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Will Disneyland Change the Vaccination Debate?

by Alison Hudson

February 3, 2015

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Donate 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 theanti-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.

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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by Alison Hudson

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