that’s not surprising. These vaccines, at the very least, seem to be able to prevent clinically significant cases. But given that this is the case, we would expect most of the people getting diagnosed with measles to be unvaccinated, even if there were zero changes in vaccine habits.
In order to justify the claim that changes in vaccination habits is causing the increase in cases, the very first thing that we should do is show that vaccine habits have changed. Unfortunately the data isn’t justifying the premise.
The final point I’d like to make is that we need open dialog. One thing that’s true, whether someone is antivax or not, is that they’re generally interested in doing what’s best for the population. It’s just that their notion of what’s in the best interest of public health is skewed. Many of these people are parents of children with autism and other conditions. Autism is a complicated issue. There’s no cure. There isn’t even a test. In part that’s because autism probably isn’t a single condition, but rather a collection of them. But these people want answers. So they latch onto anything they can find, even if the science doesn’t justify it.
Interestingly, that’s what the medical community is doing with this witch hunt. Certain diseases are on the rise. There’s an “obvious” answer and solution, and so the medical community’s latched onto it. But the science isn’t suggesting that the solution is correct. So people need to stop looking for easy solutions and start looking for correct ones.
Improving vaccination rates is going to help in a general sense however. And you’re not going to get a group of people to listen by insulting them. You’re probably not going to get them to listen by threatening imprisonment either. Instead, there’ll be even more backlash. We need to be open with people. Of course, there are the conspiracy theorists out there that think the whole vaccine industry is a plot to make them sick. To that, I generally suggest telling them that this is exactly what the lizard overlords want us to believe.
Goldman, Daniel S. 2019. “Analyzing Measles Vaccine Coverage in the United States.” SocArXiv. January 28. doi:10.31235/osf.io/d7cxu.