Workers Vanguard No. 1154
3 May 2019
Capitalism Hazardous to Your Health
Measles Outbreak: For Mandatory Vaccinations!
The fearmongering and lies of anti-vaccine zealots are taking a real-world toll. Measles, the highly infectious disease that was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, has returned with full force amid a precipitous drop in immunizations nationally. Over 700 cases across 22 states are confirmed already this year, with the great majority in New York City and its environs. Nevertheless, virtually no action was taken by government officials to counter this potentially deadly disease for half a year after it first broke out last fall in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Borough Park and in suburban Rockland County.
Measles can be prevented by one of the most highly effective vaccines available for any disease. Since the measles virus is so contagious, a very high rate of vaccination (almost 95 percent) is needed to attain “herd immunity,” that is, protection against the disease spreading to people, such as infants and the sick, who cannot be vaccinated because they have weakened immune systems.
The failure to immediately provide free vaccinations is an example of the depraved indifference of the capitalist rulers to the health and welfare of working people and the poor. Measles can be devastating. In the years before the first vaccine became available in 1963, some 50,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized annually with complications, such as ear infections, pneumonia and acute encephalitis, a swelling of the brain that can be fatal. Worldwide, the disease killed an estimated 2.6 million every year. We are for mandatory vaccinations for measles and other common infectious diseases for which vaccines exist.
Early last month, NYC mayor Bill de Blasio finally ordered the immediate vaccination of everyone over six months of age in and around Williamsburg, unless they are medically exempt or can prove their immunity. Even then, the mandate allows for evasion through the payment of a $1,000 fine. Nonetheless, the directive, together with the efforts of medical professionals, has resulted in an uptick in vaccinations—and sparked blowback from anti-vaxxers, who orchestrated lawsuits by Brooklyn residents as well as by Rockland County parents challenging an emergency order there.
The attorney for the latter railed against such public health measures as “a wholesale effort to punish people who have legitimate religious exemptions.” Meanwhile, with increasing numbers of parents claiming exemptions for their children, low vaccination rates have made communities across the country vulnerable to epidemics of measles and other diseases. Among the current measles hot spots are Washington State and Oregon, where liberal and libertarian resistance to vaccination is touted by many as a defense of individual rights. But there is no individual “right” to spread infection. We are opposed to religious and philosophical exemptions, which almost every state permits in this class-divided society that encourages all manner of social backwardness.
Sometimes, individual rights clash with the demands of public health, and the issue has to be considered in the concrete. Quarantines, for example, involve restriction on personal movement. In response to measles outbreaks at the University of California Los Angeles and Cal State University L.A., county public health officials had the schools quarantine over 1,000 students, faculty and staff who were potentially exposed to the illness. Those who cannot provide proof of immunization are to be confined to their residences for up to 21 days, after which they will no longer be a risk to others. This quarantine is supportable under the circumstances, as are the closures of schools in NYC that have not provided student immunization records to the city health department.
Vaccines, like all health needs, should be freely available to all. We stand for quality health care for everyone, free at the point of delivery—a demand that runs up against the profit-gouging corporations that are at the core of the U.S. health care system. Our aim is to mobilize the multiracial working class to fight for the expropriation of the health care and pharmaceutical industries as part of sweeping away the capitalist order through socialist revolution.
A Plague on Anti-Vaxxers
Anti-vaxxers paint their crusade as one against the evils of Big Pharma and their paid-for government agents. There is more than plenty to distrust about the capitalist government. But the anti-vaccine hysteria has nothing to do with a “healthy” mistrust of the state. Rather, it is motivated by anti-scientific prejudices. The safety of the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine, which the anti-vaxxers falsely claim causes autism and other disorders, has been repeatedly demonstrated by exhaustive scientific studies. But for years, these scammers, backed up by Christian fundamentalists and celebrities from Hollywood to Trump Tower in New York, have pushed their own alternative reality. They argue that the vaccine is more dangerous than the virus itself, taking advantage of the fact that most people in the U.S. no longer have firsthand experience of measles.
The anti-science zealots have waged a well-coordinated campaign of glossy publications, online blitzes and mass phone calls. That this irrational nonsense can get a sympathetic hearing reflects the abysmally low level of science education in this deeply religious country. The fanatics harass doctors and others promoting the benefits of vaccines, seeking to intimidate them into silence. Anti-vaccination bills are currently pending in 20 states, and on the rare occasion legislators repeal non-medical exemptions, like in California in 2015, the vaccine rejecters find other ways to avoid immunization. There are classrooms in the state today with as few as 42 percent of kindergarteners vaccinated due to a cottage industry of rogue doctors who, for a fat fee, hand out bogus medical exemptions to well-heeled, self-absorbed parents.
Politicians of both capitalist parties have for years pandered to anti-vaccine quackery. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama claimed that the relationship between vaccines and autism was “inconclusive,” while a few years later Hillary Clinton pledged to investigate the matter. In 2012, prominent Democrats in the House Government Oversight Committee joined Tea Party Republicans in lambasting federal health officials over the supposed dangers of vaccines. One of the most prominent spokesmen for the retrograde anti-vaxxer movement is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who served as a lawyer for those bringing suit against the recent NYC public health mandate.
Anti-vaccine activists specially target certain communities, such as Somali Americans in Minnesota and Hasidim in New York. Among those repeatedly visiting the Minneapolis area was Andrew Wakefield, co-author of a fraudulent—and ultimately revoked—1998 study in The Lancet medical journal supposedly linking vaccines to autism. As a result of this campaign, the Somali American community’s vaccination rate, which had been among the highest in the state, fell to a mere 42 percent, and a measles outbreak followed in 2017.
Likewise, prior to the current epidemic, a slick brochure, “The Vaccine Safety Handbook,” was widely distributed in the Hasidic neighborhoods of Brooklyn. It featured false warnings that vaccines cause autism and contain cells from human fetuses. An editor of the brochure declared in an email: “Vaccines contain monkey, rat and pig DNA as well as cow-serum blood, all of which are forbidden for consumption according to kosher dietary law.”
The added stigma of being potential disease carriers has intensified prejudice against and fear of Hasidic Jews. Such are the gross results of the concerted campaign by the anti-vaxxers. In fact, de Blasio’s emergency declaration had significant support in the Brooklyn Jewish community. Most ultra-Orthodox rabbis consider vaccines to be kosher and have urged Jews to be vaccinated. The head of the United Jewish Organizations encouraged Williamsburg residents to comply with the vaccination order. An organization of Orthodox Jewish nurses is waging a campaign to encourage vaccinations, including by arranging home meetings with women, setting up a hotline and preparing its own brochure.
Capitalism and Infectious Disease
Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been calling for social media conglomerates to step up censorship of “vaccine misinformation.” Already, Facebook blocks anti-vaccination pages and groups, Instagram suppresses hashtags like #vaccinescauseautism and Pinterest banishes all search results having any relation, pro or con, to vaccines. Liberals have cheered on such moves, which are part of a growing trend by tech giants to censor media content according to what they deem acceptable—an ominous development that has already redounded against leftists, minorities and perceived opponents of the U.S. rulers. Instead, it is necessary to expose and defeat the dangerous quackery being peddled.
For the rulers of this capitalist society, it is an article of faith that health care is best served when left to private enterprise. But unless the well-being of the rich and powerful is threatened, the bourgeoisie sees little point in investing in public health. American families shell out a fortune on health insurance, prescription drugs and hospital stays, while Big Pharma spends notoriously little on developing new vaccines. The capitalist ruling class shows far more interest in funding potential bioweapons like anthrax, plague and rabbit fever.
Vaccines, which have saved countless lives, are among the world’s greatest medical advances, like clean water, sewage systems and antibiotics. But no vaccine alone can make up for the damage wrought by U.S. imperialism and the other capitalist powers, which have imposed on much of the planet the desperate conditions in which hideous scourges thrive. Some 110,000 cases of measles were reported worldwide in the first three months of this year, with over 170 million children under the age of 10 unprotected from the disease. A major anti-vaccine backlash was provoked by the CIA earlier this decade in Pakistan, one of the countries now hit hard by measles. A fake vaccination program, launched to obtain Osama bin Laden’s DNA prior to his assassination, led to real vaccinators being condemned to death and aggravated a polio crisis.
Many diseases that today afflict millions could be wiped out like smallpox was four decades ago, if only the heavy weight of the profit motive, as well as crippling superstition, were to be lifted from society. To make that a reality, the means of production must be ripped out of the hands of the capitalist class. Workers rule on an international scale promises the dawn of a communist world free of oppression, want and backwardness. Then, with tremendous resources available to medical science, human well-being would truly jump off the charts.