Two Sides of the Same Coin

It was a typical birthday party for a ten-year-old boy – balloons, cake, rambunctious kids. Oh, and party favors, too! 

But this was not your usual grab bag of gum and cheap toys. 

The loot bags also contained a British five-pound note, worth about $10.00 at the time. There was one small catch…

In order to get the party-prize, each little guest had to let the birthday boy’s dad draw a blood sample. 

Later, Dad laughingly recounted the hilariousness of the situation: “I lined them up and they stuck out their arms. Kids were fainting. One kid threw up all over his mother. It was just your standard 10-year-old’s birthday.”

And you thought bounce houses got out of control.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield used the blood samples he collected at his son’s birthday party in one of the most notorious medical studies in modern times. Wakefield’s study, published in the prestigious British medical journal Lancet, triggered a decades-long collapse of public confidence in one of the most significant medical advances in human history: vaccination. 

In his 1998 article, Wakefield claimed that in eight children, the onset of autism followed immunization with the MMR vaccine. Researchers all over the world tried to replicate his results, but no one could.

Still, vaccination rates plummeted in the UK and in the United States. 

The thing is . . . Wakefield made it all up.

The birthday party was just the beginning. In addition to an uncontrolled study with sketchy “volunteer” recruitment, he fabricated data. Before the Lancet article was published, Wakefield filed a patent for his own version of the MMR. Wakefield was also being paid for his “expert” testimony in a lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers.

Twelve years after publication, the Lancet retracted the article and Wakefield lost his medical license. Decades of world-wide research and tens of thousands of cases demonstrate no link between autism and vaccination.

Unrepentant, Wakefield continues to travel and speak to anti-vaccine groups. Despite the loss of a “measles-free” status in the UK and multiple measles outbreaks in the United States, groups continue to pay Wakefield thousands of dollars for his “expertise”. To celebrities and everyday moms and dads who do not want to “poison” their children, Wakefield is a martyr. 

Unfortunately, the science behind vaccine safety is lost on those with an anti-vaccination mindset. Research shows that exposure to science evidence reenforces anti-vaccination perceptions of parents. Emotions trump evidence.

Welcome to 2020, and welcome to the flip side of the anti-vaccination coin. 

As the world awaits the release of one of several Covid-19 vaccines now in phase-3 trials, opposition to the vaccine is rising, and from a very surprising precinct. Anti-Covid-19 vaccine voices are getting louder, and one in particular caught the attention of NIH director Francis Collins. 

Michael Zimmerman is a biologist and the founder of the Clergy Letter Project, an effort demonstrating that religion and science are not in conflict. Zimmerman begins his essay by citing his Ph.D. in biology, his opposition to the pseudo-science of vaccine denial, and his generalized rejection of conspiracy theories.

Yet, Zimmerman declares his opposition to a Covid-19 vaccine – at least for the next three months.

Zimmerman and other newly-minted antivaxxers do not trust the current administration. Zimmerman fears the anti-science dogma touted by the Trump administration. Zimmerman and others fear political pressure on the CDC and the FDA will result in the release of a risky vaccine. 

Collins, in his public response to Zimmerman, is direct and uncharacteristically blunt. 

Shouldn’t you reserve judgement until you see the data? Collins asks. 

The vaccine approval process is transparent and is overseen by respected life-long scientists like Collins and Anthony Fauci. And unlike “America’s Frontline Doctors’” claims in their fifteen minutes of summer fame, legitimate science studies are transparent and published for critical review.

In response to Collins’ hope for a Covid-19 vaccine by the end of 2020, Zimmerman writes this: 

“I hope your prediction is off by a month and that approval doesn’t occur until after 20 January 2021 with a new administration in place.”

To which Collins replied:

“Be careful that you don’t end up hoping and praying for the vaccine to arrive after January 20 — when an earlier scientifically rigorous result would have potentially saved many lives.”

To those who are usually on Team Science but find themselves rooting against a Covid-19 vaccine: trust the process. If you don’t trust Trump, fine. Trust Francis Collins and Anthony Fauci, two scientists with decades of stellar public health service and a history of withstanding political pressure from both parties. 

Recently, Fauci publicly took the CDC to task for an announcement made while he was under general anesthesia. Fauci lost no time in setting the record straight with his disapproval. And last week, Fauci scolded Senator Rand Paul in a congressional hearing for his repeated misrepresentations of Covid-19 evidence. 

Traditional anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 anti-vaxxers are two sides of the same coin. At their core, both groups mistrust science. Both groups are influenced by deeply held, emotional beliefs. 

Both traditional anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 anti-vaxxers threaten public health and the goal of herd immunity.

On September 25, 2020, Francis Collins was awarded the Templeton Prize for a lifetime of demonstrating harmony between modern science and faith. In his acceptance speech, Collins encourages us to return to our calling to love one another – both friends and enemies.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves means loving all our neighbors: our immunocompromised neighbors, our elderly neighbors, our newborn neighbors, our medically fragile neighbors, our neighbors undergoing chemotherapy. 

If you are medically able to be vaccinated, you are practicing love in a very real, very practical way. 

(Read the correspondence between Francis Collins and Michael Zimmerman here

And as You speak
A hundred billion creatures catch Your breath
Evolving in pursuit of what You said
If it all reveals Your nature so will I

(Hillsong United “So Will I“)

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