Why the far left and the far right both oppose swine flu vaccinations.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 12 2009 6:54 PM

Pig Pile

The bizarre alliance of the far left and far right against swine flu vaccinations.

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Myth-busting is familiar territory for the Obama administration. In 2008, his campaign created a Web site, Fight the Smears, to counter suggestions that Obama was not born in the United States and that Michelle Obama was caught on video using the epithet whitey. But vaccine fact-checking is different. While most of the campaign-era claims came from the right, HHS has to fend off misinformation from both sides of the aisle. That means not just correcting the record but doing so without offending potential allies. Given the heightened emotion around vaccines, that's not easy. Hence the respectful and straight-faced answer to whether you can get swine flu by eating pork.

What explains the bizarre alliance? It turns out anti-vaccine hysteria has always been a bipartisan issue. The last major American vaccine scares occurred in 1976, under a Republican administration. Under both Bushes, many troops stationed in the Persian Gulf refused to take the vaccine against anthrax.

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Trypanophobia is also common across demographics. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that only 40 percent of adults were sure they'd get vaccinated. Among the reasons parents gave for not getting their child vaccinated, No. 3 was that they "don't trust public health officials to provide correct info about vaccine safety." Young people are no better, even though they're especially at-risk for contracting swine flu. Vincent Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University, recently polled a class of 50 students on who was going to get vaccinated against swine flu. Not a single hand went up. "I was teaching them about influenza in that lecture, so maybe I didn't do a good job," Racaniello recalls.

Indeed, there's nothing more universal than fear of shots. "I just think there are people wired that way," says Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic. "They operate on the basis of emotion and anecdote—what they read at the University of Google—rather than a fact-based or data-driven point of view."In the 19th century, people thought the cowpox vaccine would cause pieces of cow to grow out of their arms. Canadian medical giant William Osler was widely mocked when he urged British troops at the beginning of World War I to get inoculated against typhoid fever. The French government stopped offering vaccinations for hepatitis B in schools in 1998 while it investigated the relationship between shots and multiple sclerosis. (Subsequent studies found no causation.)

Still, the current political climate is a veritable petri dish for swine flu fears. For one thing, the debate over health care reform has already stirred up suspicions that the government will use medicine to hurt the American people. (The charges range from well-intentioned negligence to conspiratorial world domination.) Meanwhile, post-Katrina, lack of disaster preparation is unacceptable. Politicians would rather overreact than underrreact. Then, of course, there's the Internet echo chamber and the vague paranoia surrounding Obama. A caller recently told Glenn Beck that "if this were five years ago, I'd probably say definitely, I'll take it [the vaccine]." Perhaps there's a simpler, more elegant explanation for why members of both political extremes refuse to get vaccinated: natural selection.

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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