Workers Vanguard No. 1062

20 February 2015


Measles in the U.S.

Anti-Vaxxers: A Rash of Irrationality

The current Disneyland measles outbreak has brought the benighted anti-vaccine movement back into the limelight. With measles declared eradicated in this country over a decade ago, its comeback is a direct outcome of a decline in rates of MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination. Exuding unbridled individualism, parents tout their right to personal “choice” in not immunizing their own children, a choice that gambles with the health and lives of vulnerable populations like infants and the sick. Now there is the harsh reminder: measles is an extremely contagious respiratory disease that can lead to irreparable brain damage, blindness and death. So far this year, over 120 cases have been confirmed across at least 17 states.

In today’s anti-Enlightenment “Age of Endarkenment,” science-based medicine has lost ground to superstition and faith. The media crows over a vaccine “debate,” but the only debate is between fact and fiction. The fact is that vaccines have saved the lives of countless millions across the world. Before the measles vaccine’s introduction in 1963, four million cases were reported annually in the U.S. There is no better proof of the effectiveness of immunization, which made those numbers plummet to practically nil, than that measles is unknown to most young parents today. Ironically, the near disappearance of many preventable illnesses has given anti-vaxxers fodder to discount the danger of infectious diseases like measles, diphtheria or whooping cough.

Vaccine rejecters get their booster from ignorance and irrationality, a testament to this deeply religious and decaying social order. The most widespread myth is over a supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism, a fairy tale swallowed by a sizable segment of the American population. The autism fear was bolstered by a fraudulent 1998 study in The Lancet concocted by “doctor” Andrew Wakefield, whose medical license was finally revoked in 2010. Multiple credible scientific studies, involving hundreds of thousands of children around the world, have found absolutely zero connection between vaccines and childhood developmental disorders. Another theory—just as fantastical—is that too many vaccines given too close together can be detrimental.

Capitalist politicians on both sides of the partisan divide pander to anti-vaccine quackery. GOP presidential hopefuls New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul recently took center stage with an onset of “foot-in-mouth” disease. Though now backpedaling, Christie proclaimed that parents needed “some measure of choice.” Paul linked vaccines to “profound mental disorders,” drinking from the same Kool-Aid as Michele Bachmann, who in 2011 asininely asserted that the HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. That vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer, has puritanical politicians howling about innocent teens turning into sex machines.

With measles cases continuing to climb, Democrats masquerade as champions of vaccination. But on February 3 President Obama proposed slashing $50 million from an immunization program covering millions of the poor and uninsured. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said the relationship between vaccines and autism was “inconclusive,” while Hillary Clinton pledged to investigate the matter.

Nearly half of Americans believe God created mankind in a single day less than 10,000 years ago, so anti-science baloney is hardly limited to radical evangelists. Opposition to vaccines makes strange bedfellows of small-government libertarians, anti-Big Pharma conspiracy theorists and well-heeled tree-huggers. “Alternative” medicine philistines swear that vaccines are harmful to the body, fancying a diet of organic kale and reiki therapy as a means to combat lethal microbes. Many prefer to expose their kids to deadly viruses through the notion of “natural” immunity—which is about as safe as inviting Hannibal Lecter over for dinner. Celebrity zealots like Jenny McCarthy, with her big-money affiliate Generation Rescue, went from fringe to fad after getting repeated airtime on Oprah and other talk shows. And while there are plenty of reasons to hate the profit-gouging pharmaceutical giants, the production of vaccines isn’t one of them.

The measles resurgence originated in California, where there are pockets with sickeningly low vaccination rates. One of 19 states permitting “personal belief” exemptions, California allows parents to enlist a “naturopath” as the doctor excusing them from mandatory vaccine requirements. At several wealthy schools, concentrated in West Los Angeles, up to 60 percent of children are unvaccinated, a figure that rivals South Sudan. Meanwhile, the state with the highest vaccination rate is Mississippi, known for its poverty and dismal health care. It has the strictest immunization laws in the country, along with West Virginia, allowing only medical exemptions.

Anti-vaccine crusaders would let millions contract preventable diseases like measles, which kills 400 people a day across the globe, especially in the imperialist-subjugated Third World, where access to vaccines, antibiotics and clean water is limited. At the same time, granola crunchers and Tea Partyers certainly make no bones about the full vaccination schedule mandated for immigrants and green-card seekers in this country. One viral tweet by Nigerian author Elnathan John mocked the racist hysteria in the U.S. around the recent Ebola epidemic in West Africa: “Our thoughts are with the measles-ravaged country America. I hope we are screening them before they come to Africa.”

“Personal” health choices involve things like picking a toothpaste, since cavities are not contagious. But getting vaccinated is about protecting the individual and everyone else as well. The collective effectiveness of vaccines depends on a large enough portion of the population being immunized. When there’s a critical drop in vaccination rates, immunity crumbles.

In the spirit of doctors’ Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” personal and religious belief exemptions should be scrapped. Life-saving vaccines should be mandated and, like all health care needs, freely available to all. As Marxists, we defend science against religious and superstitious obscurantism as part of fighting for a socialist future in which the wealth, resources, scientific developments and medical technology of society are put to the service of the many, not the profits of the few. Only then will we be able to build a world, freed of medieval and crippling backwardness, where human life, worth and dignity matter.