Measles, Lies And Politics

In our politically polarized country, it’s tempting to see arguments about the efficacy of medical interventions like vaccines as examples of “non-political arguments.” True, the less-kind among us (I plead guilty) tend to view “anti-vax” parents as deranged left-wing versions of rightwing conspiracy theorists, or less judgmentally, arguably sane but credulous people who haven’t had access to accurate information. We don’t, however, see this particular controversy as a particularly political argument.

A recent, very thoughtful article in The New Yorker disagrees, calling the measles vaccine a “quintessentially political issue.”

Vaccination is a basic political issue, because it is the subject of community agreement. When a high-enough percentage of community members are immunized, a disease can be effectively vanquished. In epidemiological terms, this is known as “herd immunity,” which cannot be maintained below a certain threshold. When enough people reject the community agreement, they endanger the rest. Willfully unvaccinated adults and children can spread diseases to those who cannot be vaccinated or haven’t been vaccinated, such as infants and people with a compromised immune system; these vulnerable populations would probably be safe in conditions of herd immunity. Vaccination and the refusal to vaccinate are political acts: individual decisions that affect others and the very ability of people to inhabit common spaces.

The author cites evidence that a majority of anti-vaxxers are educated white people who have ample access to credible public-health information and scientific studies about vaccination. Much like those who refuse to believe that climate change is real, they simply choose to reject the science; they choose not to believe the medical consensus. As Frank Bruni recently wrote in the New York Times,

Their recklessness and the attendant re-emergence of measles aren’t just a public health crisis. They’re a public sanity one, emblematic of too many people’s willful disregard of evidence, proud suspicion of expertise and estrangement from reason.

The irrationality triggered by anti-vaccination propaganda is yet another example of the current raging conflict between facts and lies in America–a conflict exacerbated by social media. According to the author of the article in The New Yorker, there are even some reports that Russian trolls have been exploiting anti-vax fears as part of the Russian effort to use disinformation to splinter American public opinion.

What would cause well-educated parents to believe that the entire scientific and medical community is lying to them about the risks of vaccination?

The article attributes this reaction to current levels of public distrust–distrust of authority, of government, and especially of a complex, overly-expensive, profit-driven medical system that has few incentives for robust public-health interventions.

The solution to under-vaccination lies not in getting the right kind of information and messaging to the “vaccine-hesitant” but in changing the politics of health care. Political agreement is unlikely among partners who do not trust each other, and near impossible when one side is explicitly profiting from the other. The American health-care system is ill-suited to protect public health, because a profit-driven industry cannot serve as the guardian of public good.

It’s hard for people to trust the credibility of pharmaceutical companies when those companies are jacking up the price of insulin and other life-saving drugs.

The role of trust is something to consider as lawmakers debate the pros and cons of “Medicare-for-All” and  universal systems like those in place in most other modern countries.


  1. First; we must accept the obvious fact that anything and everything connected to health care is now a political issue. These political issues, such as Big Pharma’s increase in prescription costs and the fact that they manufacture the vaccines, are for profit issues.

    “The author cites evidence that a majority of anti-vaxxers are educated white people who have ample access to credible public-health information and scientific studies about vaccination.”

    I’m only guessing but assume they are only accessing the anti-vax information and not full information regarding possible epidemic situation caused by not protecting their own children from disease. I am also guessing that they are of the generation who were protected by vaccines and have no idea of the seriousness of what they consider minor “childhood illnesses” which could and did result in deaths. I nearly lost one of my sons to chicken pox encephlitis at 11 months of age; causing fever seizures, catatonic state, pneumonia and days hospitalized in an oxygen tent before the vaccines were available. i remember my own severe bouts with whooping cough, measles and chicken pox, mumps were a minor issue for me. Neither being educated or white is proof of higher intelligence or that they know all they need to know about anything.

  2. Trust further eroded by the record many legislators have established of always supporting what is best for their next election campaign while ignoring what is in their constituent’s best interests. Pick a subject.

  3. I question only two vaccines.

    Gardisil was heavily pushed onto preteen girls ten to fifteen years ago and since then many of those who were vaccinated have come down with serious physical ailments that have been directly caused by that vaccine. A daughter of one of my college friends has been stricken with extreme health issues due to this vaccine. She is disabled and will never enjoy a normal life.

    The other vaccine that a manufacturer pushes is for shingles. They keep pushing it for everyone, even if you have already had shingles. Seven years ago I was struck with shingles. It is very painful. Then the ads started coming out to get vaccinated. I asked my doctor about it and she said it would be a huge waste of money for me if I already had shingles because it would not offer me any protection. Yet, the manufacturer keeps advertising that it will. She said they will say and do anything to make money.

    The shingles vaccine that I speak of is not the newer one called Shingrex which doesn’t have a live virus or culture in it. That is totally different than the original one so I don’t want to misinform anyone about this new one on the market. It actually may help ward off future shingles breakouts if you have already experienced them before.

  4. A former Squibb Pharmaceuticals CEO: “We’re not in business to cure disease or people. We’re in business to make money”.

    Maybe these greedy bastards make and sell vaccines, but they reap even greater profits from selling the drugs that go after the preventable diseases. Typical capitalist thinking…

    Where there is universal health care, the health care philosophy is PROACTIVE. When people can afford checkups, health problems can be caught earlier – and more cheaply treated. In the USA, our health care is REACTIVE, generally, for the reasons of poverty, disinformation (as above) and fear-mongering.

    Ever since the Republicans allowed insurance companies to make medical decisions, we’ve been heading down this “how much will you pay to live a little longer or not hurt?” road. This is what happens so often when private, for-profit entities take over the community support system. We are seeing the results from this in our deteriorating public health and the skyrocketing costs of health care and drugs.

    Well done, Republicans. You’ve even scared enough educated people into thinking that modern medicine and science is bad for their health. Maybe these policy makers should take a ride on a 737-Max 8 and enjoy the excitement.

  5. Anti-vaxxers are more likely than not to point to the increase in cases of autism as their “proof” that vaccines are inherently dangerous. In fact, we have more cases of autism because we now know much more about autism than we did. We now know that there is, in fact, an autism spectrum. In the past, only the worst cases of autism were diagnosed.

  6. I only know two anti-vaxers and neither has any education beyond high school. Both women were early into smoking pot and with that came a disdain for all things government. Both have gone into adulthood embracing all kinds of conspiracy theories including the belief that the United States government bombed the twin towers. I cannot help but to wonder how many of the anti-vaxers we see on the news fit this picture.

  7. From the Guardian: >> Just a 30-minute drive from Portland, Oregon, is Washington’s Clark County, home to one of the largest outbreaks of measles in the US. Of the 70 or so confirmed cases, the majority are unvaccinated children under the age of 10.

    The outbreak, declared a public health emergency earlier this year, began when an infected person from another country visited the area. All it took was for this “patient zero” to come into contact with children who hadn’t been inoculated. Then, as these children visited healthcare facilities, schools, churches and a furniture shop, the disease began to spread.

    “The common denominator of most of these hotspot urban areas is that they are targeted by the anti-vaccine lobby, which is well-organized and well-funded, with 480 anti-vax websites, social media and books.”

    Excellent comments here today.
    Vern is right on the money:
    “Where there is universal health care, the health care philosophy is PROACTIVE. When people can afford checkups, health problems can be caught earlier – and more cheaply treated. In the USA, our health care is REACTIVE, generally, for the reasons of poverty, disinformation (as above) and fear-mongering.”

    Perhaps lines from a movie say it best: >>In The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”<<

    Here in America, the idea of the needs of the many is considered dangerous Socialism. The other force is the willful ignorance toward science. That said people have a right to be skeptical of Big Pharma that clearly blankets the air waves with their propaganda for some drugs.

  8. Ignorance, Religion and Politics is the anti-vaccine that carries the seeds of human distraction. And I believe that number is growing rapidly in America under the Ttump administration.

  9. Vernon and Monotonous; have either of you researched for statistics regarding serious health problems or deaths of those who cannot afford the sometimes 1,000% increase in cost of vital medications? I’m thinking epiPens and diabetic medications and test equipment as those increases are well publicized. The ads for Harvoni, an actual miracle drug for Hepatitis C, are predominant on TV with no reference to the cost of $1,152.58 PER PILL…unless it has increased since my daughter’s life was saved by it 2 years ago.

    I would like to ask the same question regarding statistic regarding serious health issues and/or deaths of girls and women forced to carry pregnancies to term which endangered their lives here in Indiana since Pence’s anti-abortion law was enacted. We are told about the dangers but the story seems to end there; the same is probably true about the increasing numbers of victims of anti-vaxxing.

  10. JoAnn,

    I have not done any recent research. The last stuff I looked at was the immediate post- Medicare Part D giveaway from the Bush II administration to big Pharma. This little joy ride allowed drug companies to charge us taxpayers, through non-negotiated best prices – anything they chose to charge. Parasites like Shreikel (Or however the hell you spell his name) leaped into the breach to become instant billionaires leeching off the sick.

    Un-regulated capitalism at its finest….

  11. Perhaps we should fashion a new line for tort relief. We say that our rights end where others’ rights begin, so if those who don’t want to be vaccinated are giving the rest of us diseases that could be avoided it seems to me that they have invaded our right not to be diseased. Damages could include lost wages, medical costs current and future, pain and suffering etc., allegations one would expect in an ordinary personal injury suit.

    Disease is, of course, more profitable than prevention for the medical industry who, as I read long ago and as Vern pointed out today, a spokesman brazenly noted with his “we’re not in the business to cure people; we’re in the business to make money.” Brazen but honest, and sounding a lot like Trump’s transactional view of his pro-Boeing Yemeni massacre. If it’s good for business, then all other considerations pertaining to ethics, morality and even death itself are viewed as collateral damage. Too bad; way it goes.

    To philosophize, have we sunk this low? Is everything and everybody in our “herd” subject to a bottom line mentality; where even life itself may be subject to the profit and loss statements of Big Pharma and profit-deranged shareholders and corporate executives; where the common good is in fact a myth? Is it the fault of capitalism or is it the herd’s fault for not reining in such a destructive force to continuation of a reasonably fair and orderly society? Right or wrong and by whose standards? The herd needs to change the standards; transactional economics (aka terminal greed) isn’t working and won’t work under any “ism,” so if we are to avoid another Rome then just when are we the herd going to start protecting and expanding our democracy? Soon, I hope, as the hour is late. (End of philosophical tirade)

  12. When the doctors who took an oath to not harm rises up against the insurance and pharma companies then we’ll see changes. Right now, they want their six-figure salaries to continue. The AMA is lobbying against Medicare For All.

    The AMA is a union, and collectively, the docs have been told to shut up and treat patients. Secretly, they want universal healthcare, because as Vernon pointed out, it would mean more patients are seeing the doctor regularly which is disease prevention. Disease prevention also keeps people off meds and out of the hospital.

    If people are healthy, they don’t rely on drugs or the hospital. Guess who’s bottom line is negatively impacted when people are healthy??

    You can easily connect the dots to see who is fighting against healthcare as a right.

    As other posts have discussed previously, without eliminating the harmful effects of externalities, primarily from Big Ag and fossil fuel companies, disease prevention will be a problem. It’s why we have a Green New Deal. If our air and water are polluted, disease prevention will be thwarted.

    Until we start getting a government of the people, by the people, for the people, these periphery issues will remain because there is no trust of an Oligarchy where industry calls the shots.

  13. A related problem is for those in disagreement to “jump to the extreme” to define their opponent. For example, to question the Israeli govt, makes you anti-Semitic. To question anything about vaccines makes you an anti-vaxer. Those extremes are most often not true. My question about vaccines is why not allow the patient/parent decide if they want their child to get 3 or 4 vaccines at once, or to take them one at a time spread over a period of time. Parents should have that option if they choose. The relationship between the FDA and the vaccine industry seems to be a little bit too close

  14. Sheilds Randall; “To question anything about vaccines makes you an anti-vaxer.” You make an excellent post with this comment, also the ridiculous anti-Semitic assumption. When my granddaughter had her daughter 4 1/2 years ago; she didn’t question the vaccines but the number of combined vaccines to be scheduled over a period of a few months in her baby’s life. It was as if the doctors wanted to get this over and done with, no thought to the baby’s discomfort, the mild reactions some had or the many doctor appointments to be paid for. Just as primary physicians today practice little medicine but are information and referral specialists requiring an appointment so they can inform and refer you to a costly specialist. I have had my surgeon and primary physician also tell me to go to the ER for further care. How many physicians still give patients sample medications to try before prescribing?

  15. With New York State facing one of its most severe measles outbreaks in decades, public health officials in a suburban community took the extraordinary step in December of banning unvaccinated students from attending school, regardless of whether they had received religious or medical exemptions for the vaccine.

    The parents of 42 children affected by the ban at the school, the Green Meadow Waldorf School, sued the Rockland County health department, asking a federal judge to issue an injunction to allow the children to return.

    On Tuesday, the request was denied.
    This is not some rural county in NY State it is just NW of NYC.

    JoAnn, I have done no research on the deaths of people as a result of not being able to afford the cost of drugs. I suspect we will never have a definitive answer to this. We have heard anecdotal stories of people not being able to afford drugs to treat their diabetes and dying.

    I have been involved with a group that advocates Single Payer – Universal Health Care – Enhanced Medicare for All. This Bill is in the House. The Medicare for All Act of 2019 — H.R. 1384 in the House and S. 1804 in the Senate. It would expand our current Medicare system to provide high-quality, comprehensive health care to everyone!

    HR 1384 has 106 Co-Sponsors – All Democrats – Absent from the list of Co-Sponsors is the name Nancy Pelosi.

  16. “The American health-care system is ill-suited to protect public health, because a profit-driven industry cannot serve as the guardian of public good.”

    The above statement, pretty much sums it up in a nut shell …

  17. First & foremost the anti-vaxers are not “left winged”. They are clearly part of the extreme reactionaries who view their children as their property. By refusing to have their children vaccinated they are guilty of child neglect and should be charged accordingly.

  18. “The American health-care system is ill-suited to protect public health, because a profit-driven industry cannot serve as the guardian of public good.“

    Public health is not healthcare. Coming from learning about Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago and reading “Sue Barton Nurse” novels as a teen, I see a critical need for public health policies and centers set up separately from healthcare institutions, ie., doctors, hospitals, health insurance & pharma co’s. Each state could use already established state health departments infused with increased federal funds to carry out directives from the HHS (Health & Human Services) via an oversight HHS committee that has Congress-approved teeth to be able to enforce its mandates.

  19. Unfortunately, I think the anti-vaxers have stumbled into quite a good argument. They started with “it causes autism!”, but we proved it didn’t. They kept fishing around until they landed on “for profit healthcare is out to get you. Look what they did with opioids! Look at the scandalous cost of insulin! They don’t have your best interest at heart, they just want you money”.

    Sadly, that’s an argument that has a lot of truth in it. I don’t trust a conclusion that you have to fish around to find a good argument, but it has to be said the anti-vax movement isn’t going anywhere now that that got a toehold on at least 1 piece of reality. If they jettison the autism thing and stick with “Pharma is not your friend” that unvaccinated rate is going to go up. It’s the sales pitch i’d stick with if I was their PR person.

  20. Though I consider anti-vaccination people to be dangerous idiots, I do understand their motivation. To be in this rat race, this America of end-stage capitalism, where one must always be on guard as one’s neighbors and countrymen constantly try to steal the bread out of the mouths of children, is exhausting. Why should anyone trust the authorities, even medical authorities, when it is obvious that corruption is the norm. The rise of anti-vax sentiment and pro-Trump sentiment are not mere coincidence. The Trump supporters may not be intelligent enough to know where to direct their anger, but they are smart enough to know that the institutions of the United States can no longer be trusted.

  21. Vaccination is not a black and white issue.

    I am not anti-vaccine. I want our government agencies to look fairly and honestly at the vaccine science. I am not crazy or uneducated. I have a bachelors degrees in biology and nursing. More importantly, critical thinking is what I have been doing for 18 years when I ask WHY two of my three children have peanut allergy. WHY was I too exhausted to be a mother and have a job? WHY are 50% of our children diagnosed with a chronic condition? WHY is gluten intolerance even a thing, given that it barely existed 30 years ago???

    I have explored many answers to these questions and have come to believe the answer is multifactorial, primarily related to our environment, diet, medical interventions and lifestyle – and vaccines are a part of that.

    I desperately want our government agencies to protect the public health and our environment, but they are failing. Sadly, our science has been hijacked by the revolving door between Big Pharma and Big Ag and the EPA, FDA, USDA etc. Remember, Big Pharma is “not in the business to cure disease or people.” The honest and ethical scientists are leaving in droves. Often they are pushed out.

    I’ve noticed a real media blitz this week advocating vaccines without representing “the other side.” It’s unfortunate that the press chooses to highlight the “anti-vaxxers” who come across as stupid and crazy. Looks like The Industry is setting the stage for vaccine mandates.

    It seems Big Pharma is taking advantage of democrats’ opposition to everything Trump including his comments that he thinks “the shots” cause autism. Vaccine mandates is an issue where I must oppose the Democratic party. (I am an independent liberal.) Remember the principle of informed consent? Vaccine mandates are unethical according to long-standing medical ethics practice.

    Many of the same people who want CHOICE for reproductive health favor NO CHOICE for having numerous substances which are intended to have major effects on our immune systems injected into our children. That makes no sense on so many levels! I wonder why so many of us have problems with our immune systems – allergies, food intolerances, autoimmune disorders and more??

    I’m aware of the many arguments in favor of a heavy vaccine schedule. In general, our physicians have good reason to believe they are protecting their patients and promoting public health with vaccines. I’m sad to say I believe their sources of information are corrupt.

    For the sake of our children’s health, please be both open to and skeptical of both sides of this issue! Think critically and independently!

    And never underestimate the WISDOM of many thousands of mothers speaking out for their children’s health.

    Here is an informative website by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a longtime environmental attorney and children’s health advocate.

  22. I read everyday various write ups of scientific research going on, especially in the field of biology and human health, and it is all but incomprehensible to me evern though I’ve done a good job of generally keeping up with the technology that I can. It doesn’t take anything more to convince me that I am at the mercy of experts but I can choose which expert opinions to grant unquestioned credibility to.

    Generally I seriously question anything whose source is marketing which I can understand very well.

    I am very reliant for infomation to guide my evaluation on the socialized health care we have: the CDC and other govenment institutions that have no agenda other than my health.

    I question almost everything from big pharma because it is all marketing based.

    I have a primary care physician who I can and do trust though I ask enough questions to make sure that I understand thoroughly what he understands professionally.

    I understand and accept that life will end and there’s always risk in things that could make it later on exceptional occasion instead ending it earlier. Life is a crap shoot no matter what one does. There are no guaranties.

    My observation is that I have never met anyone who I could teach something to or learn something from. Sometimes there is a huge opportunity to teach, but sometimes to learn and the difference comes from being thoughtful about credibility.

  23. See? Marcia is close (ish) but needs to button up the talking points.

    The good parts

    1) Claims intelligence
    2) Claims to be “different” then those crazy anti vaxers and does a good job of making that seem like it might be a minority group
    3) Classic “do it for the children” argument – always a crowd pleaser
    4) Big Pharma scare
    5) Pretend plea for reasonableness – an absolute must today. You’ll see it in everything from climate to economic arguments.

    I would cut out:

    1) Peanut allergies/Gluten allergies caused by vaccines (seems very unlikely to me without even looking up stats – so it’s not helping an already fringe argument)
    2) 50% of all children have a diagnosed chronic condition (again, seems very unlikely without even checking for real stats)

    I’m on the fence about the abortion argument she throws in, might be too divisive. Might work, but I’d want to focus test it a bit. Maybe that’s what she’s doing.

    Feel the same way about the “my doctors mean well, but the just don’t know!” claptrap.

    Overall, pretty sold. 6/10. And I think that’s a pretty solid rating.

  24. As a retired scientist (pharmacology, neuroscience), I have to say that taking one or two instances and saying “Aha!” doesn’t cut it. Science ain’t anecdote. One CDC report said that out of 27 millions doses of the HPC vaccine, there were 4 confirmed cases of Guillain-Barre. How many cases of cancer were prevented?

    Nothing is 100% safe. We cannot predict all adverse side effects, but remember this. Polio has almost totally been wiped out (I remember seeing iron lungs on the news when I was a child). The vaccine caused a polio-like disease in 1 out of 750,000 doses. Compare that to the odds of dying in a car crash (1 in 103) or just being a pedestrian (1 in 556).

    The best scientific knowledge suggests that a combination of genetics, microbiota (microbes living in and on you), general health, diet and environmental factors all interact in complex ways to cause immunities and autoimmunitiies. We are nowhere near being able to predict things in advance.

    I remember when the anti-vaxers in the UK demanded that the government investigate the connection between vaccines and autism. Nothing was found, so they demanded a second study. Again, no connection was found. Yes, they demanded a third study, but the government said no.

    Thank you Carrie Savage-Zimmerman for pointing out the Public Health is its own discipline.

  25. Len – I don’t know who I saw phrase it this way, but explaining odds to people I also enjoyed “Bridges aren’t 100% safe. We should drive on the water”.

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