Death by Individualism

CHILDHOOD VACCINATIONS have been a rite of passage for decades now. But in recent years, growing numbers of parents have refused to go along. A movement that began in the 1980s over adverse reactions to the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) and mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) shots started to become a tidal wave in 1998. That’s when a British researcher, Andrew Wakefield, published a study allegedly linking childhood vaccinations to autism.

A decade later, an anti-vaccination trend had spread into a broad swath of educated, upper- middle-class Americans inclined toward “alternative” lifestyles. It has been especially strong in the Pacific Northwest. In one county in Washington state, according to the February 2012 New England Journal of Medicine, 72 percent of kindergarteners and a whopping 89 percent of sixth graders were not fully vaccinated. Under pressure from this new constituency, many jurisdictions made it easier to get vaccine exemptions, adding to the existing “religious” exemption a new one for “philosophy” or “personal beliefs.”

Then, in 2011, the Wakefield autism study that had sparked the anti-vaccination movement was completely discredited. The British medical journal The Lancet, which had published Wakefield’s article on his findings, officially retracted it. That should have been that. But it wasn’t. In the last year public health advocates have learned the hard way that once something is on the internet it never goes away and, as one scientist told PBS’ Frontline, “People were much more likely to believe something they had seen on YouTube than the Centers for Disease Control.”

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