It should be said at the top of this post that I am neither an expert on public health, the science of vaccines or reality television. But a cluster of headlines on “anti-vaxxers,” or people who oppose vaccinations for a variety of reasons caught my eye this week.
Kristin Cavallari (of The Real Orange County fame) made small headlines earlier this week after an interview with the Fox Business Channel. During her interview, Cavallari suggested that a link between autism and vaccines made her wary of vaccinating her small children. Later on the Huffington Post, Cavallari made it clear that she didn’t intend to publicly condemn vaccines, but considered that “to each their own, and that’s where I stand on it.” Coupled with other headlines about recent measles outbreaks in Canada, and in New York made Cavallari’s statements enough for a small news cycle swirl.
I can’t help but be struck by parallels between the anti-vax stance and other late 20th century science controversies (i.e. climate change and the evolution/creation debate). On the one side there is the weight of the scientific establishment, making it clear that while “yes there might be some room to quibble with the details,” we all essentially agree that “climate change is real,” “evolution really did happen” or “vaccinate your children for goodness sakes.” And on the other are a variety of groups who oppose mainstream science either for explicitly religious, political or individual health reasons.
But simply being frustrated doesn’t give us the answer to the essential question: WHY?
Before I go any further: I am not defending the anti-vaccine stance. I am not defending the anti-vaccine stance. I am not defending anti-vaccine stance.
Ok, now that this disclaimer is out of the way, I’d like to say that I think there is more going on here for anti-vaxx groups than simple ignorance. The reaction to anti-vaxxers is often the same as to other scientific controversies- hurling numbers and facts at the heads of the opposition with the hope that some of them will bang through and carry the point. This recent daily beast article is a good example of this: amidst statistics and public health facts, the author’s frustrated tone carries through. Anti-vax is “sheer lunacy,” the author bemoans at one point.
And I’m not unsympathetic to this author’s feelings, or even this line of argument. It is extraordinarily frustrating to face a debate over scientific facts that seem well-established by any reasonable person’s standard. But simply being frustrated doesn’t give us the answer to the essential question: WHY? Why do anti-vaxxers distrust assurances by public health officials that vaccines are not only safe, but necessary to combat the spread of infectious diseases?
Of course, the irony is that we have this fear precisely because we are so dependent on these medical and technological innovations.
Let’s start by looking at who anti-vaxxers tend to be. Although there are some groups who fit a religious fundamentalist profile, most of the public face of anti-vaxx has been led by upper-middle class mothers… i.e. Kristin Cavallari. Or Jenny McCarthy, perhaps the most famous anti-vaxxer. And although the 1998 Lancet study that linked vaccines and autism has been widely discredited, both McCarthy and others continue to express doubts about the safety of vaccines.
I don’t have the final answer to the “why” question here—but I’ll start by disagreeing with what I said earlier. On the face of it, anti-vaxx is similar to the other late 20th century scientific controversies that I mentioned. But it really has much closer links to the organic food/anti-GMO/natural health movements. These movements have combined a sort of neo-hippie mentality with criticisms of the use of fossil-fuel based fertilizers and pesticides in industrial food production. They are movements that are rooted in a wariness of the technologically-adept ambitions of the modern techno-scientific state.
It is this feature of the anti-vaxx movement that is why (I think) that it hasn’t mattered much that the link between autism and vaccines has been discredited. The anti-vaxx sentiment is rooted in much more than a single clinical trial or a set of statistics. It’s an expression of a fear that modern life is beyond our control, that science has taken us away from what is safe and natural.
Of course, the irony is that we have this fear precisely because we are so dependent on these medical and technological innovations. It’s very possible that the anti-vaxx movement is a passing fad (indeed, I truly hope it is) but I sincerely doubt it will be the last expression of this kind of anxiety.
Myrna Perez Sheldon is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
Image from Flickr via dfid