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.

Rush Limbaugh. Click image to expand.
Rush Limbaugh 

Swine flu may have an unexpected side effect: political unity. The far left and far right agree that they're sure as heck not getting vaccinated against swine flu.

On the anti-government right, swine flu vaccinations are seen as an example of government overreach. Last week, Rush Limbaugh made headlines by announcing that he would not be getting a shot. "Screw you, Ms. Sebelius," he said on his radio show, referring to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. "I'm not going to take it precisely because you're now telling me I must." Glenn Beck has declined to say whether he's getting vaccinated. But he's made his position pretty clear, suggesting that the vaccine may turn out to be "deadly," raising the specter of mandatory vaccines (they're voluntary), and saying he wants the "U.S. out of my bloodstream."

Advertisement

On the left, there are prominent doctors, lawyers, and Hollywood celebrities skeptical of vaccines in general—and the swine flu vaccine especially. In a September article written for the Huffington Post, Dr. Frank Lipman recommended against getting vaccinated, arguing that the virus seems benign and the vaccine is unproven. Earlier this year, Jim Carrey—yes, that Jim Carrey—penned a HuffPost column reiterating the oft-made (and widely discredited) point that vaccines may cause autism. Robert F. Kennedy made a similar argument in a famous (and also largely discredited) 2005 article that appeared in Rolling Stone and Salon. The anti-vaccination movement is hardly exclusive to the left wing, but declines in vaccination rates have occurred in large part because of affluent parents in states like California.

Now, thanks to the government's plan to ship 250 million doses of H1N1 flu vaccine to all 50 states this month, the two sides have finally found common cause. They may hold different political opinions, but they share a worldview: distrust—of doctors and modern medicine or of government. There's even some overlap. Beck, for example, said that "you don't know if this is gonna cause neurological damage like it did in the 1970s"—a fear commonly cited by vaccine skeptics. (Claims that the 1976 flu vaccine caused Guillain-Barré syndrome have not been proven.) Meanwhile, those who fear the needle aren't all that confident in their government, either: Dr. Lipman warns that HHS has given the drug companies manufacturing the vaccines immunity from lawsuits.

HHS created a "Myths vs. Facts" page last week to address both types of qualms. First among them is the concern that swine flu shots are mandatory. "The federal government's vaccination program for H1N1 flu is VOLUNTARY," the site explains, dismissing an online petition that states otherwise as "simply false." Lower down, HHS addresses concerns that the vaccine can cause unrelated illnesses like heart attacks, miscarriages, or Guillain-Barré syndrome: "These events are no more common among people who have received seasonal flu vaccine than in people who have not."

Some of the myths circulating are neither left crazy nor right crazy, but simply crazy. Several Web sites have suggested that H1N1 is a vehicle for the government to implant microchips in our bodies to detect "bio-threats." At least one site posits that the vaccine contains a "Bible Code" connecting swine flu to prophesies in the Book of Revelation. HHS has yet to debunk this one. (See other common swine flu myths here.)

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.

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.

  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.