This is part one of Frontline’s coverage of the vaccine wars.
Great news: Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s tattered reputation takes another blow in light of his increasingly-sleazy-seeming research that linked MMR vaccines with autism (and was subsequently disproved in every way).
A doctor who touched off a worldwide panic over an alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been barred from practicing medicine over unethical research practices. Britain’s General Medical Council struck Wakefield from the medical register on Monday, a sanction analogous to disbarring a lawyer.
This is after the Lancet, which originally published Dr. Wakefield’s highly questionable research, retracted the study. It was an unusual move from the journal, but one that was necessary in light of all the damage that Wakefield has done to his profession’s ability to look after the health of children and the larger community. It’s important that skeptics keep hammering at this. Every time another anti-vaccine nut gets hit with a public disgracing like this, you get more fence sitters who might wake up to the fact that the fears that are being sown about vaccines are more fantasy than fact, and the diseases that vaccines protect against are quite real.
Of course, the one problem with this is that every time someone gets a public disgracing like this for their conspiracy theory mongering, their adherents double down. We can expect that, too. And that’s because this was never about science and really not much about children’s health, but has taken off because it appeals to certain individualistic and anti-modernist elements in society. Frontline recently did an excellent piece on the vaccine wars, and one thing that really stuck out was how much the reasoning of anti-vaxxers was less about reasoning and more about certain values that I frankly found kind of repulsive.
The first big one was the inability to accept win-win thinking. Parents who didn’t vaccinate repeatedly cited herd immunity as a flaw in vaccinations, and angrily insisted that it wasn’t their job to look after the health of the community. The emotional reasoning couldn’t be more evident—they seem to believe that anything that is good for your neighbor is by definition taking from you, that there is no such thing as a win-win solution. For this, I blame decades of libertarian/conservative political propaganda that’s made even the ostensibly liberal yuppies that inculcate anti-vaccination sentiment start to think that doing right by their children must mean screwing over all other children. (You also get this mentality in the competition for day care slots and tracking children as “gifted” at younger and younger ages.) The reality is that life isn’t all dog eat dog. Sometimes by doing right by others, you do right by yourself. Vaccines are a classic example of this—protecting yourself from disease means doing so for others.
The other attitudes are a little less understandable, and I’m a little less inclined to see the parents as victims of propaganda/our overly competitive society. But bluntly, there’s also a little bit of “my child is a special snowflake” going on with some of the anti-vaxxers interviewed, and god knows that with Jenny McCarthy this has always been a problem. One of the mothers flips shit because they vaccinate babies for Hep B, which she hysterically describes as a “sexually transmitted infection”. Well, if that little girl grows up lucky enough not to catch disease, she’s probably still going to catch a whole lot of hang-ups from a mother who seems aggressively opposed to the idea that the point of being a child is that you grow up, not that you’re some delicate little symbol of innocence for your parents to objectify. The woman claims the nurse just got mad at her; I’ll bet she was trying to stifle herself from asking if anyone could be so stupid as to think a small baby isn’t going to grow up to be a sexually active woman.
Beyond just even the sex thing, there seems to be a connection between being one of those ego-monster parents who uses your child to display your own self-image instead of letting them be another person. Of course, to be fair, that’s a strong phenomenon in our culture, and extends beyond just the parent-child relationship—we all know people whose friends are chosen to project a certain image, or whose choice in romantic partners is more about how they want others to perceive them and less about the other person as a full human being. Ordinary preventive medical care seems a tad mundane and certainly too collectivist if you’re stuck in this mindset.
Then there’s a big old dose of nostalgia, my all-time favorite mental fart. Some parents seemed to almost be pleased at the idea of diseases like the measles, which are charmingly old-fashioned in their eyes, compared to Evil Science-y Shots. But as the program showed, actually no. These diseases aren’t cute rites of passage, and suggesting otherwise seems more than a little sadistic towards children. The show winds up with a story of a little baby who got the whooping cough from an older unvaccinated child, and the distress of the parents and medical staff when dealing with this baby should put a chill on anyone who thinks anti-vaccination hysteria is relatively harmless. Warning: it’s very distressing watching this poor baby cough and desperately try to breathe.