Where Conservative Skepticism Falls Short
Conservatives much more than most others stick to their principles —individual liberty, personal responsibility, and freedom of the press — while also maintaining a healthy skepticism of government pronouncements. That combination has in the past saved the U.S. from grief, such as in the 1980s, when President Reagan rolled back the statist tide, and in recent years, when the House of Representatives prevented President Obama from implementing his statist and economically ruinous global warming agenda.
But when it comes to one issue in particular — government mass vaccination programs — many conservatives forget their principles and accept as dogma studies from government bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This deference to government-promoted science is especially perplexing because of the parallel to global warming, another controversial area of government-promoted science, where conservatives have challenged studies from governments and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Many conservatives have had a blind spot when it comes to vaccination, buying the government line. In fact, the list of scientists who have been skeptical of the merits of various mass vaccination programs reads like a Who’s Who; it includes, for example, the former head of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. and the former chief scientific officer for the U.K., whose job involved assessing the safety of vaccines.
A recent example of a failure to question government-promoted vaccine policy occurred this week in an American Thinker article by Sierra Rayne. Taking issue with my Financial Post column last week on the failure of the measles vaccine, Rayne claimed that “[t]he measles vaccination program has an undeniable track record of success” over the past 50 years.
This is a CDC talking point. In fact, the first two measles vaccines were taken off the market in 1968 and 1975 because of numerous untoward results, including deaths, as were successors that proved unsafe. In the 1980s, a measles vaccine became part of the MMR combination shot (measles, mumps, rubella), only to be withdrawn in 1992 by the manufacturer after reports from Canada, the U.S., Sweden, and Japan of febrile convulsions, meningitis, deafness, and deaths.
Safety aside, measles vaccines repeatedly failed worldwide in the 1980s and 1990s. A 2004 report authored by Canadian government officials and academics stated that “despite virtually 100% documented one-dose coverage in some regions, large outbreaks of measles involving thousands of cases persisted[.] … Clearly, because of primary vaccine failure, Canada’s one-dose program was insufficient.” Adding a second dose for children also failed, as seen in the widespread outbreaks again occurring with the second-generation MMR vaccine. The Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group, one of the world’s largest and most respected, today deems the measles vaccine a failure that needs to be replaced.
If this is an “undeniable track record of success,” what is the standard for failure?
Rayne also disputes the vast evidence that measles in the pre-vaccine era of the 1960s was considered a benign disease in healthy children and also beneficial in that, after experiencing it, they obtained lifetime immunity. Rayne cites a 2004 study that itself indicates that childhood measles in the pre-vaccine era was welcomed, stating, "Exposure was often actively sought for children in early school years because of the greater severity of measles in adults."
In 1900, when most Americans weren’t affluent and medicine wasn’t advanced, the death rate from measles was 13.3 per 100,000 people, according to Vital Statistics of the United States. As affluence and health care improved, the death rate steadily dropped – to 5.5 by 1934, to 0.3 by 1950, to 0.2 by 1963 (when the measles vaccine first began to be introduced), and to 0.0 by 1967 (while the vaccine was still being introduced). The measles vaccine wouldn’t be in widespread use until the 1970s; successive vaccination programs would repeatedly miss their mark, and the U.S. wouldn’t achieve measles elimination until the turn of the century.
The CDC credits the vaccine with the elimination of measles deaths, but measles deaths ended a decade before the vaccine was in widespread use across the U.S., and deaths had all but ended prior to the first child receiving a shot. While the vaccine can perhaps take modest credit for accelerating the decline in the mid-1960s, it is a stretch to claim that eradication would not have occurred without the vaccine, particularly since the 20th century also saw the die-off of diseases like scarlet fever, for which no vaccine was ever developed.
Now measles outbreaks are coming back, as the Mayo Clinic accurately predicted they would two years ago. To make matters worse, today’s measles vaccines puts some populations — such as infants and adults — at greater risk than in the pre-vaccine era. Infants are worse off because vaccinated mothers have few antibodies to pass on to their newborns, leaving them vulnerable; adults are worse off because, as health experts warned prior to the vaccine’s introduction, vaccinating children would lead people to become infected as adults, when the vaccine wears off and when measles is dangerous.
We need vaccines that work. In the case of measles, we don’t yet have one. It does not serve society to ignore the science; to prevent people from exercising their personal liberties in opting out of vaccines they view as problematic; or to try, as many in the mainstream media now do, to censor dissenting views, much as the mainstream media also does with global warming.
Lawrence Solomon is a columnist with the Financial Post, the author of The Deniers, and the research director of the Consumer Policy Institute. LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com