Healthy Living

Don’t Let History Repeat Itself: The Dangers Of Pseudoscience And Denialism

01/13/2017 04:53pm ET | Updated January 14, 2017

On Tuesday, Robert F Kennedy Jr. told major media outlets that he may head a new Commission on Vaccine Safety. The purpose of this commission, per Mr. Kennedy, is to debate the science. “[Mr. Trump] says that his opinion doesn’t matter, but the science does matter,” he reported.

At first glance, the idea of an impartial commission to debate and resolve a controversy does not seem like a bad idea. Except for two big problems.

The first: Mr. Kennedy is a vocal anti-vaxxer. He has openly and repeatedly supported the notion that vaccines cause autism. Thus, he is by no means impartial.

The second: Vaccine safety is no longer a source of controversy within the scientific community. As numerous physician groups ― including the American Medical Association, American Academy of Family Physicians, and the American Academy of Pediatrics ― have pointed out, the science is conclusive. Study after study has proven that vaccines do not cause autism, but they do prevent life-threatening diseases and disease outbreaks.

The combination of these two facts makes the proposed commission particularly dangerous. Should the commission involve predominantly anti-vaxxers, the natural conclusion of their work will be predictable. But should the commission involve scientists or physicians alongside anti-vaxxers, the natural conclusion of their debates will also be predictable ― let’s agree to disagree.

We have seen this before, and the results were deadly. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, South Africa began to face an unprecedented crisis. South Africa and its neighboring countries had become the epicenter of a global health emergency ― HIV/AIDS. Yet the nation’s leader, President Thabo Mbeki, blocked efforts to treat and control the epidemic. At the time, scientific consensus, based on laboratory research and clinical trial data, confirmed that the virus (HIV) causes the disease (AIDS) and supported the effectiveness of anti-retroviral therapies (ARVs) in treating and preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS. But Mbeki ― largely fueled by the work of one scientist, Dr. Peter Duesberg, with unfounded opinions and a disregard for data ― denied these facts.

In 2000, Mbeki created an advisory panel, much like Mr. Trump’s alleged Commission, to facilitate debate over the science. The panel consisted of both HIV scientists and physicians and top AIDS denialists. After lengthy meetings and discussions, the group reached a stalemate ― they could not agree. Even with HIV researchers explaining the scientific bases and objectivity of their studies, skeptics remained skeptical. Influential AIDS denialists, including President Mbeke, continued to encourage natural or alternative remedies over ARVs. And as a result, over 300,000 lives that could have been saved with timely acceptance of the science and roll-out of appropriate treatment were lost.

Mbeki’s legacy continues to undermine efforts to control HIV/AIDS in South Africa. He planted much more than a seed of doubt in his constituents’ minds. Today, while ARVs have become cheap and affordable, HIV/AIDS continues to ravage South Africa ― in part, because of the AIDS denialism and distrust of western medicine that persist.

A Commission on Vaccine Safety will have similarly devastating and lasting results. The vaccines debate, much like the HIV/AIDS debate, has not emerged out of a conflict within the scientific community. It stems from a seed of doubt that was planted by a single, faulty study. A stalemate could only nurture that seed, and legitimize refusal to vaccinate on the basis of pseudoscience ― or rather, anti-science ― arguments. A stalemate could result in the resurgence of once eradicated diseases. We are already seeing this without anti-vaxxers running our government. Since 2008, over 80,000 cases of vaccine-preventable diseases (like measles and whooping cough) emerged around the country, due to the high percentage of children ― over 15% in some states ― who go unvaccinated every year.

Pair the already unacceptably high rates of vaccine refusal with the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act, and the results could be disastrous. The ACA mandates that vaccines be covered by insurance with no copayments. Without the ACA protecting preventive services, and with a government legitimizing anti-vaxxers’ unfounded opinions, we will likely see these rates rise. And those left without adequate health insurance will face financial barriers to the medical care they may require upon contracting vaccine-preventable illnesses.

Let us not repeat history over unfounded arguments. As Mr. Trump reportedly said, the science does matter. And the science says that our vaccines are safe.

Suggest a correction