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The science of vaccination means nothing without trust

The myths of the anti-vaccination movement are tempting for many parents. We can’t bully them into rationality

At the turn of the century, measles had almost been eradicated in the United States. Then it came back. All but extinct by the end of the Clinton administration, measles is now back on the agenda for the 2016 vote. Outbreaks in 2011 and 2013 saw the number of cases reach record peaks at around 200.

 In 2015 we’re halfway to matching them, and we’ve only just entered February. The disease is an interloper from a bygone era. The medical equivalent of a Model T Ford driving along the freeway, disrupting traffic.

Its return has nothing to do with medicine or science. Our medicines work as well as they ever did. There has been no dramatic mutation. This is no new super-strain. Like malnutrition or the "belfie", there is no good reason for measles to exist in a modern society.

There is a bad reason though: we decided to let it come back. After two generations without measles, parents grew complacent. How bad could the old relic in the cage really be? Meanwhile, another fear was more readily apparent. The fear of seeing a child stuck with a needle, mysterious chemical and biological agents injected into their flesh.

Anti-vaxxers’ libertarian origins 

Others played on those fears. Some, like Andrew Wakefield, built careers propagating myths and legends about vaccines.  For others, opposition to vaccination grew out of a libertarian, anti-government or anti-authoritarian stance that puts the rights and opinions of parents on a pedestal, irrespective of how right or wrong they are. Enter New Jersey Governor and potential Presidential Candidate Chris Christie, who accepts the science behind vaccines but explained, “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance.”

That’s why explaining the science in some ways misses the point. I’ve been writing about MMR vaccination on and off for several years now. I can explain that thiomersal, the antiseptic once erroneously linked to autism, is not actually present in modern vaccines. I could explain that formaldehyde is produced naturally by your cells, and is pumping through your blood-stream as you read this. Ultimately though, this isn’t about science or explanations – it’s an issue of trust, and of personal politics.

That’s why it’s critical that vaccination doesn’t become a partisan issue, as has happened with climate change. Already, we’ve seen signs of this, largely from liberals keen to paint Republicans as anti-science. Chris Christie’s comments this week triggered a hot wave of ridicule, which prompted others to highlight previous remarks made by Obama, in 2008, when he described the science as "inconclusive".  Others on this site have pointed out that the quotes sound a lot better in context. 

Martin Robbins is a writer and talker at the messy border of science and culture. He is a columnist at VICE, and blogs for The Guardian and the New Statesman.

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