The Anti-Vaxxers Are Gaining Traction Again
“We do not accept immunized children” is the official motto of Los Feliz Daycare, a satirical Twitter account chronicling a fictional child care center attended by the toddlers of pretentiously clueless Los Angeles hipsters.
Los Feliz Daycare is often quite funny (it recently held vigil for the imaginary friends of its charges who were lost in the Bowling Green Massacre). But its refusal to accept immunized children, while once comic, is no longer a laughing matter.
There has been a persistent anti-vaccination movement in the U.S. in recent years, predicated on the notion that preservatives in some vaccines have been linked to cases of autism. Despite abundant scientific research debunking such claims, the anti-vaccine movement has never quite gone away. And while it has been largely confined to tonier areas of California such as Marin County and the wealthier neighborhoods of Los Angeles, it is now on the brink of becoming much larger. The result could be disastrous consequences in California and elsewhere.
That’s primarily because the often fact-free pronouncements of President Donald Trump have spread to the efficacy of vaccinations. Trump has not only publicly questioned the need for vaccines, he has even gone so far as to meet with Robert Kennedy, Jr., the putative leader of the anti-vaccination movement, to discuss forming a commission that would probe vaccine safety.
Given Trump’s ascendancy into the most powerful position in the free world and his skill at spreading ideas that have little to do with facts or merits, it is entirely possible that not only that panel be convened, but that the anti-vaccination movement will gain traction to the point that there will be a genuine public health epidemic in the United States. Signs of that are already emerging among constituencies well beyond affluent liberals.
Despite California recently making it unlawful to not have children vaccinated, there was an outbreak of at least 20 measles cases in L.A.’s Orthodox Jewish community last month. Despite their social conservatism, some Orthodox Jewish sects can be just as loopy on public health matters as Eastside hipster artists. Salt Lake City, another socially conservative enclave, just reported its first case of measles since 2011.
And Peter J. Hotez, M.D., a pediatrician at Baylor College of Medicine, and director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, worried aloud this week in the opinion pages of the New York Times about a potential measles epidemic in Texas. He noted that the Lone Star State has issued 45,000 vaccination exemptions to children based on non-medical reasons, and as many as a third of children in private schools are unvaccinated.
“Today, parents in Texas have to live in fear that something as simple as a trip to the mall or the library could expose their babies to measles and that a broader outbreak could occur,” he wrote.
Which brings me to Kaiser Permanente. The Oakland-based organization underwrites a significant amount of research involving de-identified medical records of its health plan members. Its Southern California research and evaluation division published a study earlier this month showing a distinct link between maternal complications such as preeclampsia and infant oxygen deprivation during birth with a significantly higher risk of developing autism. The study was anything but selective: Kaiser reviewed the medical records of nearly 600,000 children born in its hospitals over 18 years to reach its conclusions.
Given the recent amping up of the anti-vaccine movement, it may be the most significant medical study to be released in 2017 -- or beyond. Yet it has received little coverage outside of this publication and a few scientific journals.
The Kaiser research is going to have to be amplified in order to again debunk the already debunked notion that vaccinations are the cause of autism. If it is not, it is entirely possible to envision Trump and his staff explain away a public health epidemic as fake news, or even worse, an act of terrorism that would require a forceful but entirely misguided response.
Both scenarios are laughable, but neither are funny at all.
Ron Shinkman is the Editor of Payers & Providers.