Many readers are already sounding off on the subject. One writes:
I read your post and I can provide an example of how anti-vaccination beliefs can go awry.
Earlier this month, Blue Mountain School, a private school in Floyd, Virginia, had an outbreak of pertussis, or whopping cough. Twenty-three of a total of forty-five students became infected, as well as seven other adults. That's 51% of the student population. The school had to close a number of days.
Floyd County is known for its hippie-all-natural-granola-semi-commune population. I, myself, infer that these folks tend to lean towards leftist, semi-libertarian, politics. When the story broke out on April 5, I emailed my friend the story. Her response back to me more or less summarized the situation: "It is all those damn hippies in Floyd who won't vaccinate their kids."
The director of the New River Health District stated that the outbreak was attributed to "lax vaccinations." "The outbreak was caused by not properly vaccinating people against the disease, O'Dell said, noting that a subset of the population does not follow vaccination recommendations."
I am a member of a parenting website, and it's actually disturbing the number of people who deny that vaccines prevent serious disease. Vaccines are an underappreciated science. You don't get to physically "see" the effects of vaccination (but, strangely, it doesn't seem to sway the vaccine denialists when you see the effects of not vaccinating), and many of the vaccine denialists that I've spoken with seem to think that vaccinations risks outweigh the benefits because the diseases they prevent have largely been eradicated.
The biggest scientific misunderstanding by denialists is the concept of "herd immunity". Vaccines aren't meant to simply help the individual, it's meant to stop the disease from spreading to those who can't yet (or ever) receive the vaccine. I'm allergic to the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, and therefore, I am not immune to whooping cough. I rely on others to be vaccinated.
One of the most prominent proponents of vaccination conspiracy theories is probably Don Imus. (I haven't followed him since he got booted from MSNBC, so I don't know if he's still pushing the theory that vaccines cause autism.) Imus is a pretty good representative of American populism, niether on the political left nor right in the conventional sense of those terms.
Frum is right, moreover, that the "organic," whole foods, New Agey mindset transcends political ideology. While we tend to associate it more closely with the left, I do recall many years ago visiting my step brother in Arizona. He had some friends over to his place and at one point one of them said something about quartz having good harmonic properties. I replied that, indeed, it does which is why the crystal is used in digital watches. When an electric current is applied to quartz it vibrates at a constant frequency which can be used for timing purposes. At which point the guest interjected, "It's why I keep a quartz crystal next to my gun." The comment threw me off balance and I replied somewhat clumsily "Oh, you mean those sorts of harmonic properties …"
I find this topic fascinating, so I've been tracking media coverage of vaccines and autism at AutismNewsBeat.com for about three years. Mooney is essentially right – vaccine denialism is more comfortable on the left, where it meshes with new age beliefs and antipathy to corporate America, in this case "Big Pharma". If I had to guess, I'd say two-thirds of the hard core anti-vaccine activists are left of center, but only because political beliefs correlate with education, and vaccine deniers tend to have more years of schooling and have higher incomes than people who trust their pediatricians. It has more to do with how parents see themselves than with children's health.
That said, the last great US smallpox outbreak (1898-1902) was hardest to stamp out in the south, where vaccination was stubbornly opposed by God-fearin' country folk who saw public health initiatives as a violation of states rights. That anti-government strain infects today's anti-vaccine movement, where antipathy to the CDC, NIH, FDA, and of course Congress creates more suspicion that Big Guvmint is in cahoots with Big Pharm to make us all sick.
Right-wing fever dreams about the United Nations also morph into anti-vaccine delusions. There is a widely held belief that the Gates Foundation, the Rockefellers, and the World Health Organization foist vaccines upon the Third World as part of a conspiracy to sterilize poor women, in order to depopulate the world. A Springfield, IL radiologist named David Ayoub is at the center of this nonsense. Here is a Radio Liberty video, complete with patriotic music intro, where Ayoub explains the "science" of how vaccines prevent women from conceiving. Oddly enough, Islamists in Africa spread versions of the same story to prevent vaccination for polio, mealses, rotavirus and other killers.
On that note, according to a new report, "HPV, the same STD that causes genital warts and cervical cancer in women, is now the top cause of oral cancer in men, responsible for more cases than either smoking or drinking."