Vaccine ignorance proving deadly and contagious

  • By Laurie Garrett and Maxine Builder Los Angeles Times
  • Friday, October 31, 2014 3:32pm
  • OpinionCommentary

In the absence of credible, strong political leadership, paranoia about disease can go viral. We’ve seen this happen around the world with a range of illnesses, from swine flu to SARS to Ebola.

And even after threats are addressed, a new form of conspiratorial thinking often emerges, this time focused not on the microbes but on the tools used to keep the germs at bay — especially vaccines.

Since 2008, the Council on Foreign Relations has been collecting data and publishing weekly updates on an interactive map of vaccine-preventable diseases, and the map is now robust, dense with six years of data. One terrible truth stands out: Misinformation and rumors from just one persuasive voice, delivered effectively, can derail entire immunization campaigns and persuade millions of parents to shun vaccinations for their children.

In 2007, Maulana Fazlullah, who currently heads the Pakistani Taliban, went on Pakistani radio and denounced vaccinations as a conspiracy of Western nations to render Muslims infertile. A few years before that, a handful of political and religious leaders in Nigeria advocated the boycotting of polio vaccinations, claiming the products were contaminated with sterilization agents, HIV or cancer. In both cases, the misinformation resonated with parents.

In Nigeria, mothers refused immunization for their babies and the number of polio cases there doubled in just a year, going from 355 in 2003 to 782 in 2004. It has taken years to recover the lost ground in West Africa, with Nigeria finally reporting only six cases this year.

In Pakistan, the so-called Radio Mullah’s exhortations also found an audience, and he was given an assist in 2011 with the release of the American movie “Zero Dark Thirty,” which falsely connected the CIA to an oral polio vaccination ruse that was part of an attempt to catch Osama bin Laden.

In reality, the CIA used a false hepatitis B vaccination scheme in hopes of injecting children inside the compound in which it was believed that bin Laden was hiding, and then testing the syringes for evidence of his genes. The fake vaccine effort failed when the immunizer was denied access to the bin Laden children. But the movie’s incorrect linking of it to polio immunization heightened existing mistrust in Pakistan and provided the Taliban with “evidence” that its anti-immunization campaign had merit.

Today, vaccinators and health care workers providing lifesaving interventions are targeted for bombings and assassinations, and children in Pakistan are suffering. Our interactive map clearly demonstrates the correlation between an increase in Taliban propaganda and assaults on health workers and the resurgence of polio. Worse, recent outbreaks of polio and other vaccine-preventable diseases in the Middle East have been linked to Pakistani-trained combatants who have carried pathogens to Syria and Iraq, along with their anti-immunization ideology.

And anti-vaccine sentiments aren’t limited to the developing world. The effects of Andrew Wakefield’s now thoroughly debunked 1998 Lancet study claiming links between vaccinations and autism are still being felt in the Western world, as can be seen in our interactive map. Outbreaks of pertussis in wealthy California communities, of mumps in Ohio college towns and of measles throughout the United Kingdom demonstrate the broad impact of the anti-vaccination movement.

In light of the paranoia evoked by Ebola, political and public health leaders must appreciate that not a single voice dispensing misinformation should go unchallenged. The general public has proved its inability to weigh facts accurately and reach a rational conclusion when fear clouds its judgment. Remarkably, in the case of the purported associations between autism and vaccines, the concept has gone viral in some of America’s most highly educated and wealthy communities, as has unscientific advice about delaying certain immunizations to avoid “vaccine overload.”

Too many political leaders around the world have either fanned the flames of fear or have shrugged off responsibility for dispelling them, assuming that countering conspiracies and false worries is a job for doctors and public health officers.

In Islamabad, Abuja and Sacramento alike, political leaders need to confront false fears. Every baby who has died of pertussis in California, been paralyzed by polio in Pakistan or suffered from measles in the United Kingdom represents a tragedy that might have been prevented.

Laurie Garrett is senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. Maxine Builder is a research associate for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

Map of outbreaks

Talk to us

More in Opinion

Ferries pass on a crossing between Mukilteo and Whidbey Island. (Andy Bronson / Herald file)
Editorial: Up to graduates to take us where we want to go

A lack of workers has limited Amtrak and the state ferry system. Graduates need to train for those jobs.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Friday, May 20

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Schwab: Deadly mix of denial, racist fear-mongering and guns

Ten dead in Buffalo and the right jumps to defend easy access to guns and a racist appeal to voters.

The COVID-19 ward at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett in May 2020. (Andy Bronson / Herald file) 20200519
Editorial: Even after 1 million deaths, covid fight isn’t over

Most of us have put away masks, but case counts are rising again and vigilance is still paramount.

Members of PRISM close out a dance off Friday afternoon at the Stanwood-Camano YMCA in Stanwood, Washington on March 3, 2022. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Editorial: Marysville board must keep focus on students’ needs

Discussion of LGBTQ clubs must tune out the culture war noise and focus on students and families.

A tiny homes program that opened in early July began with each unit claimed and a wait list of 60. Here Patrick Diller, head of community partnerships for Pallet, discusses the Pallet Shelter Pilot Project on June 29, 2021 in Everett. (Katie Hayes / Herald file)
Editorial: Edmonds ‘camping’ ban won’t solve homelessness

The city first must be able to offer shelter opportunities before forcing people off the streets.

RGB version
Editorial cartoons for Thursday, May 19

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

‘My body, my choice,’ doesn’t work with disease

I took a second thinking over a recent letter to the editor… Continue reading

Why a conservative would support Roe v. Wade

I was surprised when my mom, a pretty conservative Lutheran, told me… Continue reading

Most Read