Of the fringe groups given encouragement with the election of fringe man Donald Trump to the highest office in the land (US), possibly none are more sad or more inherently-potentially-theoretically dangerous than the anti-vaxxers: those opposed to vaccines because they "don’t work," they “cause autism,” or they’re “part of a vast CDC conspiracy.” The fact that vaccines do work, in many cases extremely well, that they do not have anything to do with autism and never did, and that the CDC does not appear to be embroiled in any conspiracies is, for the garden-variety anti-vaxxer, almost certainly beside the point. And that is what they have in common with many other fringe groups that love Trump: Like the climate change deniers, facts, research, data, and all of modern history simply don’t matter. Something doesn’t add up, and all the information in the world, even in explainer format, isn’t going to change their minds.
And the facts on vaccines are stark and unequivocal: Diseases that once killed or almost killed or simply annoyed hordes of us have been all but eradicated. Typhoid; polio; cholera; diphtheria; smallpox; yellow fever. All of these have been drastically reduced or wiped off the face of the planet by a combination of increased nutrition, access to better water, and vaccines. The smallpox vaccine worked so well that we no longer vaccinate for smallpox. Measles was declared eradicated from the Americas by the World Health Organization in 2016. Whooping cough (real name: pertussis) was once nearly dead but is now back, partly because people have recently become stubbornly opposed to vaccinating, and they tend to live near other opposers, causing weak spots in our vaccine coverage. Vaccines work. They work really well. Even vaccines that only work half the time, like those we get for the flu each year, save the lives of the most vulnerable, babies and the elderly.
So why do some people think that vaccines don’t work or, worse, are dangerous?
There are those who are soft anti-vaxxers: They vaccinate their kids, but they believe vaccines often have side effects (they almost never do, and they’re usually so minor they pass by unnoticed). Side effects, it should be noted, are distinct from allergic reactions: Any medication can cause an allergic reaction, but those are also rare. Serious allergic reactions to vaccines occur in an estimated several per million doses. People who vaccinate begrudgingly also often believe that they don’t work very well. It’s true that even the most effective vaccines don’t work 100 percent of the time, and some vaccinated children will still become infected with, say, the flu or measles. But over time — often quite short periods, in fact — in highly vaccinated populations, vaccines often lead to increasingly lower numbers of sick people.
“Vaccines work. They work really well. Even vaccines that only work half the time, like those we get for the flu each year, save the lives of the most vulnerable, babies and the elderly.”
Anti-vaxxers of the hard line, internet variety are a different breed. A recent study of anti-vaccine crusaders on Twitter found that the most ardent often also believe in vast government conspiracies, are greatly worried about GMOs, are into "The Illuminati," and have a deep mistrust of the government. They often believe that vaccines are “unnatural” or poisonous to our bodies. Many believe that ingredients in vaccines are linked to other diseases, most commonly autism.
All of the autism / vaccine hoopla can be traced back to one study, published in 1998 by a now infamous doctor (who is no longer a doctor at all), Andrew Wakefield. Dr. Wakefield’s study linked vaccines to higher rates of autism diagnoses, and it was debunked pretty quickly in the UK where it was published. Various separate, respected studies have re-examined the issue since and confirmed that there is no link between the two. Wakefield was found guilty at a hearing of his peers of "abuse of developmentally challenged children," of faking information, and of pedalling absolute bullshit. But his disproven findings have spread as if they were real, and they are responsible for one of the vilest of conspiracy theories in modern times, because this is the kind of misinformation that actually harms small children. He’s since become a sort of spokesperson for the anti-vaxx conspiracy movement and has made a documentary, Vaxxed, about the “conspiracy” of vaccines.
It’s not surprising, then, that anti-vaxxers might be emboldened by a Trump victory, given Trump’s historically tenuous grip on reality AKA "the facts," but even more than that, he’s fueled the anti-vaxx / autism fire. In 2014, he tweeted, “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn't feel good and changes - AUTISM. Many such cases!” If that didn’t make his “position” clear enough, Wakefield and Co. reported that they met up with Trump in August of this year for an hour-long discussion in which Wakefield characterized Trump as “open-minded on this issue.” “For the first time in a long time, I feel very positive about this,” Wakefield told STAT in an interview, “because Donald Trump is not beholden to the pharmaceutical industry.”
Whether or not Trump is beholden to the pharmaceutical industry remains to be seen. But changing the CDC’s recommended vaccine schedules, or vaccine laws, which are mostly set by the states, isn’t as easy as tweeting out an ill-informed opinion. Those laws, too, have been moving toward more strictly ensuring that all children are completely vaccinated. While historically states have allowed a certain number of children to attend school unvaccinated with "personal belief" exemptions, California recently became the third state to disallow all but medical exemptions (West Virginia and Mississippi are the others), making it much harder for anti-vaxx parents to skirt the rules.
Changing the CDC’s recommended vaccine schedules, or vaccine laws, which are mostly set by the states, isn’t as easy as tweeting out an ill-informed opinion.
The decision was appealed and moved onto a federal judge, who upheld the law, writing, “Society has a compelling interest in fighting the spread of contagious diseases through mandatory vaccination of school-age children.” He also noted that the Supreme Court of California had upheld mandatory vaccination of children going back to 1890. California’s decisions are significant as the state, in particular areas such as San Francisco, has been a hotbed of the anti-vaxx movement.
The point is, of course, that a Trump presidency doesn’t necessarily mean that more children will go unvaccinated. The vaccination rates in the US hover just above 90 percent, and many of the unvaccinated are so simply because they live in poor, underserved areas. Very few children are unvaccinated because their parents are conscious objectors, but those numbers have grown in the past decade, despite the mountain of evidence that vaccines are both safe and effective. In fact, unvaccinated children are now likelier to be white, to come from privileged homes with college-educated parents, and to live in highly populated, urban areas. This represents a sharp change in the profile. And in the looming reality of the Trump presidency, consciously not vaccinating a child despite all the evidence makes a sort of sense. That’s where the danger lies: It’s not just embarrassing that the president-elect thinks maybe vaccines cause autism, it’s terrifying, and even if he can’t roll in day one and change the laws, only an informed citizenry can stop the spread of bad information. And if Trump goes for it again on the fake links between autism and vaccines, he’s likely to get relentlessly schooled on Twitter, or even better, taken aside by someone at the CDC. We can only hope.