Why Is Measles Back? – The Atlantic
Burton was a harbinger. After a Republican presidential debate in 2011, one of the candidates, Michele Bachmann, claimed that the HPV vaccine, which protects against cervical cancer, causes mental retardation. While running for president in 2015, Senator Rand Paul—a physician—argued against mandatory vaccinations by asserting that there are “many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” And from 2012 to 2014, while Donald Trump was claiming that President Barack Obama hadn’t been born in the United States, he also tweeted more than 30 times about the supposed dangers of vaccines.
Yet it’s not only conservatives who translate their suspicion of government into suspicion of vaccines. Many liberals distrust the large drug companies that both produce vaccines and help fund the Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to regulate them. The former Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has suggested that “widespread distrust” of what she describes as the medical-industrial complex is understandable because “regulatory agencies are routinely packed with corporate lobbyists and CEOs.” The environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. claims that thimerosal, a preservative formerly used in some vaccines, harms children. Bright-blue counties in Northern California, Washington State, and Oregon have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
Although polls suggest that conservatives are slightly less accepting of vaccines than liberals are, a 2014 study found that distrust of government was correlated with distrust of vaccines among both Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, the best predictor of someone’s view of vaccines is not their political ideology, but their trust in government and their openness to conspiracy theories.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that a plunge in the percentage of Americans who trust Washington to do the right thing most or all of the time—which hovered around 40 percent at the turn of the century and since the 2008 financial crisis has regularly dipped below 20 percent—has coincided with a decline in vaccination rates. In 2001, 0.3 percent of American toddlers had received no vaccinations. By 2017, that figure had jumped more than fourfold. Studies also show a marked uptick in families requesting philosophical exemptions from vaccines, which are permitted in 16 states.
This surge reflects the ease with which conspiracy theories can spread, and not only via social media. Anti-vaccination activists have enjoyed particular success in communities whose cultural isolation makes them easy prey for misinformation. In 2010 and 2011, Wakefield—who now lives in the U.S.—reportedly visited the Somali community in Minnesota three times, and his supporters distributed pamphlets at community events. As of 2014, the local childhood MMR vaccination rate—which had been 92 percent in 2004—had fallen to 42 percent. By 2017, children of Somali descent accounted for a majority of America’s measles cases.