Could a booster shot of truth help scientists fight the anti-vaccine crisis?

The recent outbreak of measles cases in Clark County, Washington – which has been linked to a plummeting vaccination rate in this hotbed of anti-vaccination activism – makes clear that conspiracy theories, fear, and misinformation know no partisan bounds. The Governor has declared a state of emergency and sent public health officials out to talk to parents – sometimes one on one – as more than 60 cases have now been reported.

Now imagine what might happen if the government itself had embraced an official anti-vaccine policy.

As a philosopher of science who has studied science denial, I know that science denial is a world-wide phenomenon. Although some anti-science claims like evolution denial are particularly virulent in the U.S. (outstripped only by Turkey), it’s not just America that faces this problem.

This can be both a blessing and a curse. While it’s sad to know that the forces behind science denial are larger than any one culture or political party, it’s good to know that if we study what is happening elsewhere, it may help us learn how to fight science denial in general.

One of the first lessons to be learned from this “metastasis” of science denial is how dangerous it is not to fight back. As we’ve seen with climate change in the U.S., science denial isn’t limited to fringe groups – if it isn’t fought in the trenches of corporate interest and ideology, it can spread not only to the general population, but to government too, with horrible policy consequences. But it matters too how we fight back, which I believe is illustrated perfectly by what is happening with the anti-vaccination movement.

The anti-vaccination crisis in Italy

First, it is important to state the facts: the hypothesis that vaccines cause autism was based on a fraud. Andrew Wakefield’s bogus 1998 study has been debunked numerous times and, in the end, it was learned that the whole thing arose not from sloppy science or a mistake, but from what some called deliberate manipulation of the data based on an undisclosed conflict of interest. Wakefield’s paper was retracted and his medical license was stripped. Yet still the generalized fear of vaccines has survived and taken hold among a world-wide audience of parents who are confused and suspicious – and love their children just as much as the rest of us.

At a recent scientific conference in Rome, I learned of a public health debacle that has been brewing in Italy for years.

In 2012, an Italian court ruled there was a link between autism and the measles mumps rubella vaccine; this was overturned in 2015. By that time, however, vaccination rates in Italy had fallen to 85 percent – well below the 95 percent rate that public health officials consider essential for “herd immunity.” As one prominent researcher, Roberto Burioni, put it “Italy’s measles vaccination coverage was on par with Namibia, lower than Ghana.”

Then, just as in Washington state today, measles cases started to rise. In 2016, there were 850 measles cases in Italy. By 2017, this had grown to 5,000. By that point, Italy accounted for 34 percent of all the measles cases in Europe, and 89 percent of the measles cases in Italy were made up of people who hadn’t been vaccinated. In response, health minister Beatrice Lorenzin introduced a compulsory law that parents had to vaccinate their children for daycare and school, with shots against ten diseases, including the MMR. Over time, the vaccination rate increased.

Then, in June 2018, the Five Star Movement came to power and formed a coalition government with the Hard-Right League, which found support in Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who was anti-vaccination. Distrustful of experts and institutions, steeped in conspiracy theories, and emphasizing the importance of “personal freedom,” Salvini claimed that vaccines were “useless and in many cases dangerous.” During the campaign some in the Five Star Movement had maintained that compulsory – and state-funded – vaccines amounted to “free genocide.”

Then in August 2018, the new government sought to overturn the law to make vaccines compulsory, in favor of allowing parents to “self-certify.” As measles cases continued, there was some hedging and the government agreed to keep the law in place for another year. In December 2018, Giulia Grillo, the new health minister, announced that all 30 members of the Higher Health Council advisory panel would be fired. Soon after, the director of Italy’s National Institute of Health (ISS), Walter Ricciardi, resigned in protest over the Italian government’s “anti-scientific” vaccine stance.

Changing minds

What is the best way to fight back against such rank ignorance, when it appears at the highest levels of government?