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The anti-vaxxer threat amid a pandemic

The anti-vaxx movement's false rhetoric has helped erode

The anti-vaxx movement's false rhetoric has helped erode our appreciation of our public health system and our responsibility to uphold herd immunity. Credit: iStock

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The explosive spread of the coronavirus in the United States has pointed to state-of-art health care and public health systems now buckling under the weight of the number of infections, especially in our densest cities.

Much of America is on lockdown, and we boast the most number of coronavirus cases in the world. Yet, even after local and state governments advised residents to socially distance, many continued to congregate and travel, believing themselves to be immune to the virus and failing to see themselves as vectors for its spread. We’re seeing mounting deaths of mostly older individuals and those with underlying conditions but also some young and seemingly healthy people.

Meanwhile, most of us sit in our homes wondering when we will resume our normal lives, and what the new normal will look like. Our greatest hope lies in the development and distribution of a vaccine against COVID-19. But despite the misleading chatter from President Donald Trump, a vaccine is likely many months off, if not more. As a society, many of us don’t understand what goes into developing and distributing a vaccine; we take them for granted. Worse yet, we’ve allowed a virulent anti-vaccine movement to grow and cause harm, especially to those who are immune-compromised.

Many states have threatened the greater good by permitting parents to refuse vaccinations for their children through personal-belief exemptions. This has led to the spread of diseases that were mostly eradicated, including the resurgence of measles and whooping cough. The anti-vaccine movement’s false rhetoric also has helped erode our appreciation of our public health system and our responsibility to uphold herd immunity on behalf of our fellow citizens.

Eula Biss’ seminal 2014 book, “On Immunity: An Inoculation,” examining the emergence of vaccines and the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, notes that when it comes to society’s support of its public health system, “the belief that public health measures are not intended for people like us is widely held by many people ... Public health, we assume, is for people with less — less education, less health habits, less access to quality health care, less time and money.”

As part of a larger trend of bucking science and evidence-based guidelines, anti-vaxxers have popularized horrific practices like “measles parties” and “chicken pox parties” to promote the spread of these diseases, mischaracterizing them as normal and harmless. I increasingly hear people say in casual conversation, “I’m not getting the flu shot; the shot is worse than the flu.” Meanwhile, the flu kills tens of thousands of Americans every year.

Our own president has expressed anti-vaccine sentiments with no scientific bases and appointed avowed anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as head of a commission on vaccine safety. So, it is hardly surprising that upon taking office Trump disassembled the National Security Council’s Global Pandemic Team, which would have spearheaded our national response to this pandemic, and has allowed countless positions to remain vacant in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the key agency overseeing our public health response to infectious disease.

This moment underscores the lifesaving importance of vaccines and the essentialness of a strong public health system as a safeguard. We can start by ensuring that our local and national public health systems have the expert staffing and resources they need, but also by striking down personal belief exemptions in the many states that allow them to help eradicate the anti-vaccine movement, which has harmed so many lives by prioritizing individual freedom over public safety and by promoting false beliefs over verifiable science.

Author Kavita Das, who worked in public health for six years, writes about culture, race and gender, and their intersections.

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