Vaccines: plenty of blame to go around

Within the past 72 hours most of the energy on measles and vaccination has moved into hating the opposite Red or Blue team, so at least that’s normalized.

The problem would be a much easier one if only one side were implicated, though. As one who focuses on the legal system, I’ve written mostly about the role of litigation in hampering immunization [Overlawyered, Point of Law coverage over the years] with occasional attention to the role of America’s Most Irresponsible Public Figure®, attorney and Rolling Stone anti-vax author Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

But it isn’t just the legal system, nor is it just one side of familiar ideological conflicts. “Look closely at these poll numbers before you decide you know which ‘side’ is at fault in the vaccination debate,” notes author Terry Teachout. It’s politicians from both parties, along with various commentators and organizations from both the less-government and the more-government side of the spectrum. If you’re not ready to acknowledge harms done by people on your “own” side (left, right, libertarian, traditionalist or whatever) you’re probably not helping the vaccination debate.

At the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf makes a case for friendly persuasion over TwitterShaming, channeling the spirit of a letter by children’s author Roald Dahl that has been much noted in recent days.

More: Richard Epstein via Roger Pilon (against common-law-will-work-things-out wishful thinking: “It is sheer fantasy to think that individuals made ill could bring private lawsuits for damages against the parties that infected them, or that persons exposed to imminent risk could obtain injunctive relief against the scores of persons who threaten to transmit disease. The transmission of disease involves hidden and complex interconnections between persons that could not be detected in litigation, even assuming that it could be brought in time, which it cannot.”)


  • I don’t really understand this post. I love the overall sentiment: hey, this is complex and we can’t just distill it down to “if you don’t agree with me, you are dumb.”

    But, here, I don’t see it and I’m not totally sure what you are getting at. There is no medical or scientific argument that can be made against the critical vaccines. We give “we have to hear both sides” voices which, again, in theory, is a good thing. But there has to be some meaningful argument expressed by people who know what they are talking about.

    Okay, every mostly agrees with this. So the next question becomes whether you can chose to not vaccine your children. This is the the real question. I’m largely in favor of letting people do what they want as long as they are not hurting anyone else and/or the societal byproducts can be readily managed.

    The vaccine issue violates that latter clause. You are putting my kids at risk when you don’t get your child vaccinated.

    I don’t think the “we all share some blame” view of this is advancing anything.

  • Ron, the post was written as a reaction to the last 200 clips that have passed through my social media stream, at least 160 of which have taken the form either of “It’s all those stupid Republican/conservative/libertarians’ fault,” with reference to Rand Paul, Chris Christie, Dan Burton, the AAPS, InfoWars, homeschoolers, individualism, and so forth, or else “It’s all those stupid Democrat/progressive/granola types’ fault,” with reference to what Obama and Hillary said eight years ago, Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, low vax rates where there are Whole Foods, and so forth.

    In other words — old news — the spirit of partisanship tempts us to scream about the faults on the other guy’s side while keeping mum about those of our own. Is it really necessary for me, after years’ worth of blogging on this topic, to stick in one more boilerplate sentence about how there is no good medical case to be made on the anti-vax side? It’s assumed anyway, when I say that partisans in every camp have tended to go soft on their own wrong thinkers, what I think the “wrong” side is.

    I don’t think “we all share some blame.” (Penn and Jillette don’t, for example, nor do Paul Offit or Seth Mnookin.) I think some voices in both Blue and Red camps do share some blame.

  • Ron I read Walter’s post as saying that both “sides” — left and right — bear some blame for stoking a belief that vaccinations are either harmful or unnecessary, contra the emerging media narrative that anti-vaccine attitudes are limited to fringe conservatives. Nothing in the post makes the case against vaccination itself.

  • People think that a particular platform is representative of all of their beliefs and positions and that therefore any opposition is concentrated in the opposite camp. It helps that no matter how wacko you are on the left, there’s always Prince Kropotkin to prove you’re middle of the road and on the right whatever insane person leftists use as an exemplar. I’m sure there are some people who read this blog regularly who think that vaccination is a cover for mind-altering drugs to render Woman of Color sterile so they can’t reproduce except at the direction of Evil White Men or that vaccines are the next step in mind controlling drugs like water fluoridation.

    Whatever your flavor of insanity, it’s the Other — whether the Other is Left, Right, Statist or Libertarian — who’s the problem.


  • If vaccines work like we are told that they do, how can somebody endanger a vaccinated person by not getting vaccinated? To me mandatory immunization is BS. If I choose to have myself and my family vaccinated, somebody else choosing not to be immunized shouldn’t have any effect on me and mine.

    Every year my company pays for flu shots. They have a deal, if you get the flu shot and come down with the flu, your time is covered without you having to use up your vacation or personal time. If you don’t get the shot and come down with the flu, you are on your own. I get the shot.

  • Oh, I get it. I think this issue does completely cut across party lines. That is actually the one thing I like about it.

    “Is it really necessary for me, after years’ worth of blogging on this topic, to stick in one more boilerplate sentence about how there is no good medical case to be made on the anti-vax side?”

    I consider myself a pretty loyal reader of this blog. But I can’t think of one thing you have written about vaccines. Probably because I skip to the things of interest to me and I’ve only really focused on this issue in the last few days after the whole Christie/Obama/Paul thing and the disturbing reports of measles.

  • “If I choose to have myself and my family vaccinated, somebody else choosing not to be immunized shouldn’t have any effect on me and mine.”

    I’m with you, Jim, if that last clause was right. No effect. But that is not going to do much for me when you infect one of my kids.

  • I think Jim Collins was asking why a family that does vaccinate would care whether the family down the road vaccinates or not, since their own members are immune.

    Part of the answer is that not everyone can be suitably vaccinated (some have unusual medical conditions or immunosuppression from chemotherapy, for example). In one case I know firsthand, the person’s severe egg allergy makes it dangerous to accept vaccines containing (ordinarily harmless) egg proteins. Moreover, not all vaccines have a 100 percent efficacy rate at immunizing. So there are many families that are completely willing to use vaccines, but for whom one or more members remain vulnerable to epidemic.

    There is more to the answer than that, as countless discussions of “herd immunity” will confirm.

    On Ronald’s point, I perhaps too easily forget that almost all readers skip past some parts of the blog to get to others that interest them more. Nonetheless, there are 89 posts tagged as “vaccines” in our archive, and others in the archive at Point of Law, where I blogged for years:

  • So it’s true…the only difference between the two political parties is their name. My take the Dems are whack jobs and the Repubs are pandering.

    With regard to litigation, I’m pretty sure that in several states (?) if you are infected with HIV it is criminal offense to knowingly expose another person. Not much of slope to slidle down.

    Latest stats I’ve seen, approx 30 to 35% failure rate for those who received the flu shot this year, ie, get the shot and still get the flu. Disclaimer: hitting the target with a flu vaccine is much harder than measles, polio, etc. But you get a flu shot because your employer requires it, and you still get the flu or worse have a reaction and die. Please don’t tell the lawyers won’t be lining up for a shot at this one. Eventually the veil will be pierced.

    But childhood vaccines do work, just look at the results of the Polio Plus campaign that Rotary started in the late 80s.

  • Jim:
    Ask the young children who are too young to be vaccinated about that whole “don’t care if others aren’t vaccinated, me and my family are” point. It’s the too young to be vaccinated children, and as Walter points out, those who can’t be vaccinated for other medical reasons, who are the ones most in need of of the “herd immunity” AND who are also typically especially vulnerable to the diseases in question.

    Jim, you should care a hell of a lot of everyone else is vaccinated when you have young children since you CAN’T vaccinate your kids, at least for a while. The Google indicates that MMR first dose should happen at 12-15 months. Until your kids are 1 year old, they’re vulnerable to every Jenny McCarthy inspired tin foil hat wearer out there. Are you willing to roll the very real dice on this one?

    As to why this topic, IMO, belongs on this site: Simple, every jerk out there that files a suit for damages and the vulture lawyers that make millions out of it stoking the fear – the same vultures that oppose a no fault system that could be funded by a tax / fee (since the adverse reaction rates / damages are pretty well know, so costs can be calculated). And why do these vulture lawyers oppose a no fault system? Simple, can’t make millions of skim off of it.

  • Ron–

    Your memory failed you. Click on Walter’s “Robert F Kennedy,Jr” index and find the post with a title like “Robert F Kennedy Jr likens vaccination to Nazi death camps.”. We sparred there.

  • Until this last week, I had considered anti-vax to be primarily a vice of the Granola Belt, but Rand Paul and Christie have revived the old tropes about the “anti-science Right.”

    Obama and Hillary, who laudably got on the bandwagon this week, excuse their pandering to anti-vaxxers 8 years ago by saying we weren’t sure back then. Actually, even then the efficacy of vaccination had already been established beyond a reasonable doubt. Since then,with the formal retraction of the alarmist Lancet article, it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt,the informal standard we use for executions. Christie and Paul are unfit for the high office they seek.

  • Jim Collins:

    You write: “If vaccines work like we are told that they do, how can somebody endanger a vaccinated person by not getting vaccinated?”

    I think others have given valid reasons as to why your sentiment is mistaken. But here’s another: vaccines are not by any means 100% effective (precious little is in life). They are very effective, but part of their effectiveness lies in mass usage (i.e, mass immunization helps ensure against the risk of individual cases of ineffectiveness). For example, states that most childhood vaccines are approximately 90 – 100% effective.

    What’s so frustrating about this anti-vaccine nonsense and indifference to mass vaccination, is that the information regarding vaccine effectiveness and the reasons for mass immunization are widely known and publicly available. If you don’t know this information, it is because you have chosen not to know, or are to ambivalent to bother having an informed opinion on the subject.

    I truly don’t wish to be uncivil. But that statement–“If vaccines work like we are told that they do, how can somebody endanger a vaccinated person by not getting vaccinated?–reflects scientific illiteracy and/or innumeracy.

  • Vaccines are not 100% safe. No vaccine is 100% and parents have this expectation that the medicine will be 100% safe and it isn’t. If you give a vaccine to a million children you will have some outliers and you could expect some bad results. Doesn’t help the parents that are affected but sometimes people need to look at the overall picture and realize their is no sure thing.

    It also doesn’t help the argument that we had established a robust herd immunity. Polio and Measles had been essentially eradicated. At that point, it makes sense to avoid the vaccinations. The tiny risk of bad results is greater than the tinier risk of catching the disease. But this is only a good idea if nobody does it. Once you have a statistically significant population of vax-refusniks, the herd immunity gets broken. We are at that point from a combination of refusniks and the horde of unvaccinated and infected Wetbacks that has been inflicted upon us.

    The rules are changing, and many have not caught up.

  • How about the obvious answer… The more cases there are, the larger the opportunity that the virus will actually mutate into something that avoids the immunity granted by vaccination. Just look at the flu vaccine and why it does not have a 100% success rate. Actual estimates for the flu vaccine this year are 23% effectiveness…

  • While I am a fan of vaccinations, I and my children have all had them, I am not really thrilled with the idea of the government forcing them.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board with the no vaccination/no public school deal. I think that is a wonderful way to “encourage” vaccinations. I would go as far as to say that if you receive any government money, you must vaccinate or forfeit your dole.

    Heck, I would even be OK with a fine (tax, if you prefer) if you do not vaccinate.

    But I am more than a little nervous about the government demanding an injection. I understand that this particular injection is beneficial and all, but what about the next one? Or the next?

    Choice is not always a bad thing.

  • I have to agree with the choice point. I think the gov should provide access to, and even pay the cost of vaccine for the public good. They can encourage (not mandate) that everyone be vaccinated. They can mandate that only vaccinated individuals participate in activities at government operated institutions. But I would not extend it to non-participatory services such as mail, social security, etc…

  • “While I am a fan of vaccinations, I and my children have all had them, I am not really thrilled with the idea of the government forcing them.”

    The “idea” of vaccinations is not limited to just 1 person being relatively protected by a disease. It requires (as has been stated here) a herd immunity. When that is broken, the vaccination “idea” is gone. Kaput. The herd immunity protects those that cannot get immunity or that (known or unknown) have some complications with immunity/vaccines.

    IANAD but I’ve been reading that the risk to an un-vaccinated person is approaching 90% likelihood that they will get Measles. The only way to combat this is mandatory vaccinations to be involved in public life.

    I know what I’m about to say may sound extreme but: You don’t want them or can’t get them? Fine. You must let people in many group interactions know and they can refuse you admittance (the KinderCare event here in Chi-land). I think public schools already do that in many places. Heck, you don’t want to get them? You have a large monetary responsibility to the rest of us…though I get worrried about some of the slippery slopes that may cause.

    Getting vaccinations is not just for YOU but for ALL of society. We stop thinking about ourselves for a moment and we won’t be doomed to letting the diseases reemerge.

  • Please read what you quoted. The “idea” is that the government should not be able to mandate what chemicals are forced into my body.

    As stated, I believe vaccinations work. I also believe that there are methods of persuading the doubtful that do not included forced injections.

    If we as a nation decide that the government can “mandate” health, we will be in for some very difficult times indeed.

  • Please read what I wrote. I do not believe that the government should inject them in your body. If you don’t want to get them, fine. Don’t.

    Doesn’t mean that any group (public or private) has to accept you in and risk everyone who falls into the non-immunizable (is that even a word?) category. While this may force your hand, that’s how it should work. You don’t want to protect others, they don’t have to play with you.

    When I was looking into vaccines for my 1st boy, I came across the herd immunity concept and was sold. This was before I even checked into what I had received as a kid.
    I also like Penn &Teller’s….um…graphical?…way of presenting this.

    While this next may sound mean I’m really just being direct: stop thinking of yourself and start thinking of the herd.

  • Umm,
    Not quite sure why you are arguing.
    I pretty much stated the same thing you did. All I added was that the government should not be forcing them.