Trump’s choice of vac­cine foe Kennedy could worsen po­lit­i­cal ills

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - OPINION - — Orange County Reg­is­ter, Dig­i­tal First Media

Not one to skirt con­tro­versy, Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump has rein­serted him­self into a mar­ginal but re­veal­ing con­tro­versy: vac­cines.

Draw­ing fire from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum — but also some cheers — Trump asked Demo­crat Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a well-known op­po­nent of stan­dard prac­tices, to head up a new com­mis­sion on vac­ci­na­tions. Kennedy agreed.

Trump has claimed he sim­ply wants to en­sure vac­cines are as safe as they can be, but Kennedy has used ex­treme, alarmist lan­guage about the sup­posed risk. He had to apol­o­gize, for in­stance, for us­ing the word “holo­caust.” Rather than mak­ing things better, the com­mis­sion could make them worse.

In a po­lit­i­cal mo­ment de­fined by the gulf be­tween elite judg­ments and pop­ulist pas­sions, few is­sues are more po­lar­iz­ing than vac­ci­na­tions. Fu­eled by fears of hard­ship, heartache, and an un­ac­count­able health care sys­tem, a vo­cal “anti-vax” move­ment emerged from the rel­a­tive fringe to be­come a sur­pris­ing elec­tion-year con­stituency.

But al­though autism di­ag­noses have in­creased over the years, and the pace of vac­ci­na­tion for new­borns and young chil­dren has ac­cel­er­ated over decades, there is no clear ev­i­dence that any­thing in com­monly used vac­cines causes autism. In fact, af­ter a se­ries of scares in anti-vax parts of Cal­i­for­nia where al­most un­heard-of child­hood dis­eases be­gan to re­turn, many pol­i­cy­mak­ers have urged greater sup­port for the strong sci­en­tific con­sen­sus against re­fus­ing to vac­ci­nate.

Un­for­tu­nately, sci­en­tists and of­fi­cials on the right side of the facts have been caught up in a wave of jus­ti­fied dis­may with the self-en­ti­tle­ment and pushy agenda of social en­gi­neers — in­clud­ing so­called “tech­nocrats” whose de­gree of ex­per­tise does not al­ways align as well with their am­bi­tions to change pub­lic be­hav­ior as they believe.

At a time when al­most any bu­reau­cratic or par­ti­san hob­by­horse can be framed as a mat­ter of “pub­lic health,” the politi­ciza­tion of medicine was in­evitable, as was the fo­cus on vac­cines — where par­ents are asked to sur­ren­der a max­i­mum of con­trol to al­low the most in­va­sive of pro­ce­dures. Add in the rise of fake or fil­tered news, shared within tight-knit iden­tity groups, and the re­sult has been a recipe for fury, near-panic and ide­o­log­i­cal war­fare.

On one hand, the mis­be­got­ten vac­cine de­bate shows just how badly elites have dam­aged their cred­i­bil­ity. But on the other, it also shows how badly mis­in­for­ma­tion, fear­fu­eled fan­tasy and su­per­sti­tion have risen to fill the gap. It’s a pic­ture of Amer­ica’s in­sti­tu­tional break­down in mi­cro­cosm. And like the broader malaise, it won’t be cured any­time soon by more con­tro­versy, more fear-mon­ger­ing, or more phony im­par­tial­ity.

Qual­i­fied ex­perts still do ex­ist across the coun­try. Many le­git­i­mately hold in­flu­en­tial po­si­tions, and many are wor­thy of re­spect­ful def­er­ence. Putting a vac­cine com­mis­sion in the hands of a move­ment diehard like Kennedy sets the kind of tone that is un­likely to pro­duce a prac­ti­cal, au­thor­i­ta­tive way for­ward.

In large mea­sure, across a range of in­dus­tries, elites have brought their cri­sis of au­thor­ity upon them­selves. Their fringe crit­ics, how­ever, have lit­tle to of­fer in their stead. Politi­cians, in­clud­ing those in the White House, should help fix this prob­lem, not ex­ac­er­bate it.

It’s a pic­ture of Amer­ica’s in­sti­tu­tional break­down in mi­cro­cosm. And like the broader malaise, it won’t be cured any­time soon by more con­tro­versy, more fear­mon­ger­ing, or more phony im­par­tial­ity.

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