A prime example of effective issue management is the world-wide campaign opposing childhood vaccination against life-threatening diseases. It’s also an example of an issue achieving a remarkable level of success despite its basic premise being so fundamentally flawed.
But some recent developments suggest the tide just might be starting to turn. In the United States the anti-vaccination icon Jenny McCarthy has finally abandoned most of her more extreme advocacy, even though she tries to argue she hasn’t changed her mind at all. After years of attacking childhood vaccination and supporting the totally discredited claim that vaccination causes autism, the former playboy bunny-turned author and talk-show host now claims she is actually pro-vaccination and simply opposes doctors giving children multiple immunization shots at once.
That will come as a surprise to her supporters, whose decision not to vaccinate has helped cause a deadly upsurge in preventable disease such as measles and whooping cough. It will also be a surprise to the people who believed her books and speeches supporting the now-disbarred doctor whose discredited study first claimed the link to autism. As Mary Elizabeth Williams concluded in Salon.com: “clinging to research that’s been deemed patently fraudulent does not make one a ‘mother warrior.’ It makes her a menace.” Now, a cynic might think that McCarthy’s clear change of heart has more to do with the controversy which surrounded this high profile campaigner’s appointment onto the US daytime TV panel show The View. But at least it is a step in the right direction.
In Australia too there has been some success against the most vocal of the anti-vaccination groups driving this deadly issue. In March the high-profile Australian Vaccination Network was forced by a court ruling to change its name to one that more clearly reflects its anti-vaccination views, and it’s now called the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network. A week later the controversial group was stripped its registered charity status for tax-deductible fundraising because potential misinformation could impact on children’s health. Yet the impact goes on.
Earlier this year it was reported that a swath of inner-city, affluent Melbourne suburbs are falling below safe vaccination rates for children receiving the MMR (mumps, measles and rubella) vaccine, leaving doctors worried about an increased risk of potentially fatal diseases. Australian Medical Association Victoria vice-president Dr Tony Batone said educated professional parents from affluent suburbs are either underestimating the risk of preventable diseases or not immunising over ”unsubstantiated claims linked to autism”.
And last month came reports that the brilliantly successful childhood immunization campaign in Brazil is now under threat from measles outbreaks caused by unvaccinated tourists from the United States and Europe, with a massive and potentially deadly influx of tourists due for the World Cup in June this year, and the Olympics in 2016.
Sadly, it will take much more than tactical victories to really turn the tide. With its effects seen around the world and across borders, anti-vaccination is an issue campaign with deep-seated support and long-lasting impact. But unlike most issue campaigns, this really is a matter of life and death.