A study released in March suggests low immunization rates were responsible for the measles epidemic. The epidemic took many Americans by surprised who didn’t realize the anti-vaccination movement had made such wide inroads across the country.
While I am in favor of vaccines, I am not surprised that the movement has gained deep traction among both the political left and right. Why? Well, it’s really hard to know what information to trust. Just last week, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, an arm of the World Health Organization, concluded that glyphosate, the ingredient used in Roundup, the pervasive herbicide used commercially and residentially in weed control, probably causes cancer in humans. Other products we consume, breathe, and touch have been and continue to be suspected and known toxins.
When there is doubt about the safety of personal care products, herbicides, insecticides, food additives, and other consumer products, federal agencies err on the side of the companies. In the U.S., unlike in Europe and elsewhere where the precautionary principle guides policy, products are approved even if they’re suspected to be dangerous, such as toxins in flame resistant children’s clothing and mattresses, known to cause neurocognitive problems, and fumigants used in strawberry farming. The burden of proof here is on the public to prove the danger rather than on the corporations to prove the safety.
The U.S. has a history of bad health and medical policies. Despite significant fears about its toxicity, for decades beginning in the 1940s the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved synthetic hormones for use to prevent miscarriages and to treat menopausal symptoms, as well as to grow bigger, fatter—more profitable—farm animals. Cigarette companies manipulated information throughout much of the twentieth century to exploit the uncertainty of proof to successfully market tobacco. The list goes on and on.
With so much damning evidence, why should Americans trust policy makers in the federal, state, and local governments to protect their health in terms of vaccine safety when they know that agencies such as the FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and other government agencies often haven’t put their health first? Granted, the vaccine approval process is complex and involves numerous agencies, both governmental and non. The agencies involved in testing, maintaining, and monitoring vaccine safety, including soliciting public feedback on adverse effects, include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, and the FDA.
But if Americans historically haven’t been able to trust some of these agencies, like the FDA, to prioritize their well-being over corporate profits, how are they to know they can trust them on this particular topic? How can the medical establishment and U.S. authorities convince understandably skeptical Americans that vaccines are safe when so many other products are not?
I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Americans should avoid vaccines. I think it’s crucial that our society keeps its herd immunity—immunizing a critical mass of the population in order to protect the whole community, including those who cannot be immunized. But I understand why many Americans are skeptical of authorities’ safety-related statements. Until U.S. government agencies from the USDA to the FDA to the EPA put the health and safety of the American population ahead of corporate profits and follow the precautionary principle, we can expect that many Americans will continue to distrust the official line on health-related topics. As we have seen with the measles outbreak, this distrust can have consequences.
If, as a society, we want the public to trust authorities on issues of health and medicine, our institutions must protect us. We must create trustworthy processes for consumers, including parents of children who need vaccines. Federal and other policy makers should follow the example of New York State’s Albany County Legislature, which recently banned toxic chemicals in children’s toys.
To avoid future inadvertent harm, Americans must know, and believe, that vaccines aren’t merely one of the many historical and contemporary examples of products prescribed by our doctors or sold on our store shelves that are later exposed to be deleterious to our health but that vaccinating their children—and trusting related directives from the government—is the right and safe choice to make.
Bernstein is a historian and clinical associate professor of Legal Studies at Northwestern University and an OpEd Project Public Voices fellow.