Will Disneyland Change the Vaccination Debate?

Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

Tuxyso / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

By now you’d have to be pretty disconnected to have not heard about the Disneyland measles outbreak: over 100 cases and counting, and — surprise! — most of them are not vaccinated against the disease. It’s even been a recent topic here on Skeptoid. In case this has somehow failed to cross your particular media stream, here’s a rundown from the CDC. [Or check out this timeline from the Onion, which is less detailed but probably sadly accurate ]

It’s a serious outbreak and in regards to short-term public health, no good can come of it. In the long run, though, it’s possible that the Disneyland measles outbreak has a silver lining. Ultimately, it could serve as a watershed moment, a sign that the anti-vaccination movement has moved past its peak and towards the same fringes that conspiracy theorists and other science deniers occupy.

Media narratives tend to drive public opinion, for better or worse, and the current media narrative has turned against anti-vaxxers. Media outlets from PBS to Salon to the LA Times to the Nightly Show have taken up the topic in a skeptical way; meanwhile, state and local newspapers across the country are coming out against anti-vaccination.  One author has even called for anti-vaccination parents to be jailed for child negligence, while others have called for a tax on those who choose not to vaccinate in order to to cover the increased public health costs of newly emerged diseases. It’s got to be an uncomfortable time for those against vaccination to load up their favorite news sites.

This sudden media shift hasn’t stopped the most ardent anti-vaxxers from doubling down on their stance in the face of the Disneyland outbreak. The first response of the anti-vaccination movement was to claim things like “the vaccine is worse than the measles,” “it’s the dirty foreigners,” and “measles isn’t so bad!” As Orac over at Science Blogs notes, there’s also been an uptick of “false balance” counterpoint in the media coverage about Disneyland, probably as networks look for ways to milk the controversy for the 24-hour news cycle.

It’s hard to disregard such a vocal media shift as it relates to awareness of and rejection of anti-vaccination. Even with the fallacious “fair balance” spin giving anti-vaxxers undue voice in the conversation (similar to the way climate deniers were so long given more voice than their prevalence demanded), the tide is clearly on the side of those advocating for science and sound health.

Will this temporarily reignited debate change things in the long run? Andrew Gumbell of the Guardian (US Edition) thinks so. He sees the situation as “a reason [for anti-vax parents] either to rethink some of the doubts they have about vaccination, or to dig in and resist even harder.” He did find that “many previously outspoken parents have gone suddenly quiet,” though, noting that he had trouble finding anti-vaxxers willing to go on the record about the Disney. One assumes they are reluctant to defend such an obvious failure of their point of view.

Keith Kloor over at Discover, on the other hand, feels the media is actually overreacting in the way it’s tying the Disney breakout to anti-vaccination. His concern is that ratcheting up the media hype is leading to, among other things, a tendency for frustrated doctors to “lash out at vaccine-hesitant parents” and that all of the media coverage will ultimately “overstating the importance of the anti-vaccine movement” and “unnecessarily demonize and alienate vaccine-hesitant parents.” In other words, it will make such parents less likely to vaccinate.

An example of a doctor taking a stand against anti-vax.

An example of a doctor taking a stand against anti-vax (from Facebook, via SGU).

I respectfully disagree with Kloor, though, and I cheer the renewed media interest in promoting good science. The media overreacts about everything. At least this time their overreaction is bringing some positive attention to the benefits of vaccination. Certainly, there are parents out there who will push back against all the negative attention the anti-vaccine movement is getting; but many of them were choosing not to vaccinate already. Conversely, it’s also quite possible that some undecided parents will break in favor of vaccination. This is a polarizing moment, and polarization tends to push both ways.

It would be nice to think that the current Disneyland outbreak will have some positive impact in the long run. It’s certainly the most high profile black eye the anti-vaccine movement has gotten in recent years. You don’t taint the House of Mouse, the icon of American tourism, without taking a hit.   And it’s a well-deserved hit, not just for the sake of science, or of society, but for the sake of those who are the most vulnerable victims of this ignorance: the children who are being denied vaccination and therefore placed in harm’s way because their parents — who are themselves likely vaccinated — have chosen to reject science in favor of fear.

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About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
This entry was posted in Alternative Medicine, Conspiracy Theories, Health and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Will Disneyland Change the Vaccination Debate?

  1. St.John Fuller says:

    I am aware that this all started off with the Andrew Wakefield paper that was published in the late eighties. The focus of that of course being the fear that the MMR jab could cause autism. I am going to skip the argument of does it or does it not but rather ask what is it in Autism that parents are so fearful of? I read an article a couple of days ago that stated that mothers in South Korea would rather be publicly shamed as bad mothers than have their children be diagnosed with Autism.
    I have to admit that I have no real idea what the full spectrum of Autism is. All I know is that some people with Autism are gifted and some are terribly difficult people and have huge problems with integrating into society. I was wondering (again setting aside the argument of, ‘does the MMR vaccine cause Autism’) whether people need to be better educated regarding Autism and all it’s variations. Shouldn’t we be asking what is it that we hold to be so fearful so as to drive us to make the decisions that we are.
    PS I support Mike Ginsbergs stance.

  2. TorchWood says:

    To start with, the anti-vaxers need to apply some fundamental science to their claim starting with:

    1] How many children received that batch of vaccine
    2] How many children vaccinated with that batch have subsequently been diagnosed as autistic
    3] How many children in the general population who are not vaccinated are diagnosed as autistic
    4] How many children in the general population who are vaccinated are diagnosed as autistic
    5] Of the families who have a child who was diagnosed as autistic have a family history of autism and/or related conditions
    6] Of the families who do not have a child diagnosed as autistic have a family history of autism and/or related conditions
    7] In families with a history of autism and/or related conditions had a child diagnosed with autism after a vaccination
    8] In families with a history of autism and/or related conditions had a child diagnosed with autism who has never been vaccinated.
    9] In families without a history of autism and/or related conditions had a child diagnosed with autism after a vaccination
    10] In families without a history of autism and/or related conditions had a child diagnosed with autism who has never been vaccinated.

    And that’s just to *start* a correlational study. After you crunch the numbers you can get down to the hard science.

    Not so damn simple, is it?

    Even more, Disney is unlikely to be willing to lose customers who are afraid of contagion. As with all theme parks, Disney relies on customer volume to stay solvent, and they may decide that they must establish new rules to protect their customers and secure their confidence is the safety of the theme park environment. Anti-vaxers may find themselves shut out by a new business policy for theme parks that requires proof of vaccination for entry which they are entitled to do as long as the policy applies to every child who walks through their doors.

    Protect your children: vaccinate.

    • TorchWood says:

      Yikes, I forgot to include a survey of those in the family history with autism to see if they also had or had not been vaccinated.

  3. Athro Dai says:

    MMR vaccine was not available here in Australia until the middle 1980s, but Classical Autism diagnoses were being given soon after 1951. Kanner published his original series of children who failed to fit the then-current diagnosis of “childhood schizophrenia” in the mid-1930s. Asperger’s series of adolescents who failed to meet 3rd-Reich expectations in the 1930s got recorded pre-WW2, but his papers in German were translated into English only decades later. If the Measles virus itself triggers Autism symptoms, how can we now prove historical figures like Mozart or Einstein had measles-induced Autism, as implied in Temple Grandin’s writings?

  4. peter goose mcallister says:

    In early medieval India there was a process called variolation which was used with a good(unlike most old medical methods) success rate. It was not without risks but people still opted for it because they knew normal smallpox infection was many times worse. All the evidence suggests vaccination is extremlly safe even the anti vaxers most hated enemy MMR vaccine, but even if there was a connection between autism and mmr -ther isnt- but if there was you would still be better of getting the vaccine than not. Andrew Wakefield the anti vaxers darling was this year stripped of his doctorate by the British medical board – a all to rare victory of intelligence and reason over stupidity and in wakefields case outright lies and deciet . I think Wakefield deserved far worse he manipulated confused and worried parents to the detriment of there children’s health.

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