Vaccinations and the politics of fear and distrust

How did vaccines, a highly effective medical tool, become controversial?

Vaccine opposition reflects our times. Distrust is endemic, hitting even scientists. Now, besides questioning medical research, debates about vaccination have veered into the troubling politics of xenophobia.

In a series of tweets from the Maine Republican Party’s account, Nick Isgro, the mayor of Waterville and vice chair of the party, said that what “causes certain diseases to return” are immigrants “from countries that haven’t eradicated these diseases” and claimed Portland has this problem.

Not only did Isgro echo nasty, false rhetoric that’s been applied to multiple groups over history and more recently from the White House, but there simply isn’t any evidence that such immigrants and Portland are behind communicable diseases in Maine.

According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “There were 40 pertussis cases reported statewide in February, compared to 16 reported cases in 2018. Six counties had rates of pertussis above the state rate: Hancock, Knox, Lincoln, Waldo, Washington and York.” Portland, of course, is in Cumberland County.

As a study in the Journal of Travel Medicine found, there’s a greater risk of getting measles from Americans coming back from international travel than from migrants to the U.S.

How Isgro’s comments will play out politically is unclear. After learning Isgro was behind these tweets, Maine Senate Republicans repudiated them and called “for swift action and for those responsible to be held accountable.”

However, from the perspective of scientists and medical professionals, the health issues are straightforward.

In this Jan. 30 file photo, a sign posted at The Vancouver Clinic in Vancouver, Washington, warns patients and visitors of a measles outbreak. (AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus, File)

Keeping people alive sometimes requires stopping bleeding, administering innovative medication, dangerous surgery or restarting a heart. It can be expensive and risky. And then there are vaccines.

Vaccines are a major achievement, saving literally millions of lives.

About a hundred years ago one in five infants in the United States didn’t reach their first birthdays and another one in five died before age five, with many perishing from diseases that immunizations now prevent.

Now, Maine’s rates of vaccination are below the national average and the state has the highest rate of pertussis in the country. Given this, not vaccinating kids is a real problem.

In response, Rep. Ryan Tipping and Sen. Linda Sanborn introduced a bill, LD 798, that would ensure that more students are immunized. Under the bill’s language, parents sending their children to public or private school could opt out of immunization if there was a medical reason to do so, but they could no longer claim they had a religious or philosophical reason not to vaccinate.

Some parents who don’t like this proposal point to the very rare cases when vaccines cause problems or to hoaxes such as the thoroughly debunked claim that vaccines are linked to autism.

However, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control report, “The disease-prevention benefits of getting vaccines are much greater than the possible side effects for almost all children. The only exceptions to this are cases in which a child has a serious chronic medical condition like cancer or a disease that weakens the immune system, or has had a severe allergic reaction to a previous vaccine dose.” Under LD 798, those children would receive a medical exemption.

Looking at vaccines in terms of individual decisions overlooks the reality that not vaccinating puts other people at risk.

Low vaccination rates undermine herd immunity, especially hurting people whose immune systems are suppressed. Some are students themselves, like high schooler Matt Hogenauer, who takes medicine for his non-rheumatoid arthritis. Others are out in the community, managing other chronic conditions or going through chemotherapy.

Increasing vaccination rates helps the entire community, blocking illnesses spread by an American who traveled, a migrant, or someone who never lived away from Maine.

We should now reject the politics of fear and distrust, and choose to more fully use vaccines, a tool of medicine that has proven itself many times over.

Correction: An initial version of this column characterized LD 798 as applying only to public schools in Maine. The bill also applies to private schools. 

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.