Given recent measles outbreaks and the ravenous news cycle, it was inevitable that public attention would shift to politicians’ position on vaccination. Some commenters are reacting by politicizing the vaccine debate, painting conservatives or the tea party (or, in response to those messages, liberals) as anti-vaccine. Please don’t let this message take hold. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it’s counterproductive.
The president set off a small chain reaction by advising parents to vaccinate, but Governor Chris Christie’s comments have drawn the most attention. His statement was almost meaningless; he told reporters that (of course) he vaccinated his own children, and “that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” Vaccination is not strictly mandatory in any state, and most states permit exemptions for the few parents who have ideological objections to modern medicine, so as a matter of simple fact the government has already decided and given parents that choice. (He went on with a few more comments, but other than to say that obviously we disagree with them, there’s not much point in dissecting them here.)
Christie is a politician who wants to avoid unnecessary controversy. After the first negative reports of his comments emerged, he distanced himself from anti-vaxers by firmly stating, “there is no question kids should be vaccinated.” But it was too late. The public picked up on his initial remarks and fed him straight into the gnashing teeth of the news cycle. And once the meal started, other prominent politicians with an eye on 2016 staked out seats at the table. Rand Paul seemed to give credence to some anti-vax myths, although he, too, backed down a bit and clarified that vaccines are “a good thing.” His fellow conservative (and fellow physician) Ben Carson pushed back on those statements, backing vaccination and even comparing anti-vaxers to secondhand smokers. Hillary Clinton, the three conservatives’ bête noir, came out with her own strong, respectable and simple message: “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids.”
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 3, 2015
Notice something about these statements? Even the most ant-vax statement isn’t all that opposed to vaccination, compared to what you read online. That’s no surprise. The overwhelming majority of parents vaccinate their kids, and politicians who offend overwhelming majorities retire early. But you’re going to read a lot of headlines and tweets about how Rand Paul and Chris Christie are anti-vaxers because they’re pandering to the voters; you may even see people promoting the meme that Republicans (or conservatives or Tea Partiers) are anti-vax now. Don’t buy it.
First, it’s not true. The majority of Americans, the majority of voters, the majority of conservatives, and the majority of liberals reject the anti-vaccine movement and its scary urban legends. Specific examples like Ben Carson and Hillary Clinton are easy to find. But we know a lot about how people see vaccines generally. Researchers have concluded that “political outlooks” don’t make a real difference in whether people see vaccines as safe and effective. It’s not just whether you call yourself a Republican or a Democrat, either; whether or not you believe in global warming (or evolution) also doesn’t make much of a difference when it comes to understanding that vaccines are safe and effective. The fact is that people overwhelmingly support vaccination, no matter what their politics, income, or education. And that’s no surprise. You can’t beat the hell out of polio, smallpox, diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, and tetanus without making friends.
But there’s another reason not to believe or spread the idea that any one political party or persuasion is anti-vaccine. It’s a dangerous notion that creates an ideological split where there wasn’t one before. Ironically I was writing about this just around the time Christie was making his comments. As I said then, and as Chris Mooney has since explained, the problem is recruitment. Right now, most people support vaccination and reject anti-vaccine talking points. (I know that can seem implausible, given how visible those hoary anti-science stories are online. But vaccination rates don’t lie—the vast majority of parents reject anti-vax scaremongering.) If we start drawing party lines on top of the vaccine debate, people will start to use their party affiliation to define their position on vaccines. They won’t realize they’re doing it. They’ll honestly think they’re making decisions about vaccines based on the facts. But they’ll be judging those facts based on the community they belong to, the way we all do. So we can’t let those communities be defined as anti-vax communities!
There’s some interesting research on this question. This is a little oversimplified, but basically researchers tested people to determine how concerned they were about risks from things like nuclear power, gun ownership, global warming, and vaccines. They could see how people clumped together or spread apart. Just like you’d expect, climate change and gun possession were divisive, with some people seeing them as very risky and others not so concerned. Vaccines weren’t like that—across the board, people were relatively unconcerned about the risk of vaccination.
Until the researchers showed people a fake editorial politicizing the vaccine debate. The article complained about “Michele Bachmann’s famously idiotic claim, made in a Republican Party presidential debate,” and compared comparing vaccine deniers to climate change deniers and creationists (much more politically-aligned debates). People who were exposed to this article became polarized. Those who were slightly more “anti-vaccine” lost confidence in vaccination and started to overestimate the risk of vaccines compared to the control group. Remember that the variable here is exposure to an article criticizing anti-vaxers. The result was to make more anti-vaxers.
The vaccine debate is mostly about parents who are considering the issue for the first time, and/or aren’t completely persuaded one way or the other. (The large majority of people who are sold on vaccines don’t need the debate; the small number of committed anti-vaxers aren’t likely to be persuaded.) Those people will pick sides if you give them enough reason to. Attacking them for being hesitant will do it, but so will attacking people they respect and admire. Also, defining a politician or party as “anti-vax” just signals to people who identify with that person or group that it’s OK to be anti-vax. So for someone who hasn’t been exposed to the debate, letting it get politicized will both make it easier to pick sides and encourage them to do so. We want them deciding based on sound medical advice, not political affiliation—so don’t politicize the debate.
Obviously this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t criticize politicians for taking an uninformed or harmful position. Please, by all means, criticize away. And use positive pressure too. Thank your representatives for taking a good position, whether you voted for them or not. If you’re in Kentucky, send Rand Paul an email or tweet thanking him for acknowledging the good that vaccines do; just don’t forget to also educate him on the truth about anti-vaccine talking points. The carrot and the stick are both important, and they should be coming from both sides of the aisle. Let politicians know that their constituents and their constituents’ friends care about good medical policy.
But don’t let this discussion get bogged down in party or identity politics. It’s inaccurate and counterproductive.