Measles madness

“In the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak, there’s been a lot of heated talk about parents who choose not to vaccinate their children,” begins Chad Hayes, a pediatrician. “It seems like the medical community is now protesting even louder than the anti-vax groups were a couple years ago.”[1] Well, not just the medical community. I’ve been seeing a rather vicious backlash all over my social network feeds.

Some of it is understandable. There is, for example, the Marin County dad,  Carl Krawitt, whose son, Rhett, is recovering from leukemia and can’t be vaccinated. He wants the child’s unvaccinated schoolmates banned from school. “The county has long had the Bay Area’s highest rate of ‘personal belief exemptions,’ which allow parents to lawfully send kids to school without receiving vaccinations against diseases like measles, polio or whooping cough.”[2]

But a lot of the backlash seems to me to be motivated by first, by a desire to say, “I told you so;” and second, by the same sort of anti-religionism that I have previously condemned.[3] Hayes, thankfully, is more diplomatic:

We are mad at people like Andrew Wakefield, who fabricated a study linking vaccines to autism and scared millions of parents into avoiding vaccinations. We are confused by Jenny McCarthy, who has zero medical training, but somehow managed to lead a massive movement against immunizations (although she now claims that she’s not anti-vaccines). We are infuriated by Dr. Bob Sears, who certainly knows better, but capitalizes on your fear for his own profit, while placing your children’s lives at risk.

It’s not your fault. You’ve been misled. You’ve been lied to.[4]

As a human scientist, I privilege individual narratives over superficial quantitative generalizations. So I’ve been suspicious of the sweeping claims that the anti-vaccination stories are all fabricated. My job, as a human scientist, would be to investigate these stories more carefully and to represent their authors as accurately as possible. Then, and only then, might I go on to critique, as I will in fact do with conservatives in my dissertation. But it is absolutely not my job to say I know better than people with the experience I’m seeking to represent.

So I’m not going to weigh in on the issue of whether or not vaccinations pose unacceptable risks. First, this isn’t an area of my expertise. Second, I haven’t even begun to do the sort of exploration that is required.

I would, however, strongly encourage medical professionals to reflect on why they seem to be subject to such distrust. Simply shouting down opponents won’t work here. To do so only builds resentment and fuels further distrust.

I won’t claim to have an exhaustive list of all the factors that might lead to such distrust. Nonetheless, there are a few things I can point to.

I am aware, for example, of a several hundred years-long history of so-called medical experimentation on Blacks that makes the Nazi concentration camp doctors seem beneficent by comparison and leads many Blacks to distrust doctors.[5] I am aware of a pharmaceutical industry—the same industry that develops and produces vaccines—that prizes profit over health, seeking to limit access to life-saving drugs to poor people who can’t afford them;[6] that 1) fails to develop research primarily done under the auspices of the National Institutes of Health, or 2) claims intellectual property rights to that research;[7] that benefits from corporate welfare;[8] and whose relationship with the medical profession, both in research and in practice, has been marred by multiple forms of corruption.[9]

I remember a trip to an emergency room in San Francisco, when I was uninsured, where the doctor seemed more interested in getting me out of there than in addressing my condition. Even when I’ve been insured, I notice that doctors seem unduly hasty.

I know of one woman who was put on hormone replacement therapy at menopause. As a probable result, she went on to develop breast cancer. The treatment she received for the breast cancer produced scar tissue that eventually pressed on a blood vessel in her heart, necessitating a trip to the emergency room, where a computer misdiagnosed her and the cardiologist failed to check the automated diagnosis. Fortunately, her instincts were good enough that she sought another cardiologist and another opinion; she has mostly recovered now, with a recently inserted stent.

But the argument between anti- and pro-vaccination people is reduced to anti- and pro-science positions, which seems misleading: Marin County, where that father is seeking to ban unvaccinated kids from school, is one of the most progressive counties in California. It has high levels of both wealth and educational attainment. While the county also has its share of New Agers and aging ex-hippies, the sort of people who would substitute theological positions for science in schools are largely absent. It simply is not an anti-science sort of place.

“We are completely aligned in our goals,” said [Dr. Matthew Willis, the public health officer for Marin County], regarding Krawitt’s crusade. “We believe as many children as possible should be protected through vaccination.

“However, from a public health standpoint, [banning unvaccinated children from school] would not be an effective strategy for limiting the spread of measles.”[10]

That doesn’t seem to have stopped Krawitt. So it seems that the medical profession needs to appeal to both pro- and anti-vaccination people. It might begin by realizing that superstition isn’t the only problem here.

  1. [1]Chad Hayes, “Dear Anti-Vax Parents: We’re Not Mad At You,” January 20, 2015,
  2. [2]Janis Mara, “Corte Madera family crusades for Marin schools to ban unvaccinated children,” Marin Independent-Journal, January 28, 2015,
  3. [3]David Benfell, “The uglier kind of atheism,” Not Housebroken, December 23, 2014,
  4. [4]Chad Hayes, “Dear Anti-Vax Parents: We’re Not Mad At You,” January 20, 2015,
  5. [5]Harriet A. Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Doubleday, 2006).
  6. [6]Marc Pilisuk and Jennifer Achord Rountree, Who Benefits from Global Violence and War: Uncovering a Destructive System (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008).
  7. [7]Jeff Madrick, “Innovation: The Government Was Crucial After All,” review of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, by Mariana Mazzucato, and Doing Capitalism in the Innovation Economy: Markets, Speculation and the State, by William H. Janeway, New York Review of Books, April 24, 2014,
  8. [8]Robert L. Borosage, “The Economic Debate: Fear vs. Corruption,” Nation, October 23, 2006, 28-30.
  9. [9]Marcia Angell, “Drug Companies & Doctors: A Story of Corruption,” review of Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial, by Alison Bass, Our Daily Meds: How the Pharmaceutical Companies Transformed Themselves into Slick Marketing Machines and Hooked the Nation on Prescription Drugs, by Melody Petersen, and Shyness: How Normal Behavior Became a Sickness, by Christopher Lane, New York Review of Books, January 15, 2009,” target=”_blank”>
  10. [10]Janis Mara, “Corte Madera family crusades for Marin schools to ban unvaccinated children,” Marin Independent-Journal, January 28, 2015,

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