Stoking the Culture of Alarmism
Published August 7, 2017 | Opinion
One of the most alarmist op-ed articles I’ve read lately was written by Julie Gunlock in The Wall Street Journal. The piece is titled “Is Your Child Safe From Antivaccine Activists?”1
It focuses on the supposed threat posed by measles. Gunlock noted that if there is a five percent reduction in vaccinations against this childhood disease, the number of measles cases in the United States each year could increase by at least a factor of three. She referred to this possibility as “alarming” and warned that we might witness such a cataclysmic event if the number of nonmedical exemptions for schoolchildren keeps rising.1
Parents who cite religious, philosophical or personal objections to vaccination are like conscientious objectors in the war on disease. But they are putting their friends and neighbors at risk because they have fallen for antivaccine propaganda.1This narrative is frequently used by those who seek to generate resentment and hostility against anyone who chooses to make independent and informed decisions regarding vaccination. The idea is to coerce such individuals to forswear their independence and thoughtfulness by sounding the alarm against them, thereby threatening to turn them into social outcasts.
The idea is also to create paranoia within the vaccinated community to the point where people start to become suspicious of anyone who they believe does not fully share their views on vaccination and even hesitant of going out in public for fear they might “catch something.” Observe how cleverly Gunlock manages to ratchet up the alarm and fuel this paranoia…
Why is measles a particularly danger? First, it can linger for up to two hours in the airspace where an infected person coughed or sneezed. Contemplate that the next time you’re waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Second, a person with measles is infectious for days before showing any signs of the disease, and the early symptoms can easily be dismissed as nothing more than a cold. Measles can lead to pneumonia, or to encephalitis, which can cause blindness and permanent brain damage.1Gunlock specifically cited the 667 cases of measles in the U.S. in 2014, calling it a “record since 2000,”as if the country were in the middle of a major epidemic of life or death proportions—a country of more than 320 million people.
What Gunlock failed to mention was that nobody died and that most recovered just fine, as in the measles episode from the 1970s TV sitcom The Brady Bunch.2
She did not mention that outbreaks of measles occur even though the U.S. has a very highly vaccinated child population. As Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) has pointed out, the measles cases in 2014 occurred even though 95 percent of the children entering kindergarten in the U.S. had received two doses of MMR (mumps, measles, rubella) vaccine, as had 92 percent of school children ages 13 to 17 years.3
Those percentages are above the 90 percent level that James Cherry, MD, a UCLA pediatrician and infectious disease expert, has said must be reached for measles vaccine acquired “herd immunity” to be in effect.3
Gunlock also neglected to inform her readers that measles outbreaks are cyclical—that the number of measles cases in the U.S. consistently goes up and down from year to year. There is no steady upward trajectory of this infectious disease, as implied by Gunlock. The 667 reported cases of measles in 2014 were followed by 188 cases in 2015 and an estimated 70 cases in 2016. Previously, there were 187 cases reported in 2013, 55 in 2012, 220 in 2011, and 63 in 2010.4
Gunlock likely omitted these details because they would deflate her intent to alarm and weaken her apparent mission to rile people against antivaccine activists and those who may sympathize with some or all of their work.
It is ironic that Gunlock would resort to alarmist tactics to begin with. Gunlock is the director of the Independent Women s Forum (IWF) Culture of Alarmism Project—an initiative to fight against the use of alarmism to “promote regulations” that expand the power of government when it comes to messaging on health-related matters.5 6
You would think Gunlock would be repulsed by the methodology she fervently rails against. In her book “From Cupcakes to Chemicals: How the Culture of Alarmism Makes Us Afraid of Everything and How to Fight Back,” Gunlock writes:
Alarmists understand that parents naturally worry about the health and well-being of their children and will do just about anything to keep their kids safe. By leveraging this natural anxiety, alarmists gain the trust of parents and convince them to perpetuate the myths of danger…7That is precisely what Gunlock sought to accomplish in her recent op-ed stoking the Culture of Alarmism with misinformation about the benefits, risks and failures of vaccines.