“It’s an Emotional Topic”

What is the meaning of the upsurge in resistance to vaccination this year?  Why is the public fighting more vigorously than ever those who are trying to help them avoid serious infections?

The Times reported that a conference organized by the National Vaccine Information Center, an anti-vaccinator activist group, attracted “675 people, more than double the number at the group’s last conference….  Unlike most people associated with the center. . . the newcomers were not traditional skeptics.”  The President of the Center noted that the swine flu vaccine campaign “breathed new life” into the cause. (See “Swine Flu Shots Revive a Debate About Vaccines.”)

There has always been an undercurrent of suspicion towards medical treatments, grounded in the fact that they are invasive and they can’t guarantee success.   But most people accept them because of the authority of physicians – an authority, in turn, based upon the quality of our medical education and the ethical standards the professions uphold.

Then there is suspicion of government.  Those entrusted with protecting us by regulating banks and investment firms have turned out to be more corrupt and self-interested than we ever imagined.  And this comes on top of FEMA’s disastrous incompetence in the wake of Katrina.  Faith in government has been seriously eroded.  According to the polls, most of us approve of Obama,  but he presides over a vast, entrenched bureaucracy we have all-too-many reasons to doubt.

I wonder, though, if the intense public debates about health care reform may not have tipped the scales this year.  As the various components of the health care industry – the drug companies, the insurance companies, the HMOs, the hospitals and professional associations for doctors, nurses, etc. — have all lobbied to protect their distinct interests, they have also exposed the degree to which they are competitive with each other and self-serving.  The public’s exposure to this political struggle, displayed relentlessly in the news, makes it clear that the health care industry’s primary focus is not the public interest.  It’s hard to imagine that this has not had some impact on the trust the public feels towards those it traditionally relies upon.

The makers of vaccines have profits to protect – and sometimes inadequate trials to hide.  The physicians earn a fee for every injection, even if is administered by a nurse.  Pharmacies make a profit too.  The regulating agencies that approve the vaccines have been shown to be not entirely above political influence.  As they fight with each other, their credibility declines.

The Times quoted one mother who feels there is “something different” about this vaccine. “I go back and forth on this every day. It’s an emotional topic.”  But, perhaps, the difference this time is not in the vaccine.