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Vaccine ‘trutherism’ thriving, at public’s expense

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Cast your mind back to June, when the Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby could deny contraception coverage to its employees.

At the time, some people wondered how far this exemption for the “sincere” religious beliefs of employers would go. How much medical coverage can corporate persons deny their employees?

“What if they don’t believe in cancer treatments?” asked Emily Tisch Sussman of the liberal Center for American Progress. “What if they don’t believe in vaccines?”

These questions were called scare tactics by Hobby Lobby supporters at the time. But, as we’ve seen recently, vaccine “trutherism” is thriving, vaccine-preventable diseases are coming back like Harper Lee, vaccine effectiveness has turned into another scientific “question” in the minds of some politicians, and far too many parents are deciding to skip shots for their kids – to the detriment of everyone else’s.

We see too much of this in Washington. Our immunization rates trail the nation’s, in part because of people who have philosophical objections.

Meanwhile, politicians have this week suggested that perhaps compulsory vaccinations are a freedom problem. Rand Paul said this week that some vaccines should be voluntary and that they cause “mental disorders” – a baseless claim. When a TV reporter questioned him somewhat incredulously, he responded, “I guess being for freedom would be really unusual? I guess I don’t understand the point of why that would be controversial?”

So, apparently, anti-vaccination mythology is now going to be part of the liberty agenda. If that’s so, how far behind the claims of individual liberty can the claims of corporate liberty be? This is not some imaginary consideration. In Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s potent dissent on Hobby Lobby, she cited the possibility of corporations extending their control over their workers’ insurance policies beyond contraception.

“Religious objections to immunization programs are not hypothetical,” she wrote in a footnote on page 34 of her dissent.

She cited a paper written in 2007 by the Liberty Counsel, a nationwide religious liberties law firm, titled, “COMPULSORY VACCINATIONS THREATEN RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.”

The “threat” highlighted in that paper connects to abortion. Some vaccines were developed using tissue from two terminated pregnancies in the early 1960s. Since then, the lines have not used such tissue. Liberty Counsel, a pro-life nonprofit that provides pro bono legal work among other services, deems this unethical and made it the basis for disputing vaccines on a wide range of other disreputable and unreliable – but surely “sincerely held” – grounds. Right-to-life groups – even those who don’t necessarily come down against immunizations outright – refer to these as abortion-tainted vaccines.

Is it so far-fetched to assume that a sincere corporate person like Hobby Lobby might someday object to providing immunization coverage? After all, sincerely held beliefs – based on faith, philosophy, hearsay, discredited science – are exactly what are weakening the protection against vaccine-preventable diseases nationwide.

Vaccine deniers come from all over the spectrum. Lefty fears about vaccines thrive, helping drive down our immunization rates in Oregon and Washington. Lots of people simply believe things about vaccines – like the discredited link to autism – that are not true.

A recent study out of Washington State University shines a disheartening light on one reason this may be so: too many people believe Internet nonsense. WSU researchers exposed 129 study participants to mock announcements about vaccines from the CDC and an anti-vaccination organization, and then exposed them to anonymous Internet comments about the announcements. Then participants were surveyed about the likelihood they would vaccinate themselves and their families, as well as their opinions about vaccines generally.

The result: Participants were equally likely to be persuaded by anonymous online commenters as by public service announcements by the nation’s major health agency.

Persuaded by anonymous online commenters – the final sign of the apocalypse.

It is a luxury of our age that we have forgotten the toll of a disease like polio. But it is a luxury that is being eroded, one sincerely held objection at a time, until we are saying hello to measles all over again.

A 2014 report in the journal Pediatrics detailed the way that a handful of unvaccinated kids can amplify the spread of a disease. The Minnesota Department of Health examined a 2011 measles outbreak that sickened 19 children and two adults. It traced the disease’s journey: An unvaccinated 2-year-old contracted measles in Kenya and returned to the U.S., where he developed a fever, cough and vomiting. Before his diagnosis, he passed the virus to three children in a child-care center and a member of his household. Eventually, 3,000 people were exposed.

Nine of those were children who were old enough for the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine but who had not received it.

The main reason? Their parents believed – sincerely, no doubt – that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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