Anti-Vaxxers Are as American as Apple Pie

How the fear of vaccines and the enthusiasm for snake-oil remedies highlights how our social fabric has decayed.

02.05.15 10:55 AM ET

This week two seemingly unrelated stories—one on vaccinations, the other on vitamins—offer a disturbing glimpse into how the American social contract has frayed. People are being exposed to illness or even death for the phony freedom of a few.

The trouble is that those few—once easily dismissed as crackpots of the left and right—now make up between 25 and 35 percent of the American public. That’s the percentage of people who tell pollsters they reject vaccinating their children. The anti-vax activists among them have transmitted their fearful suspicion of government and science into the American mainstream, where millions already swallow hype and bull along with their nutritional supplements.

What’s especially troubling is that this flight from reason—a fusion of mindless hippie paranoia and solipsistic neo-libertarianism—comes in an era of great accomplishment by the public-health establishment these self-styled rebels so resent. The United States eradicated measles in 2000 and has been astonishingly successful in its overall vaccination program.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the last 20 years, 2.5 million Americans have been spared from illness by vaccinations and 730,000 from death.

But now measles, which kills about 150,000 a year worldwide, is once again a threat here, too. January brought 102 new cases across 14 states, most linked to an outbreak in Disneyland.

Our infants are at real risk. Every time misinformed parents refuse to vaccinate their school-age children, they are endangering not only their own kids but that cute little baby in the shopping cart at the supermarket who is under age 1 and thus too young to be immunized.

This is not the “personal choice” so loosely invoked by politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (now running for cover by having himself photographed being vaccinated). It’s an attack on a kind of freedom that conservatives don’t like to talk about—the freedom to be healthy and safe.

The solution isn’t just in education or exhortation. A thousand columns like this will do nothing to shake impervious anti-vaxxers from their heedlessness. It’s in pediatricians banding together and firing any patient who isn’t vaccinated, and in states requiring any student who isn’t vaccinated to be home-schooled.

Public-health experts and legislators can work on fine-tuning those and other solutions. I’m more intrigued by causes. How did we get here? How did we get to a place where a third of the country so distrusts our most brilliant scientists and doctors that we risk retreating into a dark and unsafe past?

To answer the question, it helps to look at the other big public-health story of the week—the one you might not want to read too closely because it makes you feel like a bit of a fool for what you unthinkingly ingest each day.

I’m talking about New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation into herbal supplements. Schneiderman’s probe used sophisticated DNA tests to prove that four of the country’s largest retailers—GNC, Target, Walgreens, and Wal-Mart—have been selling nutritional products across New York that consist of ground rice, powdered garlic, or other fillers. For instance, pills sold as ginkgo biloba, a Chinese herb taken by millions as a memory enhancer, were found to contain little more than powdered radish.

The supplements industry is unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration for the same reason that vaccinations are no longer required for school enrollment in many states: a bipartisan revolt over the last 40 years against authority.

Think about how far we have regressed. In the 19th century, “snake oil” salesmen sold unregulated patent medicine that left thousands sick or dead. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, which banned the “adulteration” of anything we ingest (exactly what is happening to supplements) and led to the establishment of the FDA.

As the health and safety initiatives of the Progressive Era expanded during the New Deal and again in the 1960s, the nation enjoyed decades of science-based public-health policy that made use of major medical breakthroughs to help eradicate disease and extend human lifespan.

Throughout this golden age, corporations fought back. Tobacco companies avoided FDA regulation until 2009 and the makers of dietary supplements have succeeded in dodging it to this day, thanks largely to the efforts of one senator, Orrin Hatch of pill-happy Utah, who has received millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the industry.

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The huge fraud exposed in New York should logically lead to government regulation of nutritional supplements, but it probably won’t. Hatch and his bought-off colleagues will no doubt be backed by a phalanx of online placebo-poppers, convinced that the crushed radish is improving their memories.

A left-right alliance between health nuts and wingnuts will almost certainly save the day for the herbalists. They agree on almost nothing except their distrust of traditional medicine and its handmaidens in government.

Today’s conspiracy theories and fear-mongering are nothing new. Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, explained how members of the John Birch Society who believed that the fluoridation of water (a big contributor to reduced tooth decay) was a communist plot were just part of a long historical tradition.

Middle-of-the-roaders were turned into suspicious citizens by events of the 1960s. “In those days, we assumed that government officials would tell us the truth,” David Slawson, an 83-year-old former investigator for the Warren Commission, told former New York Times reporter Philip Shenon recently in explaining why he had changed his mind about the existence of a conspiracy to kill JFK. Nowadays, Slawson noted, “no one makes that assumption anymore.”

Slawson points the finger at Robert F. Kennedy, whom he says misled the Warren Commission into thinking that Fidel Castro’s Cuba had nothing to do with backing Lee Harvey Oswald, his brother’s assassin. Half a century later, one of the leading proponents of the discredited theory that vaccinations can cause autism is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., expressing a distrust in government sown in part during his family’s time in power.

After Vietnam, Watergate, and the revelations of CIA abuses, liberals increasingly joined conservatives in an often-legitimate concern about government lies and secrecy. Disclosures of hideous mid-century syphilis experiments conducted by the Public Health Service on rural blacks at the Tuskegee Institute seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of blacks, some of whom came to believe in outlandish theories about the government injecting them with the AIDS virus.

Meanwhile, New Age alternative medicine and nutrition has turned into a multibillion-dollar business dependent on customers so addled by fear and distrust that they frequently favor something they read somewhere (anywhere) online over the advice of their doctors.

Skepticism of the medical-industrial complex is obviously warranted. But when that skepticism hardens into resistance to overwhelming scientific consensus (as it also has in the climate-change debate), then it’s time for a new movement dedicated to the separation of politics and science.

So to those who would risk the safety of children to advance their narrow ideology, let’s be clear: It’s fine to side with the individual against the state in economic matters or cases of free expression. But not when public health is at stake. Vaccination and regulation aren’t Big Brother at work; they are threads of our national fabric, stitching a blanket we may all need to lie beneath one day.