The current measles outbreak has now spread to 14 states. Almost as concerning as the virus are the comments being made by politicians and media figures. Our elected officials and major media producers need to put aside their political aspirations and their cravings for ratings, and follow the motto of Spider-Man: "With great power comes great responsibility." The public deserves to hear clear truths about protecting their families from measles and other preventable diseases. Instead, we hear pandering and paranoia, sometimes muddled with a random fragment of pragmatism. This noise leaves most reasonable people thinking... "huh?"
Just as Spider-Man periodically squares off with the Sinister Six (a changing team-up of supervillains including Hobgoblin, Doctor Octopus, Electro, Sandman, and others), we are seeing the rise of Vaccine Villains. Each of them must be called out for their inaccuracies and irresponsibility in the ongoing conversations about measles.
Vaccine Villain: Governor Chris Christie. While touring a vaccine facility in England, Governor Christie was asked whether he thought Americans should vaccinate their children. To his credit, the first words from his mouth were responsible. He said his children are vaccinated, and that was "the best expression I can give you of my opinion." But he added unnecessary confusion by saying "parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well... that's the balance that the government has to decide..." He later clarified statements, but my frustration with the Governor's comments is his poor assessment of public health threats and his disregard for medical science when political points might be scored.
Back in October, when Nurse Kaci Hickox arrived at a New Jersey airport after a volunteer mission in Sierra Leone to care for people struggling with Ebola, Governor Christie treated her like a criminal. Police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring took her from the airport to a nearby hospital, and she was forced to endure four days in a quarantine tent despite her being Ebola negative and non-symptomatic. This misuse of government resources was against the expert advice of public health researchers and healthcare providers.
Now, during this measles outbreak, public health researchers and healthcare providers are finding that our herd immunity against measles is undermined when families opt out of vaccination. Though Governor Christie's office later issued a statement in support of vaccines, it would help if he showed real leadership to a concerned public by facilitating their understanding of the scientific consensus, rather than play political games. Let's not leave the door open to measles by pandering to the misinformed fears of anti-vaxxers.
Vaccine Villain: Senator Rand Paul. Like Governor Christie, Senator Rand Paul is trying to have it both ways by supporting unfounded fears of vaccines while also supporting their public health value. In a meandering interview, Senator Paul, who is also a doctor, said:
"I've heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea, I think they're a good thing. But I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn't own your children. Parents own the children and it is an issue of freedom."
Let's deconstruct the irresponsibility of this statement. Senator, you and I are physicians who are supposed to be guided by science, not just hearsay. The whole point of peer-reviewed, evidence-based scientific research is to evaluate situations and test hypotheses. Time and again, when it comes to vaccines the research has come to the same conclusion: they do not cause mental disorders. Giving validity to false accusations only perpetuates misinformation about vaccines, even if you backtrack to say "they're a good thing."
Furthermore, Senator Paul, you are completely misunderstanding how vaccines are an "issue of freedom." For a disease like measles, which is 90 percent contagious and can linger in the air we breathe for hours after a sick patient coughs, the vaccine is the freedom from illness and from the consequences of deafness, blindness, brain damage, etc. Of course parents own their children, but they do not have the right to put other children at risk of preventable diseases like the measles. What are we supposed to tell the 6 babies who caught the measles at Disneyland, or the 5 babies now diagnosed with measles in Chicago? Regardless of whether all these cases are from the same outbreak or not, America was measles-free 15 years ago. Are we supposed to tell these children, all too young to be immunized for measles, that they caught a preventable disease because of your skewed view of "freedom"? As an elected official and a physician, I expect you to recognize that herd immunity is intended to give these young Americans the liberty of a healthy, measles-free life, but we are failing them as we pander to anti-vaxxer fears.
Vaccine Villain: Dr. Jack Wolfson. In Phoenix, AZ, Dr. Tim Jacks wrote a moving appeal to his fellow Americans to get vaccinated against measles because for him the threat is all too real: he is the father of a daughter with leukemia and a 10-month-old son too young to be vaccinated. These are exactly the kinds of people our herd immunity is meant to protect. Ignoring all of basic science and basic human decency, Dr. Jack Wolfson told CNN the following:
"It's not my responsibility to inject my child with chemicals in order for [a child like Maggie] to be supposedly healthy. As far as I'm concerned, it's very likely that her leukemia is from vaccinations in the first place. I'm not going to sacrifice the well-being of my child. My child is pure. It's not my responsibility to be protecting their child." When CNN asked Wolfson if he could live with himself if his unvaccinated child got another child gravely ill, he said, "I could live with myself easily. It's an unfortunate thing that people die, but people die. I'm not going to put my child at risk to save another child."
Wolfson is a "paleo-cardiologist," which must mean his heart is unevolved. To show such cruelty and callous disregard for another life is a violation of the Hippocratic Oath's most basic tenet: "Do no harm." I am calling on Wolfson to relinquish your medical license and seek forgiveness from the Jacks family. Rather than spend more time condemning your remarks and countering your misinformation, I will simply say you are no longer worthy of the title of Doctor. Do us all a favor and leave the profession.
Vaccine Villain: Anti-government, Anti-corporate Guy. This is not a specific person in the news cycle right now, but it is a persona that I have encountered since writing "Anti-Vaxxers, Like Drunk Drivers, Are a Danger to Us All." This is a person who rejects recommendations about vaccines because those recommendations come from government agencies like the CDC and other health departments, and because the vaccines are manufactured by pharmaceutical companies. I actually have some empathy for Anti-government, Anti-corporate Guy because government bodies and corporations do have long, exhaustive records of making mistakes and causing harm.
However, consider the following example. Our major car manufacturers have a profit-motive behind making the safest car possible. To that end, they research seatbelts, airbags, and infant car seats. The US Department of Transportation and numerous state highway patrols have an interest in keeping people safe when they're on the road. To that end, they also research seatbelts, airbags, and infant car seats. Based on all of this data, and based on our collective experiences and knowledge from millions of car accidents, we have policies mandating people to wear their seatbelts and to use age-appropriate car seats for children. And these policies work: there has been a steady decline in traffic fatalities. This proven safety record does not absolve car manufacturers from their problems with recalling malfunctioning vehicles, nor does it absolve highway patrol officers from their misconduct and injustices. However, regardless of the problems we encounter with car manufacturers and law enforcement, those difficulties are not excuses to reject using seatbelts and child car seats.
Similarly, vaccines have a well-proven safety and efficacy record. They should not be rejected because of legitimate grievances against pharmaceutical companies and different government agencies. As I have written before, I am all for genuine skepticism and tough scrutiny for these entities. There is so much that the drug companies and regulatory agencies need to answer for, but to cover all of government and all of business with an overly broad blanket of cynicism is deeply misguided.
Despite the media attention given to the Vaccine Villains, I am glad we have some political leaders who seem to be following Spider-Man's motto: "With great power comes great responsibility." In California, the state legislature will debate a bill by state Senator Richard Pan (who also happens to be a pediatrician) and state Senator Ben Allen (a former president of the Santa Monica school board) which will remove a parent's ability to opt out of mandatory immunizations for their children due to personal beliefs (exemptions will remain for children with health problems where vaccines are contraindicated). Political leaders like these are applying the power of vaccines and public health research to responsibly protect our communities. We need to encourage this approach to policy-making nationwide. Pandering to misinformation and fear from anti-vaxxers for the sake of a few fleeting political points is dangerous and unjust.