How Religion Incubates Anti-Vax Paranoia

How Religion Incubates Anti-Vax Paranoia October 2, 2019

By the time you read this, we’ll know if New York’s measles outbreak is finally over:

On Wednesday, officials from Rockland County, New York declared their almost year-long outbreak of measles over — a mere week before the U.S. would have to forfeit its status of having eradicated any local traces of the disease.

…The measles-free status of the U.S. (declared in 2000) is still officially up in the air for the time being. A country loses its eradication status if an outbreak brought in from elsewhere lasts longer than 12 months. At that point, it’s assumed the germ has found enough reservoirs to re-establish itself as a local threat again.

Measles cases in the U.S. hit a 25-year high in 2019, largely due to an outbreak among Orthodox Jews. There’s no Jewish commandment against vaccination, even in the conservative branches, but Orthodox communities often have low levels of education and harbor distrust for science and the modern world. That makes them easy prey for a highly contagious virus.

To stem the epidemic, in June the New York legislature voted to end all non-medical vaccine exemptions, including religious exemptions. This is a wise example that more states should follow. Our governor is a milquetoast centrist, but this is one instance where he took a strong stand for science:

Governor Andrew Cuomo, who signed the bill into law only hours after it was passed by lawmakers, said in a statement: “The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe.”

“While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

In a multicultural and secular society, people should generally be left alone to live however they think best. This extends, within reasonable limits, to parents’ right to raise their children as they see fit.

But that freedom ends at the line where your behavior endangers others. When you skip vaccination, you’re weakening herd immunity and making yourself a reservoir of deadly disease. You’re putting everyone around you at risk, especially babies and very young children, the elderly, and anyone who’s immunocompromised. There’s no religious right to do this, just as there’s no religious right to smoke in restaurants, to drive drunk, to shoot guns into the air, or to dump your sewage into the drinking water.

And make no mistake, measles can be deadly. Here’s Roald Dahl’s account of his daughter Olivia’s death from a measles infection that became encephalitis:

Olivia, my eldest daughter, caught measles when she was seven years old.

As the illness took its usual course I can remember reading to her often in bed and not feeling particularly alarmed about it. Then one morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.

Predictably, anti-vax activists – including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who should be ashamed of himself – went to court trying to get an injunction against New York’s law, but failed. In the aftermath of that defeat, furious anti-vax parents took to social media, crying crocodile tears about their kids being barred from school:

“This little boy can’t go back to school. Why? Because our state legislature thinks we’re a bunch of ignorant pariahs,” Rita Palma, founder of the anti-vax group My Kids, My Choice, wrote in the photo’s caption. “So the sensible thing to do is deprive children who want to go to school of an education. Makes perfect sense, right? This is so horribly wrong.”

…Palma and other New York anti-vaxxers have been comparing the new law banning religious exemptions to the Jim Crow laws and segregation of white and black people in America.

This is a grossly offensive and wrong-headed comparison. To state the obvious, no one is keeping these kids out of school except their parents. They could return at any time if they got their vaccines. This isn’t being done out of mindless prejudice, but because unvaccinated children really do pose a threat to others, and the government has both the right and the responsibility to protect public health and safety. It’s absurd to compare this to Jim Crow, where people were persecuted for no good reason over a characteristic they had no power to change.

(There are also these parents, who vowed to sell their home and move rather than comply with the law. Do you think the neighboring states are going to be overjoyed to roll out the welcome mat for an unvaccinated horde? With luck, stories like this will motivate them to end their own exemptions.)

Of course, it’s tragic when any child misses out on education. Estimates are that about 26,000 kids in New York had exemptions to vaccination until that option was removed. Hopefully, the repeal will push most of their parents to do the right thing. But some of them may wind up in the same bad situation as in this post on Reddit, a cry for help from a teenager whose neglectful parents haven’t gotten them vaccinated and who have no intention of homeschooling.

The easiest fix would be for the legislature to pass a mature-minors law allowing kids to get vaccinated without parental consent. I wrote about just such a bill in March, but so far it hasn’t made it out of committee.

There’s one more thing we need to talk about: as in the Orthodox Jewish case, or previous measles outbreaks among the Amish, vaccine refusal is strongly tied to religious belief. Even among more “mainstream” sects, in the U.S., 64% of regular churchgoers say that if science conflicts with their religion, they’d reject science and keep their religion. In countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Indonesia, Islamic leaders spreading conspiracy theories have railed against polio and MMR vaccination, leading to outbreaks of these diseases.

Anti-vaccine pseudoscience crosses the political spectrum, but as always, religion is the most durable incubator of irrationality. Whether it’s creationism, climate change denial, or religious exemptions from public health and safety laws, religion has always been a handy excuse people give for why they should disregard the best evidence we have.

However, I notice that this time, the religious excuse is falling on deaf ears both in the legislature and in the courts. I wonder if that’s a sign that the absolute respect religion formerly commanded is fading, or if it just isn’t being condoned in this case because the harm is so obvious.

Image: Transmission electron microscopic image of a measles virus. Via CDC/Cynthia S. Goldsmith; William Bellini, Ph.D.


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