Anti-science ignorance stokes public health crisis

We Americans don't agree about much anymore, but at minimum, there should be a consensus that science in the decades since World War II has been a boon to public health.

A health care worker prepares syringes

File photo: A health care worker prepares syringes, including a vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), for a child's inoculations at the International Community Health Services Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019, in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson/AP Photo)

If you happen to watch “Veep,” the HBO show that satirizes politics, you’re surely familiar with Jonah, the notorious foot-in-mouth presidential candidate. On Sunday night’s episode, while attempting to woo anti-vaccination voters, he boldly declared, “Why go to a doctor and get a shot for something you don’t even have?”

If only this were a laughing matter. You’ve probably heard that measles, a disease that was officially eradicated in 2000 thanks to the measles vaccine, is now making a dramatic comeback — with at least 700 documented cases — thanks to the willfully ignorant “anti-vaxxers” whose opinion of science brings to mind the foes of Galileo who refused to believe that the earth circles the sun.

We Americans don’t agree about much anymore, but at minimum, there should be a consensus that science in the decades since World War II has been a boon to public health. As Steve Salzberg, a biomedical engineering expert at Johns Hopkins University, points out, the measles vaccine alone has been “a miracle of modern medicine,” foiling a disease that typically produced 500,000 cases a year prior to the vaccine’s introduction in 1963. Unfortunately, we’re now plagued by “the highly vocal, supremely confident, and utterly misinformed anti-vaccine movement” that amplifies its lies daily on social media. Indeed, one think tank study concluded last year that the anti-vaxxers have mastered the art of “repetitive messaging reinforcement.” The study says: “Google and Facebook algorithms inadvertently create the illusion of fact and truth out of mere ubiquity; if you can make it trend, you can make it true.”

In theory, everyone in America should be free to believe whatever they want — but not to the point when disbelief imperils the broader community and creates a public health crisis. Healthy un-vaccinated kids are not the only ones put at risk. Juliette Kayyem, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, says: “The anti-vaxxers are putting at risk populations that cannot be vaccinated due to health conditions or allergic reactions. Mostly children and the elderly, these people are dependent on the rest of us being vaccinated so that they can benefit.”

The anti-vaxxers keep saying — without a shred of scientific evidence — that vaccines cause everything from autism to mental retardation. They’ve been so successful, especially at the state level, where it’s legal (as in Pennsylvania) for parents to opt out for “philosophical” or “religious” beliefs, that the World Health Organization is listing what’s euphemistically called “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 global threats in 2019.

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And take a wild guess which political party has been friendlier to the anti-vaxxers, giving them safe harbor. I had the burden of watching a Republican presidential primary debate on Sept. 17, 2015. The front-runner, Donald Trump, decided to share his medical expertise:

“Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control…You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump – I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me. Just the other day, two years old, two and a half years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”

Ben Carson, an actual doctor, was the sole candidate willing to refute Trump. Carson cited “extremely well-documented proof” that shows no link between vaccines and autism. Referring to Trump, Carson said: “He can read it if he wants to.” But of course, Trump didn’t want to. And nobody, including the press, subsequently asked Trump to document his claim that “a beautiful child…just the other day” had become autistic after being vaccinated; or subsequently asked Trump to name the adversely affected “people that work for me.” Another day, another pack of lies, soon to be trumped by many more.

But Trump wasn’t the first Republican to bow at that altar of ignorance. Back in 2011, ill-fated presidential candidate Michele Bachmann declared that the popular HPV vaccine, which had inoculated millions of young girls against a cancer-causing virus, was actually a public menace that triggered mental retardation. She said she learned this from a random woman who had supposedly approached her after a debate. (There has not been a single documented case of HPV-triggered retardation.) Early in 2015, candidate Rand Paul said he had “heard of” cases where vaccinated kids “wound up with profound mental disorders.” (There have been no such cases.) And candidate Chris Christie briefly toyed with an anti-science stance, suggesting that parents should have the freedom of “choice” on whether to vaccinate, before partly walking it back.

And yet, last week, when Trump was confronted with the reality of an actual measles outbreak, he suddenly riffed a rational message: “They have to get the shots. The vaccines are so important. This is really going around now. They have to get their shots.” Does he not remember what he said in 2015? Or what he tweeted about vaccines in 2014? (“AUTISM. Many such cases!”) He probably doesn’t remember what he said or tweeted five minutes earlier.

But perhaps Kayyem, the aforementioned ex-Homeland Security official, has the best answer: “Trump promotes risky, unscientific ideologies until the reality of their harms becomes too dangerous to ignore.” Indeed, our best hope is that sanity will ultimately prevail. Congress is actually planning to conduct hearings about the measles outbreak, in recognition that public health is a priority concern. As Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander warned the other day, “If vaccine hesitancy persists — or even expands — it could seriously undermine these important (scientific) advances.”

A bipartisan moment in 2019! That’s nearly as miraculous as a life-saving vaccine.

Meanwhile, on the scandal front:

It’s well established that Trump destroys the credibility of almost everyone in his orbit, but the mystery is why his minions collude in their own destruction. Case in point, rule-of-law plunderer William Barr.

Now that we know what Robert Mueller told him in a March 27 letter — that Barr’s 4-page summary of the Mueller report “did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance” of the report; and that the summary “threatens to undermine…full public confidence” in the probe — it appears that Trump’s defense flack (attorney general in name only) perjured himself earlier this month on Capitol Hill. At least twice.

Q: “Did Bob Mueller support your conclusion?”

A: “I don’t know whether Bob Mueller supported my conclusion.”

Q: “Reports have emerged recently that members of the Special Counsel’s team are frustrated at some level with the limited information included in your March 24th (summary)…Do you know what they are referencing with that?”

A: “No, I don’t.”

According to the federal code — 18 USC 1001 — anyone within the jurisdiction of the legislative branch who “knowingly and willfully falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact; (or) makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” is guilty of a crime.

But hey, I’m just an old-school guy who believes that words have meaning.

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