From 1998 to 2014, radio and TV personality Don Imus ran a working cattle ranch for kids with cancer—a spread in New Mexico replete with ranch hands, doctors and a medical staff, His expressed goal was to provide some continuity in the young victims’ lives as they struggled against the disease. The children and their families paid nothing.
Ironically, at the same time his wife Deidre was providing the impetus for once-eradicated diseases to make a comeback. Deidre Imus was one of the first big-name personalities to attach credibility and status to the now-debunked idea that there exists a link between vaccines and autism.
I’m not trying to establish a false equivalency here: cancer and measles are not the same. But we miss the point if we consider measles a cold with spots. In 2017 the illness killed 110,000 people worldwide—and that’s with the ready availability of a preventative. Before the introduction of that vaccine, epidemics occurred every two or three years and killed 2.6 million people annually.
Yet, despite the inherent danger and extreme contagion of measles, we are finding more and more parents demurring when it comes to vaccinations. The risk of autism used to be the sticking point, this despite overwhelming scientific proof to the contrary. When that was the fear, though, I could understand parents’ concerns: parents are rightly concerned over everything. We send our children of sixteen out to drive with some trepidation—I wonder if that’s a bigger peril than "risking" a vaccination against polio, or tetanus, or measles.
Now it appears that the fear of autism has taken a back seat to a religious movement. And not to mix metaphors, but the anti-vaccination movement has taken a religious right turn. Today parents are objecting on the grounds that their religion forbids preventative inoculations, or in some cases, that their religion centers on forbidding preventative inoculations. (I’m not sure what these folks' churches look like, but they probably smell better than hospitals.)
But the most frightening part of all this is also the most predictable. And though not all those who deny their children vaccinations are Trump supporters, the philosophy is right out of his playbook: establish a distrust for convention and institutions, and in the ensuing chaos, establish a new norm—one that benefits no one but the individual. After all, who benefits when children go unvaccinated? Not the children.
But it’s even more insidious than that. When laws are passed to keep kids out of public education, parents will be compelled to choose private schools—the darlings of Betsy DeVos and the religious right. Once vaccinations can be regarded by the mainstream as a religious conviction—once children are discriminated against because of “religion,” we open up a whole new Constitutional can of worms. (Or maybe a can of Constitutional worms?) It’s a clever end-around in the Trump/Evangelical attack on public education—even “better” because it attacks science in the same fell swoop. If medicine is wrong, how could global warming be a thing? And maybe the world is only 6,000 years old. I can hear it now: "You can shove your carbon-dating—I counted the prophets in the Bible."
Deidre Imus peddled her well-intentioned foolishness before there was a Facebook or a Twitter. It was her voice on the radio, the echoing responses of conspiracy theorists, and gullible people—like me. I can remember conversations two decades ago about Thimerisal and Mercury, and I wonder what kind of misinformation I myself spread before I learned that the source of the fear was a flawed and bogus 1998 study in a British journal, one that skewed results and even recruited anti-vaccine parents to provide "evidence." (Most reasonable observers attribute the rise in autism to the same factors that have created a rise in Alzheimer’s disease: a condition that had no name or place in the spotlight suddenly did.
The arrogance and disregard for the wellbeing of other human beings are topics for another time; as is the years wasted in autism study while researchers were trying to defend what did not need defending.
For now my fear is stepping back in time—of doing what the red hats suggest: returning to that MAGA epoch of history when parents stood helplessly by while their children died of diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, and measles.
The America that was so "great." It's right on our doorstep.