Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Opinion

Another voice: Good, bad and fake news on vaccines

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Childhood deaths have been falling worldwide since 1990. In their foundation's annual letter last week, Bill and Melinda Gates estimated that science had saved 122 million children in the last quarter-century.

That's a population larger than three Californias. What saved them? Vaccines, mostly.

The percentage of children receiving basic immunization is now at a historic high, internationally speaking. It's "incredible progress," the Gates Foundation report said, a triumph of foreign aid, charitable giving and bootstrap determination on the part of developing nations. By any measure, it's something to celebrate.

So why on earth, amid that good news, would other famous Americans want to undermine childhood immunization? In Washington, D.C., Robert Kennedy Jr. and Robert De Niro spoke on a panel stoking conspiracy theories about the safety of vaccines.

Their stance was based on widely discredited research that purports to link vaccines and autism. There is no such link, and claims to the contrary are not only fake science, but irresponsible and pernicious.

Though vaccines have eradicated many lethal childhood diseases, those diseases can come roaring back if we don't maintain an immunization rate of about 90 percent or higher. And anti-vaxxers — both the hard-core kind and the easily led worriers who simply delay or resist vaccinations — have managed in some communities to lower herd immunity to dangerous levels. That's how the Disneyland measles outbreak happened, and why vaccine laws were tightened in California.

But most states still allow exemptions for religious and philosophical reasons. And in recent years, vaccination has become almost as politicized as climate science. In Texas, for example, anti-vax political action committees are trying to prevent that state's vaccine laws from being tightened, the better to resist alleged government intrusion. As a result, public health experts fear the next major measles outbreak will be in the Lone Star State.

De Niro, the famed actor, has a child with autism. Kennedy, of the political dynasty, has said that President Donald Trump wants him to chair a national commission on vaccines. Trump said they were just tossing around ideas, but during the 2016 campaign, the president publicly questioned vaccine safety. It is appalling that such willed ignorance should be threatening Americans just as the rest of the planet is making so much progress. First World problems, indeed.

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