Anti-vaxxers now considered a global health threat
For the first time in history, vaccine skeptics teamed up to appear on the World Health Organization's (WHO) list of Top 10 Threats to global health in 2019. Other threats include air pollution and climate change as well as diseases such as influenza and HIV. However, the other threats are more traditional and have made multiple appearances in the past, indicating that the rise of vaccine hesitancy is emerging at a higher rate than before.
"Vaccine hesitancy" is defined as the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate, despite the availability of vaccines. Currently, it is estimated that vaccination saves two to three million lives per year and could save 1.5 million more with greater accessibility. However, we are seeing a global return of diseases such as measles, even in countries like the U.S. where the disease was almost eradicated.
Vaccine opponents, commonly referred to as "anti-vaxxers," have various reasons for their stance: some are afraid of injecting chemicals into their bodies and are convinced a natural approach to fending off illnesses is the way to go; others direct their skepticism towards "Big Pharma"; and in communities like the Somali community in Minnesota, there are those who cite religious reasons. Regardless, pathogens don't care about intent. Communities with a significant anti-vax population have been victims of outbreaks of preventable diseases, most notably measles.
Of course, the concept of parents refusing or even being hesitant to give their child immunizations to preventable diseases is not new. The hysteria picked up speed when former doctor Andrew Wakefield claimed that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccines caused autism, a false statement that led to his supporting study being retracted and his medical license nullified. However, vaccination skepticism continues. Thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative, was pulled out of almost all childhood vaccines despite lack of scientific evidence showing the level was significant or harmful.
Even our current administration has shown skepticism towards how vaccines are being administered. Just a year ago, President Trump's evangelical campaign adviser responded to a severe flu outbreak by claiming, "We don't have a flu season and don’t receive it when someone threatens you with ‘everybody is getting the flu.'" Copeland added, "We’ve already had our shot: He [Jesus] bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases. That’s what we stand on. And by His stripes we are healed." Although Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump's evangelical advisory board, claims that he doesn't "know a single person in the White House who would agree with [Copeland's claim]," the president has shared his fair share of hesitancy. His Twitter history shows he believes in a correlation between vaccines and autism, and his concerns during the campaign trail are further confirmation. Even today, many anti-vaxxers feel emboldened by the president and his message. Americans — or anyone, for that matter — should take medical advice from medical experts such as their primary care physician, but the truth of the matter is that people seek confirmation of their beliefs, especially when it comes from someone of authority.
Vaccine hesitancy is not a partisan issue. While the Left arguably began the modern anti-vax movement — the measles outbreak started off in 2015 in a liberal part of Marin County, CA and a handful of prominent anti-vaxxers, such as Jenny McCarthy, appear to lean Democrat — research shows that those who fall strongly on either end of the political spectrum are more susceptible to questioning the safety of vaccinations than those who fall in the middle. However, it is important to note that those who believe that vaccination should be a parent's choice and not the government's choice leans much more conservative. Regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum, they are potential targets of pseudoscience.
Modern science has come a long way. Over the past decades, new discoveries and medical advancements have allowed people to live longer and healthier lives. However, growing skepticism sets us back. As nice as essential oils smell and fresh produce tastes, none of those "precautions" will shield off preventable diseases.