The counties where the anti-vaccine movement thrives in the U.S.

Currently, 18 states allow nonmedical vaccine exemptions for either “philosophical” or “personal belief“ reasons. In the highlighted counties, there were more than 400 kindergarteners with non-medical exemptions for vaccinations in the 2016-2017 school year (see PLOS/Medicine map).

A clear picture emerged: Vaccine exemptions are on the rise in 12 of the states we looked at. Indeed, anti-vaccine activities appear to be more of a western phenomenon, especially in the Pacific Northwest (Idaho, Oregon and Washington) and the American Southwest (Arizona, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah).

What exactly is going on in the West, where many parents shun vaccines and take their children out of vaccination programs? Researchers are still at the early stages of understanding the reasons behind the anti-vaccine movement. A couple of these states, Oklahoma and Texas, host well-organized political action committees that lobby their legislatures and even raise campaign funds for candidates to endorse anti-vaccine positions. These committees appeal to parental fears of unwarranted government interference.

What’s more, some studies suggest that vaccine refusal is linked to affluence, and possibly with affluence there is greater access to the internet. There are now hundreds of anti-vaccine websites on the internet, many of which still allege that vaccines cause autism or that autism is a form of “vaccine injury,” neither of which is true.

The anti-vaccine movement also effectively uses social media to share their message. Some studies show that anti-vaccine social media has created an “echo chamber” effect that strongly reinforces negative attitudes towards vaccines.

Of course, scientists have proven the safety of vaccines over and over again. As the father of a daughter with autism, I have recently written “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism.” My book details both how and why vaccines cannot cause autism based on the scientific literature, as well as the challenges my wife Ann and I face daily as parents and guardians of Rachel, now an adult living with significant intellectual disabilities.

The effects of anti-vaccine websites and social media, together with the PACs, are quite powerful. They include a terrible measles outbreak in Minnesota in 2017; measles outbreaks in New York and Missouri this year; and almost 200 influenza deaths of unvaccinated children.

However, my newest concern are the counties in the American West, where a high percentage of kids are being opted out of vaccination programs. I believe that these are the areas most vulnerable to terrible measles or pertussis outbreaks in the coming years. In the past year, Europe has been inundated with measles, including dozens of deaths, due to large declines in vaccine coverage. I’m concerned the U.S. could suffer a similar fate.

Peter J Hotez is Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine and Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology, Baylor College of Medicine. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.