Workers Vanguard No. 948
4 December 2009
In Defense of Medical Science
Capitalist Reaction and Anti-Vaccine Hysteria
Free H1N1 Vaccinations for All!
For Free, Quality Health Care!
Since the outbreak of “swine flu” or Novel influenza A (H1N1) in Mexico in April, the virus has spread to over 200 countries killing at least 7,800 people, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). In the U.S., as of mid-October at least 22 million have contracted the virus and some 4,000 have died, including 540 children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But in spite of the threat posed by the H1N1 virus, the capitalist rulers, indifferent to the health and welfare of working people and the poor, have dismally failed to provide the front-line measure against the epidemic—vaccination. Seven months after the initial outbreak, after numerous warnings by the government and media about the virus’s threat, thousands of anxious people across the country lining up for vaccination are simply told to go home because supplies have run out.
Meanwhile, anti-vaccine groups continue to propagate their fear-mongering and reactionary anti-science ideology against vaccination. When the New York State Department of Health briefly mandated seasonal and H1N1 flu vaccinations for health care workers—a measure we Marxists support—anti-vaccine groups seized on the objections of some unions to the mandatory vaccination, falsely claiming that this posed a threat to individual rights and that vaccines are dangerous.
The reality is that the influenza virus, which has a very rapid rate of mutation, poses a real threat to the life and well-being of people all over the world. During the 1918-19 worldwide flu pandemic, some 50 million people lost their lives. In the U.S. alone, about 36,000 die every year from the seasonal flu.
Unlike seasonal influenza, against which many people have some immunity, H1N1 is a relatively new virus to which most people have never been exposed, meaning most have little to no immunity. While healthy children and young adults are at risk, the virus is especially dangerous to pregnant women, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems or underlying disease conditions such as diabetes, asthma and heart and lung disease. Although the mortality rate of the H1N1 virus is thus far rather low, the virus has the potential to become far more lethal.
Priority of vaccination was set for these vulnerable sections of the population. But what is needed is production of ample amounts of vaccine to inoculate enough of the population to produce what public health professionals call “herd immunity.” The higher the proportion of immune individuals, the lower is the likelihood of the spread of disease. However, no H1N1 flu vaccine was available until the first week of October. Of the 195 million doses needed in the U.S. to effectively combat the H1N1 flu, only 51 million doses were available by the fourth week of November—this is in addition to substantial shortages of the seasonal flu vaccine. There have been cases of people lying about their age and women faking pregnancy in order to get vaccinated.
Under capitalism, medicine is driven by profit, not by the needs of society. Because vaccine production is not highly profitable, pharmaceutical companies are loath to invest in it. In 1967, there were 26 companies producing vaccines in the U.S. Today there are only four. Rather than investing in more efficient technology with a faster vaccine yield, these companies continue to use the same antiquated, low-yield technology that was used 50 years ago. Moreover, because many health insurance companies refuse to cover the cost of vaccinations, many pediatricians refer children to hospitals for immunization. At the same time, health delivery services are continually being slashed through budget cuts, layoffs of public health care workers and the closures of hospitals and clinics.
While research into vaccine development receives funding with an eyedropper, the U.S. imperialist ruling class pumps billions into germ warfare research and into fighting “bioterrorism,” which has been hyped up as part of the rulers’ reactionary “war on terror.” As journalist Arthur Allen wrote in his 2008 book, Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver:
“No price was too high to pay for anything that had the magic word ‘terrorism’ attached to it. Congress was willing to authorize $1.9 billion to build and maintain a stockpile of smallpox vaccine, and $1.4 billion to create and stockpile a new anthrax vaccine. From 2002 to 2006 it spent $33 billion on biodefense. Yet in 2003, the NIH [National Institute of Health] invested less than $70 million on influenza vaccine research.”
Under capitalism, while providing quality medical care for everyone is within the bounds of material possibility, the availability and quality of health care for working people are subordinate to the drive for profit, with health care rationed by class, race and sex. In New York City, vaccines were diverted from those in hospitals and schools who need them most in order to secure the health of the wealthy bankers of Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
We stand for free, quality health care for all, including full access to abortion and contraception. We fight for socialized medicine—the expropriation of the parasitic health care and drug companies, which are an immediate threat to the well-being of just about everyone in this country. Our aim is the mobilization of the working class in a fight for these and other such demands as part of the struggle for socialist revolution against the decrepit capitalist order. A rational, internationally planned socialist economy would devote the resources necessary to ensure that the population receives vaccinations and quality medical treatment in a timely manner. Massive resources would be invested in scientific research, to the benefit of the whole of society.
Mysticism and the Anti-Vaccine Hysteria
Although medical science is far from being able to treat all diseases, it has made it possible to control, through vaccination, many of the infectious diseases that were hideous scourges in past centuries. Until vaccines were introduced to stop them, diseases like measles, polio, diphtheria and mumps rolled viciously around the globe. Before it was eradicated, smallpox threatened 60 percent of the world’s population, killed every fourth victim (some 500 million in the 20th century alone), scarred or blinded most survivors and eluded any form of treatment. In the U.S., the polio epidemic of 1952 infected some 58,000 people and killed more than 3,000, leaving behind a legacy of terror and paralysis. Until 1963, four million people contracted measles annually; hundreds died each year and thousands were disabled for life by measles encephalitis.
Vaccines have saved the lives of countless millions across the world. Such “miraculous” advances, achieved through science-based medicine, are a refutation of the basic tenets of the anti-vaccine movement, which is based on a reactionary and superstitious ideology. With their hostility to immunization, the anti-vaccine evangelists—groups such as Generation Rescue, Age of Autism, the National Vaccine Information Center and PutChildrenFirst.org—are perfectly willing to let millions of people in poor Third World countries die of preventable diseases. It is the same mentality as that of South African leaders, like former president Thabo Mbeki, who for years had criminally denied that AIDS is caused by a virus, advocating in place of anti-retrovirus medicines natural “remedies” in the form of herbs, vegetables and garlic.
To bolster their argument, anti-vaccine outfits claim that vaccines are ineffective and harmful to the body. They take their religious and anti-scientific cues from turn-of-the-century racists and anti-Semites like the mystic Rudolf Steiner, who established the Waldorf movement, and Reuben Swinbourne Clymer, who was vice president of the Anti-Vaccination Society of America in 1902. As Arthur Allen wrote in Vaccine, Steiner viewed “the body as a temple, the blood as a divine fluid, and vaccines as spiritual pollution.” He believed that “blond, blue-eyed people were disappearing from the world because they were ‘weaker physically and mentally stronger’ than ‘dark people’.”
Clymer’s 1957 book, The Age of Treason, a bible for medical quacks, is a harangue against vaccination, birth control, food additives, mood-altering drugs and “racial miscegenation”: “The enemies of God and mankind have used or plan to employ inoculations for the purpose of destroying mental balance and making it impossible for the minds of children to develop beyond a more or less moronic or robot degree.” He put the blame of these “ills” on “militant socialists and the enemies of God and Man, many of whom are admittedly Jews.”
Anti-vaccine fanatics cite anecdotal evidence to falsely link vaccines to autism. They claim that vaccines are damaging to the immune system and that thimerosal, a mercury derivative that had been used as a preservative in multi-dose vials of vaccines, is the cause of brain damage in autistic children. The symptoms of autism, believed by many scientists to be a genetic disorder, become evident around the age of two years, which happens to be the same age children receive multiple vaccines. Credible scientific studies in several countries, involving hundreds of thousands of children, have found no link between vaccines or thimerosal and autism. Unvaccinated children developed autism at the same rate as the vaccinated, and the prevalence of autism remained the same after thimerosal was removed from vaccines in 2001.
The myth of vaccines’ link to autism is trumpeted by politicians of both capitalist parties, from Republican Congressman Dan Burton, an adamant supporter of “alternative medicine” quackery, to Democratic Senator John Kerry and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Contributing to the crusade, the media has provided the anti-vaccine fanatics with forums to spew their poison. They want to create a “debate” where none exists, much like their promotion of proponents of “intelligent design” mysticism. Generation Rescue spokespersons Jenny McCarthy, whose son suffers from autism, and her boyfriend Jim Carrey, as well as National Vaccine Information Center president Barbara Loe Fisher have become fixtures on talk shows, from Oprah Winfrey to Don Imus and Larry King. Meanwhile, the influential Huffington Post Web site has become a repository of all kinds of medical quackery. To her credit, actress Amanda Peet has stepped forward in defense of childhood vaccinations, declaring, “I was shocked at the amount of misinformation floating around, particularly in Hollywood.”
Science as a Candle in the Dark
Apart from minor reactions, vaccines are quite safe. They are certainly never as dangerous as the highly contagious diseases that they prevent (and contrary to popular myth, flu vaccines do not cause the flu). There could be no better proof of the effectiveness of vaccines than the fact that many ruthless killers like diphtheria and the measles are rare and, in many cases, unknown to young parents.
Ironically, the virtual disappearance of such diseases has given the anti-vaccine zealots ammunition to prey on ignorance, falsely claiming that infectious diseases are not deadly and that vaccines pose a threat. Meanwhile, some 20 states have religious exemptions to childhood vaccinations. Ominously, because of declining rates of childhood vaccinations, many dangerous diseases are making a comeback. For example, the number of reported cases of pertussis (whooping cough)—a highly contagious bacterial disease that can be lethal to infants—jumped from 1,000 in 1976 to 26,000 in 2004, while there have been a number of fatal cases of meningitis in unvaccinated children in Pennsylvania and Minnesota.
Many today do not remember the scientists who developed life-saving vaccines. In the 1950s, when polio was wreaking havoc, Dr. Jonas Salk, the pioneering virologist who developed the first safe and effective vaccine against it, was rightly hailed as a hero and his name became a familiar household word. The grateful citizens of Winnipeg, a site of a major polio epidemic in 1953, sent him a 208-foot telegram with more than 7,000 signatures. Salk did not patent his vaccine, believing it should be available for everybody. When asked who held the patent, he replied, “Well, the people . There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?” Salk was never awarded a Nobel Prize for his scientific breakthrough. But for his idealistic humanism, the FBI kept a file on him. Today, with most of these deadly diseases a distant memory, scientists like Dr. Paul Offit, an ardent defender of vaccines and co-inventor of a vaccine against rotavirus, a diarrheal disease that kills 600,000 children worldwide every year, have been targets of scurrilous attacks and death threats by opponents of vaccines.
Helping drive the anti-vaccine campaign are homeopaths, acupuncturists, chiropractors and other quacks who are opposed to science-based medicine. On its Web site, the International Chiropractors Association promotes a tract titled Vaccination: 100 Years of Orthodox Research Shows that Vaccines Represent a Medical Assault on the Immune System. According to Arthur Allen, when in the early 1990s the National Vaccine Information Center (then called Dissatisfied Parents Together) was about to go bankrupt, it was saved by a large donation from a chiropractors’ organization. What makes these quacks more dangerous is that they are at times more accessible than costly health care and are increasingly covered by insurance companies because they are much cheaper than real doctors. Sadly, these snake oil salesmen have become a source of “treatment” for a wide section of the population.
In its irrationality, fear mongering and anti-scientific backwardness, the hysteria against vaccines is reminiscent of the 1950s’ campaign against the fluoridation of public water, a measure to prevent tooth decay that was depicted as a Communist plot to control the mind and sap and pollute the “precious bodily fluids” of the population. Dr. Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch.org notes that “chiropractors have been in the forefront of political battles against fluoridation.” (Perhaps they think that tooth decay is susceptible to spinal manipulation!)
In the U.S., religion, promoted and embraced by whole sections of the bourgeoisie, supplies an ideology that attempts to harmonize conflicting class interests while keeping society firmly ordered: capital above labor, white above black, man above woman. It provides the breeding ground for backward anti-scientific ideologies, including creationism, which challenges the established facts of Darwinian natural selection as the motor force for evolution. Some 46 percent of Americans believe in the Biblical creation myth, while 79 percent believe in angels.
The rise of religiosity and anti-scientific attitudes is aided by the decline of education, especially in basic science, in public schools. The last time that the U.S. ruling class undertook a sustained effort to promote science education was after the Soviet Union launched its Sputnik I satellite in 1957. Fear of a Soviet lead in military technology led President Dwight Eisenhower to demand a billion-dollar program to improve science education and to enact the National Defense Education Act in 1958. Creationism was elbowed aside as the newly formed Biological Science Curriculum Study wrote evolution into new high school textbooks. But for decades, the U.S. has seen a growing tide of ideological reaction that became even more accentuated following the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers state in 1991-92, which gave a major boost to all-around religious delusion.
The backward ideology that feeds the anti-vaccine movement is shared by opponents of abortion and genetically engineered crops. For years, the Catholic church’s hierarchy “debated” whether it was sinful to be inoculated with the vaccine against rubella, which was grown on a cell line obtained from an aborted fetus. On the same ideological basis, federal funding for potentially life-saving stem-cell research was banned in the U.S. until very recently. In Britain, Prince Charles, ranting about genetically engineered foods, once stated, “I happen to believe that this kind of genetic modification takes mankind into realms that belong to God, and to God alone.” In his opposition to a technology that yields qualitatively better and more abundant crops, this relic of medievalism is willing to starve millions.
Public Health and Individual Rights
Last August, the New York State health commissioner issued a directive mandating vaccination against seasonal and H1N1 flu for all health care workers by the end of November. Several health workers unions—including the New York State Nurses Association, 1199 SEIU United Healthcare Workers East and AFSCME District Council 37—objected to the mandate and some filed suits claiming that the order violated their civil rights. A judge put a halt on the directive, which the state later suspended because of vaccine shortage.
We would be in favor of this mandate—now unfortunately annulled—as a public health measure that would protect those receiving vaccines and prevent the further spread of disease, especially among hospitalized people whose underlying conditions are aggravated by infection. Because herd immunity cannot always be achieved voluntarily, public health measures are sometimes drastic and intrusive, but they are often necessary to achieve that level of immunity and save lives. There are often times when public health and individual rights clash. But getting vaccinated violates no individual rights except the “right” to spread infection. Appropriate measures such as hand washing and the wearing of gloves and masks have been standard mandatory practices in hospitals for decades. Every state already requires health care workers to be immunized against measles, mumps and polio. Quarantines are at times established for those with dangerous infectious diseases. Some of the greatest advances made in health were made through public health measures like clean drinking water, improved hygiene and vaccines.
There is more than plenty to distrust about the capitalist government. But the anti-vaccine hysteria has nothing to do with a “healthy” mistrust of the state. Rather, it is motivated by anti-scientific prejudices.
It is testament to the political bankruptcy of the trade-union bureaucracy that union leaders who have presided over concession after concession to the bosses on health and pension benefits, reopening and extending contracts, are now posturing as defenders of their members’ rights by mobilizing them for a reactionary campaign against vaccinations. Instead, the trade-union movement should be demanding that vaccines be made available for all health workers against the preventable diseases to which they are exposed. The unions should be calling for unconditional, unlimited sick leave for all workers at full pay beginning with day one of employment. They should be in the vanguard of the struggle for free health care for everyone, which would help revitalize the labor movement. Such struggles are part of the fight to forge a vanguard party of the proletariat that will strive to combat social backwardness within the workers movement and stand for the primacy of science over superstition.
Where there is a real clash between the principle of individual rights and that of public health, resolution can be achieved only by examining the particular health threat posed. In the early 1980s, as the deadly AIDS epidemic was spreading, public health officials proposed to close gay bathhouses in San Francisco. Our initial reaction was to demand: “Government Out of the Baths!” This was incorrect. The issue was one of life and death. You don’t cite the First Amendment when the fire department is hacking through your walls to stop a fire. The point of closing the baths was to slow down the already exponential spread of AIDS and alert the gay men who were most at risk. In reconsidering our earlier incorrect position, we wrote in “The Agony of AIDS” (Women and Revolution No. 35, Summer 1988):
“Like everything else in this capitalist society, ‘public health’ is infused with class, race and sex bias. Early in this century, health officials blamed immigrants and the poor for diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea, which they claimed (falsely) were spread through drinking fountains. But the extraordinary powers granted by law to departments of public health are necessary to fight disease. This fight can often involve quite brutal interference of the state into private life.”
Another example of such necessary intrusion occurred in 1967 when the World Health Organization launched a successful campaign to rid humanity of smallpox. For eleven years, health workers, armed with vaccine and bifurcated needles, scoured cities and remote villages throughout Africa and Asia for cases and contacts. They broke into houses and vaccinated families against their repeated objections. Nick Ward, a WHO official in Bangladesh, described his team as “a band of vigilantes, about forty-four white, foreign infidels who were not likely to be excessively worried about the finer points of Muslim beliefs . We nearly lost some of our people, though. Somebody was killed with an arrow in India, and another had his head slit open with a cleaver” (quoted in June Goodfield, Quest for the Killers ). Time was key to the campaign’s success, and in the face of resistance, force was fastest. By 1979, in one of the greatest achievements of the 20th century, the smallpox disease was wiped from the face of the planet.
Public Health and Government Manipulation
Control of disease is as much a social question as a scientific one. Under capitalism, the profits of pharmaceutical and insurance giants come before public health, which is indelibly imprinted with the reactionary bigotry of capitalist society.
In the infamous Tuskegee experiments, 400 Southern black men with syphilis, who were never told they had it, were left untreated for some 40 years and allowed to die so that “researchers” could watch the ravages of the untreated disease as it destroyed their bodies and minds. Right-wing bigot Norman Podhoretz railed against government expenditure on AIDS vaccination research, writing, “Are they aware that in the name of compassion they are giving social sanction to what can only be described as brutish degradation?” To this day, the federal government refuses to fund needle-exchange programs to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS among heroin addicts. For several years, conservatives have been waging a war to prevent mandatory vaccination of schoolgirls against human papilloma virus (HPV) because it “promotes promiscuity.” HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and a primary cause of cervical cancer, killing some 5,000 women each year. The vaccine has proven to be exceptionally effective. The right-wing zealots are telling women: practice abstinence or maybe die.
Using the current “swine flu” pandemic as a pretext, governments around the world have manipulated public health measures for their own purposes. Several governments slapped irrational bans on imports of live pigs. In Egypt, the government slaughtered all the country’s 300,000 pigs, even though the virus is not spread by pigs. The culling of the hogs was part of the continuing oppression of the Coptic Christian minority, the only group that raises and consumes pigs. In the process, the Egyptian government actually created a public health disaster: garbage piled high on the streets of Cairo as the Coptic pig farmers, known as the zabaleen (trash people), who collected much of the city’s garbage could no longer do their work, because the pigs that devoured the collected organic waste were killed. Meanwhile, in Ukraine, the government has banned public gatherings and rallies for the period leading up to elections in January.
As historical materialists and scientific socialists, we fight for a world socialist revolution to tear the means of production out of the hands of the greedy capitalist class. On an international scale, this would lay the material basis for a communist world free of exploitation and oppression. Then, all the positive gains of modern science can be used to form the basis for a qualitative expansion of scientific research, technological development and production output, which would all be put to the service of humanity. And all the fake science that is used to justify and defend capitalist rule can be rejected. In a 1925 speech, “Dialectical Materialism and Science,” Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky stated:
“For its needs, society requires knowledge of nature. But at the same time, society demands an affirmation of its right to be what it is, a justification of its particular institutions—first and foremost, the institutions of class domination—just as in the past it demanded the justification of serfdom, class privileges, monarchical prerogatives, national exceptionalism, etc. Socialist society accepts with utmost gratitude the heritage of the positive sciences, discarding, as is the right of inventorial choice, everything that is useless in acquiring knowledge of nature but only useful in justifying class inequality and all other kinds of historical untruth.”