Measles: Misinformation Gone Viral


Richard A. Epstein over at the Hoover Institution (Image credit: Sanofi Pasteur):

The resurgence of measles is largely attributable to the confluence of two separate factors. On the one side there is a strong, if unacknowledged, effort on the part of some people to free ride off the vaccination of others. The self-interested calculations of many conscientious parents can run as follow: Of course, measles is a contagious disease, but it only spreads if there is a sufficiently large population of unvaccinated people in any given community. Taking any vaccine, including the measles vaccine, necessarily carries with it some risk of adverse outcomes. Vaccines could be impure or improperly administered, and even in the best of times, there is always a residual risk that the vaccine itself will transmit the very disease that it is supposed to prevent. So long as other individuals are vaccinated, the rational free rider decides that it pays not to vaccinate his or her own children. They receive the protection afforded by herd immunity, without subjecting their loved ones to the risks, however small, that vaccinations always present.

The second factor that reduces vaccination levels is the spread, sometimes deliberate, of misinformation that overstates vaccination risks. This sentiment is often fueled by powerful suspicions that drug companies are greedy and governments corrupt. This entire episode was fueled by fraudulent studies published by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998 in Lancet magazine, which twelve years later the journal eventually retracted, but only after much of the damage was done. Those studies, which had been funded in part by plaintiffs’ lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers, purported to find a (nonexistent) link between vaccines that were manufactured using a mercury-based compound, Thimerosal, and autism. Unfortunately, Lancet’s forthright retraction of the article did not quell the uneasiness about vaccines in either Britain or the United States. Indeed, it may well have fueled populist concerns of an ever-wider conspiracy among establishment figures.

This combination of free-riding and misinformation may now be exacting a high toll, as the increased spread of measles puts a large population of unvaccinated persons at risk for the disease, no matter what their overall health. It is not surprising, therefore, that the anti-vaccine groups have now been put on the defensive in part by a recent lawsuit brought in California by Carl Krawitt on behalf of his six-year old son Rhett, who suffers from leukemia and therefore cannot safely take the vaccine.

Krawitt’s suit demands that his local school board require all students who can, but have not, been vaccinated to stay at home, so that Rhett can more safely attend the school. Legally, his suit is likely to flounder on the shoals of modern administrative law, which vests a large and virtually unreviewable discretion in local health officials to decide whether this action is required. Yet by the same token, if the school board should deem the risk sufficient to call for those suspensions, it is equally unlikely that any parent who refuses to vaccinate their children for either religious or medical reasons could have any success in keeping them in school.

More here.