When defending vaccines gets ugly
In early May, he took to Twitter to lament a report from the Texas health department showing a 14% increase in the number of parents seeking vaccine exemptions in the state.
In early May, he took to Twitter to lament a report from the Texas health department showing a 14% increase in the number of parents seeking vaccine exemptions in the state. In response, state Rep. Jonathan Stickland accused Hotez of being in the drug industry’s pocket and referred to his science as self-serving “sorcery.”
“It’s one thing to have emotional parents or angry activists coming after you,” Hotez says. “It’s really quite another to get it from elected officials.”
Attacks on scientists who defend vaccines are nothing new. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, received so many credible death threats resulting from his pro-vaccine advocacy that the FBI assigned him a bodyguard.
But the public health stakes are higher today. The percentage of unvaccinated children has quadrupled since 2001, vaccine-preventable diseases like measles are creeping back as a result, and mistrust in science — the fuel powering this crisis — has migrated from the fringes to the center of American life. The denigration of individual scientists is a chilling aspect of that mistrust; experts say it skews public discourse by scaring vaccine proponents into silence.
So far, the assaults on Hotez’s work and character have been more off base than threatening. The diseases he studies afflict the poorest of the poor; they spread in places where bare feet routinely mingle with open sewage and where people have only contaminated water to drink and bathe in. His work has produced results — in the past decade or so, he has managed to nudge vaccines for several such diseases, including hookworm, into Phase 2 clinical trials. But this is not exactly cash-cow science.
“I haven’t even paid off my mortgage,” Hotez says. “They keep saying that I’m making all this money off my work, and my wife keeps saying, ‘If only!’”
The undermining of one of humanity’s greatest public health triumphs has many causes — not just mistrust of science, but also political opportunism, cultural amnesia and social media’s ability to bring together like minds and to grant even the most wildly inaccurate premises an aura of truth.
But to reverse the current trend, the mistrust in science and medicine will have to be repaired.
That will not be easy, especially when some of that mistrust is propagated by elected officials. President Donald Trump, for instance, spent years consulting with prominent anti-vaxxers and suggesting that he believes vaccines cause autism.
The president did eventually reverse his position on the issue, telling reporters that parents need to “get the shots” for their children — a welcome change. The more officials who make clear to uncertain parents that vaccines are safe, lifesaving and crucial to public health, the better. Beyond that, political leaders can address the current crisis by increasing funding for health departments that are best positioned to combat rampant misinformation, and by passing laws to make it harder for parents to skip crucial shots.
It’s not hard to guess what will happen if no such steps are taken. The number of measles infections in the United States this year is already more than double what it was in all of 2018, and that count could easily double again in 2020.
Last year, Hotez and his colleagues pinpointed 15 locations across the country where measles would most likely re-emerge. At least seven of those areas have already seen an outbreak.
Such predictive power may sound like sorcery to some. But it’s science, plain and simple.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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