Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Is Fear of Vaccines a Liberal Thing?

That's what I had always thought --- that the right wing can have their creationists, their global warming deniers, their opposition to stem-cell research, and whatever else, but we on the left have to claim the lion's share of the anti-vaccination crowd.
Photo taken by Flickr user captaincinema
I believed this mostly for two reasons: first, most of the anti-vaccination rhetoric I had heard focused on scary chemicals that may or may not be present in vaccines, and scary-chemical rhetoric is also a staple of diverse left-leaning causes ranging from the legitimate (i.e., environmentalism) to the kooky (alternative medicine, the cult of the "natural"). The second reason is that, to the extent that the anti-vaccine celebrities I'd heard of can be said to have politics, their politics tend to be Democratic. The one obvious example is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a Democrat and prominent environmentalist, and the two other anti-vaccine celebrities I can think of, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey, aren't involved very much in U.S. politics, but the profiles of them I linked to suggest that they're Democratic-leaning.  
Anti-vaccine booth at the 2008 Netroots Nation convention in Austin, TX. Photo credit: Lindsay Beyerstein
The famous science writer Chris Mooney was also under the impression that anti-vaccine-ism is a crank ideology peculiar to the left, though I'm not sure he is anymore.

The mass freakout on the right over Gardasil made me reevaluate that impression, though.

It's true, Gardasil is a special case because it's a vaccine for adolescents --- and, initially, adolescent girls, although it's now recommended for all young people --- meant to protect against the cancer-causing strains of human papillomavirus, which spreads through genital contact. That puts it squarely in the middle of the Religious Right's Freakout Zone, which encompasses anything involving young women and sex.

I would've been perfectly content to accept just that explanation for the anti-Gardasil backlash, but then Michele Bachmann came out with her howler about Gardasil causing developmental disabilities. That sounded so much like what I had been hearing from Jenny McCarthy et al. that I started wondering whether anti-vaccine crankery was actually bipartisan.

There have been a lot of polls about people's attitudes toward vaccination, but I can't find very many that also include respondents' political affiliation. 

Chris Mooney wrote about two polls suggesting that anti-vaccine sentiments are spread evenly across the political spectrum: a USA Today/Gallup poll from 2009 that asked people to identify themselves as liberal, conservative or moderate and then asked them whether they had heard of Jenny McCarthy and whether they agreed with her or not; and a Pew poll, also from 2009, that asked, among lots of other things, whether children should be required to be vaccinated or whether that choice should be left to their parents.
With above photo, anti-vaccine protest signs at a Tea Party Express rally held on April 8, 2010 in St. Paul, MN. Photo credit: Fibonacci Blue
Larger version of printout attached to sign in lower half of the above pair of photos
Mike the Mad Biologist wrote about another Pew poll from 2009, this one asking people whether they would get the swine flu vaccine if it were available to them. It found Republicans and Independents more likely than not to refuse it (54% to 41%), while Democrats were almost 2:1 in favor of getting the vaccine. Republicans were also the most likely (54%), and Democrats the least (35%), to say that the news media were overstating the danger of swine flu.

Another poll, this one conducted just a couple months ago by You Gov, found that greater percentages of Republicans than Democrats said they were "not so confident" or "not confident at all" that the current vaccine schedule recommended by the Department of Health and Human Services is safe. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to say they were "very confident" or "somewhat confident," although strong majorities of both parties fall into those two groups.

That poll also asked people which conditions they think vaccines can cause, and Republicans were slightly more likely than Democrats to say vaccines cause autism.
I don't know what the New World Order is, but this graphic is a great example of attributing nefarious motivation to vaccine makers
It's also worth pointing out that there are different fears that underlie different people's opposition to vaccines. Some people might be afraid of Big Pharma profiting off their sickness; others might be afraid of the government telling them what to do with their bodies, or with their children's bodies, and other people might be afraid of the Scary Chemicals in vaccines. 
You can see appeals to all of these different fears in anti-vaccine rhetoric: most obvious (to me, at least) is the Scary Chemicals rhetoric that emphasizes what kinds of scary-sounding things are in vaccines (or, in the case of thimerosal, used to be in vaccines), but there's also the tactic of discrediting anything a medical professional says about vaccines by saying they're being paid off by the pharmaceutical companies. 

One type of anti-vaccine rhetoric I hadn't noticed before I started writing this post is the kind that objects to mandatory vaccines. Even when there's a very good reason for it, like requiring health-care workers to be fully vaccinated because they're in contact with lots and lots of 1) sick people and 2) people whose immunity is compromised.
People protesting a proposal to make swine flu vaccination mandatory for health care workers in New York state in 2009. Both photos taken by Louise McCoy for The Epoch Times
It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see how a libertarian-minded person, probably a lot like the people in the two Tea Party pictures above, might see mandatory vaccination as yet another unwarranted government intrusion into their affairs.  

This old article in the Seattle Weekly about the antivaccination movement in Washington state makes note of the movement's bipartisan appeal:
A closer look at [Washington state Department of Health] data reveals the potent mix of demographics that makes vaccine resistance such a sturdy presence in the state. Some of the highest [vaccine] exemption rates are in eastern Washington, where any kind of government mandate --- whether immunization or taxation --- is viewed with hostility. 
At the opposite end of the political spectrum are the liberal enclaves of western Washington, which are also resistant to vaccines. At Vashon Island's public elementary school, 25 percent of students have skipped at least one vaccine. At the Seattle Waldorf School, ... the number is a whopping 47 percent. 
These schools are part of well-educated and affluent communities that one might think would be most likely to follow the recommendations of scientists and doctors. But in fact, as journalist Seth Mnookin points out in his new book The Panic Virus, they perfectly reflect the base of today's anti-vaccine movement. Its constituents are part of what you might call the suburban counterculture --- parenthood and affluence mixed with creative aspirations, a crunchy-chewy lifestyle, and an inclination to question authority.
Finally, let's look at laws making it easier for people to opt out of vaccination.

Here is a list of states whose laws allow parents to refuse to vaccinate their children for "philosophical" reasons:
  • Arizona
  • Arkansas
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Michigan
  • Minnesota
  • North Dakota
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • Oklahoma
  • Texas
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin
As you can see, it's a pretty mixed bag of "red states" and "blue states."


Lorraine said...

Among movement conservatives opposition to water fluoridation seems to be making a comeback.

Lindsay said...

That's true! I was debating including something about that in my post, but couldn't figure out how to work it in.

But it definitely seems like it would go along with opposition to vaccines ...

Rob F said...

I've also seen reports of opposition to newborn screening (the heel prick, etc). To me, this, if anything, is far more dangerous than mere vaccine denialism, as the conditions screening tests for have serious consequences (including death) if untreated.

Lindsay said...

@Rob F - huh, I hadn't heard of that. Do you know what people oppose about it?

Rob F said...

I've found two articles about it:

In one, it was due to a conspiracy theory about the government storing blood to eventually engage in cloning. (These parents eventually smartened up and got the testing).

The other one concerned two families in Nebraska who wanted exemptions on religious grounds. Specifically, one was due to their belief that the unnecessary drawing of blood was against the bible, and the other due to weird syncretism between Christianity and Scientology.

It's a small sample, but is sounds like some of the same reasons as vaccine denialism.

Mitchell said...

After the 1991 Gulf War, I think there was a conspiracy theory that "Gulf War syndrome" was due to an anthrax vaccine administered to many of the soldiers, that circulated mostly on the Right.

Lorraine said...

Current trends among righties also seem to include the raw milk thing.

There seems to be geographical variation in pseudosciences of choice, too. Seems Americans are less accepting of nuclear power than Europeans, while Europeans are less accepting of GMO's.

Sarah Alli said...

I would imagine anti-vaccine sentiments, while rarer than the media coverage would imply, are rather bipartisan. Vaccines are produced by pharmaceutical companies and mandated by the government, so they appeal to the anti-corporate leanings of the far left and the anti-government leanings of the far right.

Healthcare workers are a tricky subject. Latex allergy, which is getting rather common amongst healthcare workers who are more often exposed, is often a contraindication to flu vaccination. I have worked in healthcare for several years and every non-vaccinated employee I've talked with (they are easily identifiable because they must wear masks) has stated that the reason is allergy, not "philosophy." I suspect seeing first hand the serious implications of a real influenza case would make healthcare workers among the most likely to get vaccinated. Not to mention the shots are free for us and given in our workplace.

Anonymous said...

To think the "Crunchy" trend is purely liberal is very wrong. People who tend to be orthodox Christian and very very conservative are just as crunchy, if not more crunchy than our liberal counterparts. I believe it has more to do with those who are passionate and unwilling to just accept what's being fed to them. I am not anti-vaccination, but have a lot of friends who are, and they are all very conservative.

Unknown said...

New age medicine and alternative medical thinking tend to be liberal leaning. I'm always somewhat dismayed to see my usually sensible liberal friends talk about homeopathy and essential oils as if they were talking about asprin or polysporin.