Earlier this year, journalists and pundits across the political spectrum pounded vaccine antiscience. As reported in this venue following the Disneyland measles outbreak, reporters exposed “anti-vaxxers” and pundits condemned them. But as of early April, anecdotal evidence in the media suggests that in those weeks of extensive defense of science, anti-vaxxers were neither intimidated nor disempowered.
Consider North Carolina, where journalists and others expressed hopes last month for a bill that, as a Charlotte Observer editorial put it, would make the state one of the strictest concerning exemptions to childhood vaccinations. “It’s tough on those who have philosophical differences or health fears with vaccinations,” the editors wrote. “But it’s necessary.” Two weeks later, however, those editors found themselves publishing this excerpt from an editorial in the Greensboro News & Record:
When state Sen. Jeff Tarte … and two colleagues filed a bill last month to change state vaccination policy, they thought they would initiate a needed conversation about public health concerns.
Wrong. Instead, they unleashed the fury of the anti-vaxxer movement. It forced them to withdraw the bill last week. Good intentions were “lost in the noise,” Tarte said.
The proposal would have required children to receive vaccinations before enrolling in school and removed religious exemptions. Maybe that was going a bit too far, but Tarte said it was an effort to be proactive and possibly head off outbreaks of measles and other diseases as the number of unvaccinated children in North Carolina ticks up.
Opponents overwhelmed the senators with claims that vaccines contain poisons, the threat of diseases is overstated and God is against vaccinations. Tarte concluded it was impossible to have reasonable discussions on the subject. Good try, though.
On the opposite US coast, a San Jose Mercury News article began, “Democratic-led efforts to ban vaccine exemptions in Oregon and Washington state toppled one after the other last month amid fervent opposition from parents and anti-vaccine groups who say the bills would have trampled their fundamental rights to decide how to care for their own children.” The article reported that “the chorus of opponents” to a California bill that would abolish almost all exemptions “has been growing louder in the offices of the nine senators on the health committee.” Those legislators were “being flooded with emails, letters and calls appealing to them to kill the bill.” Among critics expected in Sacramento was Robert F. Kennedy Jr, “whose crusade that questions the safety of vaccines helped doom legislative efforts in Oregon.”
At the Los Angeles Daily News, the opinion editors are using strong language:
It’s no exaggeration to point out that the sadly misguided anti-vaccine groups such as the California-based Million Mamas Movement have more in common with the Taliban and other reactionary groups worldwide than they do with medical common sense. The Taliban are thwarting the once very nearly successful effort to eradicate polio from the planet with conspiracy theories about evil Western ways; the parents who buy into the anti-vaccine propaganda here are doing the same thing with other diseases.
If you set aside places where the Taliban operates, are things more sensible overseas? On 7 April, the international science-news clearinghouse SciDev.Net posted an article that began, “Cuts to global health research budgets and people’s wariness of vaccines could hamper efforts to improve health around the world, two separate reports have warned in the run-up to World Health Day, which is marked today.”
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.