“What’s with all the anti-vaxxers out there?” I’ve been asked a lot recently, as if the people who spread cynical, science-free anti-vaccine propaganda on TV, in print, and all over social media suddenly materialized out of thin air. Meghan O’Rourke reminds us that vaccinations haven’t always been popular:

[V]accinations have long been a kind of locus of cultural fear, revealing the nature of our fears. Vaccinations, after all, only work if everyone is in it together. You need to have a herd for herd immunity. Our body politic is splintering and fragmenting, and it is reflected in our vaccination rates. To make a herd, you need to believe in the imagined collective: to be concerned not only about yourself, but the others in the polity.

This fear isn’t new, though our particular iteration of it is modern. Although vaccinations were actually folk medicine in their earliest form (farmers knew that milkmaids exposed to cowpox rarely got smallpox), as the writer Eula Biss points out in On Immunity, people have almost always distrusted them. During an 18th-century smallpox epidemic, citizens in France contested their use, leading Voltaire to inveigh that “twenty thousand persons whom the small-pox swept away at Paris in 1723 [c]ould have been alive at this time.”


In “America’s vaccination crisis is a symptom of our broken society,” O’Rourke acknowledges that it’s hard for some in society to accept the evidence-based consensus that vaccines are safe and effective when we can’t even agree on what’s real:

Our vaccination debate doesn’t map tidily on to national politics – indeed, anti-vaxxers seem to be spread almost equally across political parties. But our divided politics and the anti-vaxxer movement share three things: distrust of authority, divisive cherry-picking of evidence on both sides, and the fundamental erosion of trust among stakeholders. How can we join together to defeat measles when we don’t share a reality?


The battle is less political and more ideological — the notion that American individualism trumps (no pun intended) the collective good:

Given rising levels of distrust across political parties, it is no surprise that we also can’t agree on the social value of immunity, in which my child’s vaccination will help your grandfather live, or my own vaccination will help your infant survive before she is eligible for her own vaccinations.

In this sense, the debate over vaccination isn’t just about distrust of medicine or a false nostalgia for our “natural” past. It’s also an expression of the limits of American individualism: a natural (if you will) manifestation of a culture that believes realizing one’s own destiny is the apogee of freedom.


Ideally, political and ideologic realities should be based on facts. If we can’t even agree on those, then I’m afraid the anti-vaxxers aren’t going anywhere.

Read the rest of Meghan O’Rourke’s essay in The Guardian here.


(Google Images — “Relativity” by MC Escher/Wikipedia)