Conspiracy Theories and Vaccination

A little while back, I had the chance to go to the San Diego Zoo with my family. Over at the polar bears’ habitat, there was a big exhibit on global warming and how it affects polar bears. I mused over this for a little while. Climate change (formerly known as “global warming”) is still fairly controversial. People who don’t believe climate change is occurring are lumped in with moon landing hoax proponents and those irrational, deluded souls who don’t vaccinate themselves or their children. But here is the reality, if you start talking about climate change hurting the polar bears, you’re bound to start losing some people and could be written off as an extreme tree-hugging environmentalist. (Don’t you just love the way we all label each other?) A better tactic might have been something like this:

People come to see the polar bears. Polar bears are cute and fun. They’re fascinating and majestic. If people come and get to see the polar bears they will probably fall in love with them. Fill the exhibit with cool facts and pictures of polar bears in the wild- including cubs and mothers. (The San Diego Zoo is doing well up to this point.) Then start talking about the threats to polar bears survival, specifically habitat destruction- but don’t mention climate change. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but don’t mention climate change because if you do, people will dismiss threats to polar bears as paranoia. Tell people to reduce pollution, recycle, use eco-friendly products, etc. But don’t actually mention climate change. Because here’s the thing, whether climate change/global warming is occurring or not, whether it will cause polar bears to go extinct, whether human made pollution is responsible for some/all of the warming and what the ultimate outcome of it will be, reducing pollution, recycling and buying eco-friendly products will be beneficial- and most people will agree to that.

Also, these strategies will beneficial to humans as well. (This is a problem that the public health community is facing- the separation of environmental health and public health is actually making it harder to gain support for environmental health policies, even if the policies would benefit people too. Helping people understand that helping the environment actually means helping themselves will be crucial to the advancement of public health.)

I think the same is true with vaccines and theories about possible ulterior motives to vaccination programs. Personally, I think the greatest threat to vaccine choice is probably not pharmaceutical companies and the AMA, but rather people who use conspiracy theories instead of data to back up their stance opposing vaccines. Now part of the reason I think this happens is that people hear that the science behind vaccines is completely settled and there is nothing more to debate about it. So they feel they need to poke holes in vaccination through other means- instead of questioning whether or not the data on vaccines is airtight.

But here’s the thing about conspiracy theories: they’re not relevant to the actual question of whether or not vaccination is effective- and that is the real issue. Yes, it is entirely possible that eugenics was related to the vaccine campaigns of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Eugenics was considered a fact at the time. (However, it’s also possible that in the Industrial Revolution the medical community was simply enamored with idea of the latest technology eliminating disease and ushering us into a brave, new world of amazing health with a huge profit potential.) Could vaccines be related to population control strategies? Maybe. Perhaps, you believe that the moon landing was a hoax, that the Holocaust never happened, that the JFK assassination and September 11 (either one or both) were inside jobs. You are entitled to your beliefs (though I will disagree with you on all counts). But none of those things actually have anything to do with whether or not vaccines are effective and trying to bolster your stance by adding what might be viewed as “conspiracy theories” are only going to hurt you and everyone else. It wouldn’t matter if all of the above were true, because if they were but vaccines were really 99.9% safe and effective, people would choose vaccination. And that is the real problem- people think vaccines are 99.9% safe and effective when they actually aren’t. Thus, it’s important to deal with vaccines on the effectiveness level.

And as for the polar bears, looking at the problem from another perspective outside of global warming/climate change could be very beneficial. Running a scenario where we look for other possibilities outside of climate change could help us see new solutions or new threats to the polar bears that might otherwise be overlooked. From a scientific perspective, I think it pays to be thorough. (For an interesting article on polar bears and the climate change controversy take a look at this article from the BBC.)