This post is a part of our Bioethics in the News series
By Hannah C. Giunta, DO, PhD, MPH
A recent measles outbreak in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN metro area is all over the news. More than thirty children have been treated at local hospitals, and at least 50 measles cases have been confirmed. The local Somali immigrant community has been hardest hit in large part due to their low vaccination rates. Commentators have demanded a variety of measures to control the vaccine-preventable disease, including enhanced border security. However, there has been less coverage of the outbreak as evidence of systemic social injustice.
Indeed, no matter what ones views are on compulsory vaccination, Somali parents’ vaccine refusal is not a case of informed, empowered parental choice but one of disadvantage and exploitation. The Somali immigrant community has been targeted by anti-vaccine activists spreading scientifically suspect information. Activists have taken advantage of an as yet unexplained increased rate of severe autism (but not autism in general) in the Somali community, encouraging parents not to vaccinate while spreading long debunked claims about the link between vaccination and autism. Realizing that internet rumors were not effective, activists have taken to personally visiting families and warning them about the dangers of vaccination. Yet, there is a real temptation to place some of the blame for the epidemic on Somali parents. Even commentators who rightly place blame on the anti-vaccine activists and declare the situation quite literally “a natural experiment” do not take the extra step of calling activists what they really are: gamblers and fraudulent pseudo-scientists willing to bet on the lives of disadvantaged children. This is not a case about free speech or poor parental decision-making; rather, it is a case of advocates conducting a so-called “natural” experiment where they stand to possibly gain the benefits (i.e. possible support for their cause) without taking on or acknowledging any of the risks faced by their subject-victims. The activists are guilty not just of being ill-informed and having dubious goals but also of perpetrating a larger social injustice.
While people certainly have the right to free speech and we all have a responsibility to evaluate the information presented to us, anti-vaccine advocates in this case chose to target a vulnerable population and to take advantage of individuals’ lack of empowerment. Of course, they did not set out to conduct a classic scientific experiment, but they are certainly still guilty of participating in a type of experiment. Some might say that the activists were just trying to help Somali families because they sincerely believe in a link between autism and vaccination. Others would argue that these individuals are not qualified scientists and were not performing research. But, the activists’ project was more devious than misinformation. The activists sought to target a minority community, take advantage of a medical puzzle, keep community members in the dark about their true objectives, and to recruit participants into a risky gamble where “benefits” primarily accrue to the activists themselves. After all, if the activists could point to any decline in the autism rate (regardless of causation) or show the public that vaccine-preventable infections are simple childhood illnesses from which children recover without incident, they would have more “data” to support their cause. The very fact that parents believed the activists likely lent more credibility to the anti-vaccine crusade in populist minds. If enough people believe the message, surely there must be something to it?
The social injustice implications of a pseudo-research paradigm come into focus when we consider three major aspects of the case in question. First, the activists exploited their own relative privilege by providing biased information. There is no way that individuals engaged with the anti-vaccine campaign are unaware of vaccine-preventable diseases and the risks they present. They simply choose not to focus on those risks. They so strongly support their own hypothesis that they believe it to be true despite evidence to the contrary, much like a researcher might believe that nothing could possibly go wrong in an experiment. Anti-vaccine activists usually have access to many sources of information and thereby a certain degree of epistemic privilege. They have socioeconomic resources to travel to ethnic enclaves and meet with Somali families. On the other hand, the Somali community in Minnesota continues to struggle with poverty, unemployment, and related social ills. Somali children are already at-risk for poorer health outcomes, but the activists did not consider this relative health disadvantage.
Secondly, the activists maximized their own benefits while placing all of the burdens on the Somali children. The segregation of poor Somali immigrants into certain ethnic enclaves virtually insures that children, including the activists’ children, outside these neighborhoods face much less risk of illness. Should there be a serious outbreak, Somali children would bear the burden, not the activists’ children. The Somali community would also be blamed for not vaccinating their children, absolving the activists’ of responsibility through a leveraging of their privileged social position.
Lastly, even with obvious evidence that the Somali community is suffering a measles outbreak, activists have failed to reach out and attempt to retract their message. Their pseudoscientific project continues unabated. They cloak themselves in the language of science while allowing a natural experiment to run wild and harm innocent children. Clearly, they believe their agenda and hypothesis about autism causation are more important than the lives of innocent children. Measles does kill, and over 30% of children will experience one or more complications, including diarrhea and dehydration, pneumonia, and encephalitis. Perhaps, if anti-vaccine crusaders wish to engage in pseudoscience, we should hold them to the standards and responsibilities of real medical scientists, including the wrongful death of any children who succumb and the continuing expense of measles-related complications. You can’t yell “fire” in a crowded room if there really isn’t a fire, and activists have crossed a line and are doing just that. We, in the name of equitable health outcomes, need to remind activists that words do matter and their experiment has failed.
Hannah C. Giunta is a May 2017 graduate of the Michigan State University DO-PhD program. She received her MPH in May 2015 and her philosophy PhD in May 2016. Dr. Giunta is an incoming Mayo Clinic Pediatrics Resident.
Join the discussion! Your comments and responses to this commentary are welcomed. The author will respond to all comments made by Thursday, June 1, 2017. With your participation, we hope to create discussions rich with insights from diverse perspectives.