When the Black Death hit Europe in the 1340s, people searched for answers. The most common explanation for the plague, according to historians, involved “bad air” resulting from the conjunction of three planets in 1345.
People usually looked to the heavens for explanations in the Middle Ages. It would be 665 years before science finally determined the plague’s true cause: Yersinia pestis, a disease spread by fleas. In the meantime, some people blamed Jews, foreigners, lepers and the Romani people (in addition to divine wrath) for the pestilence. Massacres followed.
Conspiracy theories seduce us because they project the illusion of clarity onto uncertainty. They allow us to transform fear into loathing, spurring us to fight against that which we perceive as responsible for misfortune. Many things have changed between the Middle Ages and the Silicon Age, but not this: Humans are wired to believe stories – even false ones – because they give order to chaos.
Too bad we don’t have a vaccine to eradicate misinformation. If we did, we could avoid today’s toxic debate over how much authority the public must exercise to force parents to immunize their children. All available science tells us that vaccines save lives and serve the common good by providing “community immunity” from horrible diseases. Yet myths and conspiracies about vaccines – spread like a plague through social media – persist.
At issue is the sudden and inexplicable rise in autism over the past few decades. Scientists have yet to figure out exactly what’s causing it, and it may be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Yet two decades ago, a now-debunked paper falsely put the blame on vaccines. The paper’s author was eventually stripped of the right to practice medicine. But the damage was done and the anti-vaccination movement was born. It wrongly blames vaccines for a range of modern ills.
The debate today is not about whether vaccines are safe and effective. They are, according to scientific consensus. Today’s debate concerns how far the state should go to protect public health from the threat posed by people who, believing passionately in falsehoods, put everyone at risk by refusing to vaccinate their children.
Gov. Gavin Newsom stepped into the debate last week when he expressed concerns about Senate Bill 276, which would crack down on doctors who allow parents to evade the state’s immunization laws by providing unjustified medical exemptions. The bill would require the California Department of Public Health to approve all vaccination exemptions granted by doctors. Supporters of the bill argue that it’s necessary because the number of medical exemptions has more than quadrupled since the state banned exemptions based on “personal belief” in 2015, according to CDPH.
After medical exemptions became the only way to evade vaccination requirements, “unscrupulous” doctors went into the business of providing them, according to SB 276 author Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. Pan, a doctor, believes a crackdown is the only cure, especially given recent outbreaks of measles around the state.
Newsom seems uncertain.
“I’m a parent. I don’t want someone that the governor of California appointed to make a decision for my family,” said the governor last week, according to a Sacramento Bee story by Hannah Wiley and Sophia Bollag.
The comments drew praise from anti-vaccine activists and scorn from just about everyone else. The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board accused the governor of having “dangerously loose lips.” The San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board called Newsom’s comments a “misbegotten triangulation.”
It’s hard to see how Newsom can evade his duty to sign SB 276. Some 73 percent of Californians strongly support the state’s mandatory vaccine law, according to a new poll from the Public Policy Institute of California. In political terms, acting in favor of an intense but misinformed minority is a loser. Newsom would immediately become “Gov. Measles.” It would haunt the rest of his political career.
Of course, the governor has power to shape and affect legislation. If he has legitimate concerns about SB 276, he should explain them publicly and work with the bill’s author to address them.
At its core, the anti-vaccination movement is not about vaccines. It’s an anti-government conspiracy theory. In order to believe the anti-vaccination line, you have to believe the government is working to cover up a big, harmful secret. It’s paranoid thinking, and that paranoia only increases when you perceive government as interfering with your child’s health.
Let’s be clear: The anti-vaccination crowd is 100 percent wrong. That’s science. Yet the question over how much power the public should exercise against the faith and belief of misguided individuals is a sticky one. In the vaccine debate, however, public health should clearly take precedence over misguided and unsupported beliefs. After all, people who don’t want to vaccinate their children can homeschool them.
Newsom must work with Pan to address any concerns he might have about SB 276. The bill must enforce the mandatory vaccination law while also ensuring that the statistically small percentage of children who need medical exemptions can get them.
The governor must also clear up any false perceptions he created when he expressed doubt about the bill. His comments caused anti-vaccination activists to celebrate, depicting his comments as a legitimization of their debunked cause. This is dangerous because it can contribute to the unwarranted fear of vaccines. The vaccine issue is so volatile that Russian trolls and bots are actively using it on social media to sow more discord in American society, according to a recent report from George Washington University.
Clarity on what the governor actually meant is needed to help inoculate against, rather than spread, anti-vaccination propaganda.
For more information on vaccine safety, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/index.html