“Just watch a child for five minutes and see if they don’t eat their friend’s boogers, put their entire mouth over the water fountain, or try and kiss a raccoon they just found in a dumpster while playing hide and seek.” That was John Oliver’s unique way of challenging the notion that a child’s immune system isn’t able to receive many vaccines at once—a challenge that is supported by strong scientific evidence. Oliver took extra time on a recent episode of Last Week Tonight to do an extended dive into the arguments against vaccines, particularly those made by people who advocate for spacing out dosages of vaccines, a practice that would needlessly expose children and people with low immune systems to lethal diseases. Unlike some celebrities, Oliver isn’t promoting junk science. He’s reminding us how important good science is.
Vaccines are one of mankind’s greatest inventions. To offer some perspective: 134,000 people died of measles in 2015 worldwide. That’s down from an estimated 651,000 in 2000, largely thanks to increased vaccination rates. In 2015, the U.S. had only one confirmed measles death, and that’s because an immune-compromised woman was exposed to the highly contagious measles virus, likely from an unimmunized person. Vaccines have saved millions of lives in the U.S. and worldwide. (If you doubt me, just look at this infographic).
But now, in areas of the country with relatively low rates of immunization, people are suffering outbreaks of disease. These diseases aren’t an abstract threat—vaccinations are the only things stopping them from claiming more lives.
Regardless of your thoughts about the liberal slant Last Week Tonight takes on many issues, Oliver’s approach to vaccination presented the arguments against vaccines fairly and countered those arguments with strong scientific evidence instead of conjecture and emotion. The segment was nearly perfect.
The one flaw is that Oliver didn’t leave politics completely out of it. He started the segment talking about Trump’s anti-vaxxer sentiments. Trump has promoted the myth that vaccines cause autism—for example, in this tweet and during a Republican primary debate. I cannot stress enough just how dangerous this is. Not only is there no link whatsoever between vaccines and autism, the idea that vaccines would cause autism is not even logical. As Oliver so graphically explained, children are exposed to plenty of bacteria and viruses every day, far less than they will receive from all vaccines combined. Likewise, children receive much more of the so-called “dangerous chemicals” in vaccines (like aluminum) in their normal diet than they do from vaccines. It is alarming that the president would state something that is so clearly at odds with the scientific evidence and that could have grave and lethal consequences for those who follow this line of thinking.
The reason I’m saying this has nothing to do with my political affiliation. I am in medical school and I am there because I care about helping people lead healthy lives. It’s often frustrating. Most of medicine is about managing problems (e.g. diabetes, high blood pressure), not curing them. And even when you do cure them—when doctors successfully remove a tumor or cancer goes into remission—there are potential side effects from the treatments. Vaccines are able to prevent a disease from occurring. This is a remarkable medical success story. I am strongly in support of vaccinations because the research of millions children has shown that they are safe and effective. I am worried, however, that Trump’s views and the reaction to Trump’s views will make this a partisan issue.
Numerous studies have shown no link between party affiliation or political ideology and whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children. Anti-vaxxers come from all across the spectrum. However, recently, a 2016 study conducted by a Washington State researcher showed that more self-identified Republicans said they would not vaccinate than self-identified Democrats. And the most commonly cited public figure they cited as sharing their beliefs was then-candidate Trump. Granted, this is a single study with a relatively small sample size of 400 respondents—not the kind of study one should draw meaningful conclusions from. However, the fact that it’s possible that vaccines are becoming a politically charged issue (as has happened with global warming)—especially with such a polarizing figure at the center of it—should alarm us.
In fact, it’s remarkable that vaccines haven’t been a political issue until recently. Politics has infected every other sphere of our lives. Corporations are now required to support our political agendas. Target was boycotted by conservatives because it came out in support of transgender people using their desired bathroom. Liberals boycotted Yuengling just because the owner was a Trump supporter. The fact that forty percent of parents would not want their child marrying someone of the opposite party, up from five percent in 1960, is a disheartening reflection of how politics shapes our perceptions of our fellow citizens. The decline in immunization rates that would result from vaccines becoming a politically polarizing issue would be a public health disaster.
I understand Oliver’s point. It’s important to recognize why people are refusing to vaccinate their children or to do it on a delayed schedule. And the president of the United States has a great deal of authority simply by the nature of his position. But after attacking Trump for partisan issues week after week, it’s tough to say that any issue Oliver brings up isn’t political. We’re not talking about department stores or beer or even important life choices like marriage. When we talk about vaccines, we are talking about life and death. It’s too important a subject to have even the veneer of partisanship.
Oliver is certainly within his rights to talk about vaccines, especially since he presented the science so articulately and accurately. But I worry about the possibility that injecting politics into this particular discussion will contribute to a conservative backlash, especially considering the remarks come from a partisan figure like Oliver. Someone needs to speak up about President Trump’s dangerous ideas about vaccines, but those people need to be experts so that there is no confusion about what’s at stake.
Vaccines save lives. There is absolutely no evidence that they cause autism. Trust me. I’m (almost) a doctor.