'Part of this is our fault': Global Health expert talks anti-vaccine movement, preventable diseases

A global health expert depicted the anti-vaccine movement and neglected tropical diseases as two key causes of preventable deaths.

On Monday, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, gave the first lecture of the Victor J. Dzau Global Health Lecture Series. Hotez said he believes it is an obligation for scientists to engage the public, himself being an advocate for attention to poverty-related neglected diseases, as well as a supporter of vaccines.

As a critic of the anti-vaccine movement, Hotez's actions have prompted a police cruiser to spend 24 hours in front of his house as protection. But he pinned some blame for the rise of the movement on the scientific community itself.

“Part of this is our fault. It’s not in [my generation of scientists’] DNA to engage the public,” Hotez said. “Eighty-one percent of Americans cannot even name a living scientist.”

'Blue marble health'

To drive his argument regarding neglected tropical diseases, Hotez pointed to a paradigm he coined, “blue marble health,” which refers to the fact that most poverty-related neglected tropical diseases occur in the G20—the 20 wealthiest countries in the world, including the United States.

Hotez displayed the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, in which poverty-driven neglected tropical diseases are lumped into “other diseases.” This showed that public health interests were being put before diseases of poverty, he argued.

As an example, Hotez explained that the technology for creating the Ebola vaccine sat idly from 2003 until the Ebola outbreak, more than a decade later, because there was no financial incentive to develop the vaccine. After the outbreak, the vaccine was developed in “record time,” but not until after the outbreak had already slowed and 11,000 people had died.

The catch-22 is that investors want to know the success of a vaccine before investing, Hotez said, but getting to know the success of a vaccine demands investment. 

“It really shows that our technical ability to develop vaccines has outpaced our social, political and financial institutions to develop vaccines,” Hotez said, “It’s not just the science, it’s all this other stuff.”

Vaccines cause autism?

A major argument against vaccines is that vaccines cause autism. However, Hotez, whose daughter is autistic, wrote countless articles citing scientific evidence that there is no link between autism and vaccines.

To Hotez, It is no wonder that the anti-vaccine movement has gained traction. He cited a multitude of reasons that have propelled the movement, including that invalidated research papers can take 12 years to be retracted and that anti-vaccine websites exist with names such as the National Vaccine Information Center.

Hotez also pointed to political action committees like Texans for Vaccine Choice, which are dedicated to electing anti-vaccine officials into office. But Hotez said the phenomenon goes beyond just Texas or the United States because these organizations are “exporting this anti-vax garbage” to communities around the world.

Asked about how possible changes in the legal system could occur to hold people accountable for promoting anti-vaccination, Hotez provided an ominous look at the future.

“Sorry to present such an apocalyptic vision, but I think it’s going to take a horrific measles outbreak,” Hotez said. “It’s frustrating. You can see [the outbreak] coming.”

Hotez also noted that in the past few years, Texas has had two small measles outbreaks.

“We’re waiting for the big one,” he said.

The anti-vaccine movement has cross party lines in Washington so that there are individuals on both sides of the aisle who oppose vaccination, Hotez said. He noted that the “peace, love, granola” political left makes the argument that “we have to be careful what we put into our kids’ bodies,” while the political right contends that “you can’t tell us what to do with our kids.”

“[Anti-vaccine organizations] camouflage themselves as a political group, but I call them for what they really are: a hate group,” Hotez said. “They are a hate group that hates [our] family and hates [our] children.”

Editor's Note: This article was updated at 7:30 p.m. Thursday to reflect the intent behind a quote Hotez said during the event.


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