Last week federal health officials announced an alarming health stat: The United States is on track to see its highest incidence of measles since 2001, an increase that reflects many new infections in children whose parents, citing "personal beliefs," eschew vaccinations.
What personal belief would cause people to refuse to vaccinate their kids? The parents put stock in a repeatedly disproven idea that immunizations cause autism -- a belief for which, insanely, all three presidential candidates have recently expressed some sympathy.
So far in 2008, there have been 64 cases of measles in the U.S.; there were just 30 cases in all of 2007. These numbers are far smaller than stats we saw in the early 1990s -- in 1994, the L.A. Times notes, there were more than 900 cases of measles. Since then, the federal government has funded immunizations for low-income children, and infection rates plummeted through the '90s.
During the last few years, though, parents -- mainly upper-income parents -- across the country and the world have begun to forgo vaccinations. And it's in their children that we're now seeing infections.
For instance in January, the Times reports, an unvaccinated 7-year-old boy contracted the disease on a trip to Switzerland, which is experiencing a measles outbreak. When he returned to his home in San Diego, the boy infected 11 other children -- his two siblings, four others at his doctor's office, and five more at his school.
All these kids were unvaccinated. Indeed, at the boy's school, the San Diego Cooperative Charter School, 10 percent of children have received "personal-belief" exemptions from immunizations. Similarly high non-vaccination rates plague communities all over the nation.
The Times says that of the 64 cases of measles reported this year, 63 were in patients who hadn't been immunized.
The idea that there might be a link between vaccines -- specifically, a mercury-based preservative in vaccines called thimerosal, a preservative that is only rarely used anymore -- and autism has been shot down in several scientific studies.
The most thorough study put a thousand children -- some who'd been exposed to thimerosal and some who hadn't -- through a series of standardized mental and physical tests. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine last fall, the researchers concluded:
Our study does not support a causal association between early exposure to mercury from thimerosal-containing vaccines ... and deficits in neuropsychological functioning at the age of 7 to 10 years.
Several other studies have echoed this finding.
Yet the vaccine-autism myth has been kept alive by celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, who pushed the theory in a book and on "Oprah" last year, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who made the case in an article for Rolling Stone and Salon.
During the last few months, John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have gotten into the act.
McCain and Obama are the worst offenders. At a campaign stop in Texas in January, McCain, responding to a question from a mother of an autistic son, said (emphasis mine):
It's indisputable that [autism] is on the rise amongst children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates that it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines.
At a rally in April in Pennsylvania, Obama said:
We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included [referring to a person in the audience who'd asked him a question]. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.
When an autism advocacy group asked Clinton "Do you think vaccines should be investigated as a possible cause of autism?" she said she would fund further research into the question:
I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines. I have long been a supporter of increased research to determine the links between environmental factors and diseases, and I believe we should increase the NIH's ability to engage in this type of research.
McCain, Obama and Clinton are wrong. There isn't "strong evidence" that the rise in autism is linked to vaccines -- the evidence says just the opposite. The science is not "inconclusive" -- the science, in fact, has busted the myth. And there doesn't need to be further funding to search for a "possible" link between autism and vaccines -- the question has already been funded.
But the candidates are not only clueless on the facts; there's something more deeply wrong about their answers.
As I describe in "True Enough," my book about how myths persist in a niche-media society, when folks split into parallel universes of half-truths and pseudo-science, politicians are apt to follow them, because there's profit in telling people what they want to hear.
And when they do, dangerous policies follow.
Measles is a serious, highly contagious disease. A fifth of the cases reported this year resulted in hospital stays.
McCain, Obama and Clinton ought to counsel parents who are worried about vaccines that there isn't anything to fear -- that the greater risk to children and to society is in refusing immunizations.
That the candidates are instead lending credibility to these myths is sickening.
Correction: I initially said that thimerosal isn't used in vaccines anymore. In fact, a few vaccine preparations, including some flu vaccines, do still use thimerosal as a preservative. Childhood immunization shots, including the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella, do not.