If there’s one thing that I’ve found that’s simultaneously gratifying and somewhat infuriating over the last year or so, it’s that the skeptical movement has finally really noticed that anti-vaccination movement in a big way. Those of us who’ve been on the blogospheric front lines for the last few years have sometimes been frustrated that this issue, at least until recently, got so little attention outside of our dedicated little circle and the much larger circle of anti-vaccine zealots and the quacks who enable and encourage them.
That’s not to say that there weren’t some prominent skeptics who made the anti-vaccine movement one of their main causes. There’s me, of course, but there are also Skeptico, Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch (who was on the front lines against the antivaccine movement long before I discovered it), Anthony Cox, and Steve Novella. Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the skeptical movement ignored the antivaccine movement. However, from my perspective it seemed that skeptics paid far more attention to issues like attacks on evolution by creationists, both the young earth and intelligent design variety, the paranormal, and various other woo than it did to the anti-vaccine movement. Maybe it’s a function of my being a physician, but at times I felt as though only a hardy band of us were saying anything. This is not to denigrate efforts to combat, for example, ID, but if there’s one thing about the anti-vaccine movement that is different from the ID movement it’s that, while the ID movement is a profound threat to science education that endangers science knowledge in future generations, the anti-vaccine movement endangers our children and public health both physically and now.
I suppose it’s possible that I got the impression that the skeptical movement didn’t dwell on the antivaccine movement as much as I thought it should because of the zeal of the converted. The shock that I experienced when I first discovered that there really were people who think that vaccines are incredibly dangerous compared to the diseases they protect against and that vaccines are responsible for the “epidemic” of autism was incredible. Whatever the case, part of the niche I made for myself in the blogosphere was to write about the anti-vaccine movement, something I have been doing regularly for four years now. It all really kicked into high gear when I made my first big splash with a deconstruction of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s fear mongering, pseudoscience-laden screed for Salon.com and Rolling Stone.
Of course, why focus just on the skeptical movement? Physicians and public health officials here in the U.S. were pathetically late to respond to the propaganada pumped out now on a daily basis by Generation Rescue, Age of Autism, Jenny McCarthy, and a number of other anti-vaccine groups and advocates. Indeed, I really think that the CDC and AAP didn’t actually start to see the movement as the threat to public health and to medical science that it is until sometime last year. At least, it seemed that they didn’t wake up from their torpor until late 2008. So perhaps I’m too harsh to be focusing on the skeptical movement; after all, the CDC, AAP, and physicians should have recognized this problem long before “general purpose” skeptics, particularly since we had a model to observe in the U.K. to give us a good idea what we were in for. After all, the U.K. is where Andrew Wakefield’s bad science, both fraudulent and lawyer-funded, had caused MMR vaccination rates to plummet years before the anti-vaccine movement became a major problem in the U.S., leading to the measles making a startling comeback to the point of being declared endemic again a mere 14 years after having been virtually eradicated.
Fortunately, however, over the last year, like the AAP and CDC, the skeptical movement has started to take note of the anti-vaccine movement and respond to it, and I hope that it does a better job. I attribute this increased interest largely to Phil Plait, a.k.a. the Bad Astronomer, who, since taking over leadership of the James Randi Educational Foundation, has made the anti-vaccine movement a major focus of his blogging and JREF’s mission. This year, at The Amazing Meeting 7 (TAM7), he’s putting JREF’s efforts into reversing the low vaccination rates in Nevada:
Nevada has one of the worst vaccination rates in the nation. The reasons are multifactorial. Though there is a significant fraction of children who remain unvaccinated because of the distrust of vaccine safety spread by the current anti-vaccination movement, lack of health insurance, a large transitory population, and poverty (Las Vegas unemployment is now over 10%) also play a large role in its dismal vaccination rate.
Nevada has recognized this problem and has instituted the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, which is federally funded and provides vaccines at no cost to VFC eligible children, and the state health department holds both standing and roaming health clinics to provide vaccinations to children.
Though the vaccines provided through the VFC are free, their administration is not. Due to financial restrictions, the SNHD has had to charge an “administrative charge” to families to cover the overhead of vaccine administration. They charge $16 for the administration of one shot, and $25 for multiple vaccinations. This cost is small, but represents a significant financial barrier to families living below the poverty line, and an excuse for those above it.
It sounds to me as though Nevada needs to change its law and find a way to fund these administrative charges. However, if and until legislators there do that, JREF is going to try to help at TAM7:
What more can be done? We can limit the collateral damage of Jenny McCarthy’s destructive bile. We can help protect the innocent. We can lower the barriers to vaccination so that the only people unvaccinated are either those who cannot be vaccinated due to age or health, or those who for whatever misguided reason choose not to vaccinate. Herd immunity needs to be reinforced or in some cases re-established, and it must be done one child at a time.
That is where our current project comes in to play. The JREF is going to fully subsidize the cost of vaccination to families who go to the SNHD clinics for as long as our donations last. Not only will this remove any financial barriers to vaccination, but it will also serve to heighten the awareness of the services provided by the SNHD.
I’m going to TAM7 and hope to see some of my readers there. It’s the first time I’ve ever gone, and I’m quite jazzed about it. I’m also glad to see JREF undertake this effort, spearheaded by a skeptical pediatrician named Joe Albietz. I’m asking my readers to go to the TAM7 registration page. Scroll to near the bottom, and there are links to donate multiples of either $16 or $25. Please, give till it hurts. It may be a small thing, but if lots of you donate it could go a long way to making a dent in the number of unvaccinated children in Nevada.
If I can’t appeal to your better nature, then here’s another reason to do it: It’ll piss off J.B. Handley and Jenny McCarthy.