We saw it coming. The re-emergence of vaccine-preventable disease should surprise no-one that’s been following the anti-vaccine movement.
Rebutting anti-vaccine rhetoric feels like a Sisyphean struggle. Steven Novella likened it to a game of whack-a-mole, where the moles are the same old tropes that keep popping up, no matter how often they are refuted with facts. Vaccines are a remarkable success of modern medicine: They are health interventions that are both demonstrably effective and remarkably cost-effective. Vaccination has likely prevented more deaths in the past 50 years than any other health intervention. Smallpox was a ruthless killer that took 300 million lives, just in the 20th century alone. Today it’s gone – eliminated forever. And now there are now over two dozen diseases that are vaccine-preventable. They should be an easy sell, and to most people, they are. But the control of vaccine-preventable disease relies in part on herd immunity – sufficient immunization to stop the spread of infection (no vaccine offers 100% protection) and protect those that cannot be immunized. Even a modest number of unvaccinated individuals can lead to reemergence of disease. None of this matters to antivaccinationists, to whom vaccines are bad. Viewing anti-vaccine websites for only five to ten minutes can increase the perception of risk of vaccination, and decrease the perceived risk of omitting vaccines. It also lowers vaccination intentions. By changing perceptions of safety, the willingness to vaccinate decreases. Now imagine that someone you believe to be a health professional openly questioned the efficacy and safety of vaccines – would it reduce your willingness to vaccinate? The evidence says it does. And that’s why the modern practice of naturopathy or “naturopathic medicine” is so concerning. Naturopaths have opposed vaccinations since the invention of naturopathy – starting with smallpox:
To understand how revolting these products are, let us just refer to the vaccine matter which is supposed to be an efficient preventive of smallpox. Who would be fool enough to swallow the putrid pus and corruption scraped from the foulest sores of smallpox that has been implanted in the body of a calf?…The natural system for curing disease is based on a return to nature in regulating the diet, breathing, exercising, bathing and the employment of various forces to eliminate the poisonous products in the system, and so raise the vitality of the patient to a proper standard of health. Official medicine has in all ages simply attacked the symptoms of disease without paying attention to the causes thereof, but natural healing is concerned far more with removing the causes of disease, than merely curing its symptoms.
Benedict Lust, who introduced naturopathy in the United States, made the statement above in 1918, in his Universal Directory of Naturopathy. You’ll hear similar sentiments from naturopaths today. Lust introduced the core tenets of the naturopathic philosophy: natural is better; vaccines are unnatural (and therefore bad); we’re being poisoned from within (i.e., detox); and naturopaths treat “root causes” while physicians don’t. None are science-based ideas – they’re actually derived from the concept of vitalism, a pre-scientific belief that biological organisms are fundamentally different that non-biologic organisms. Today naturopaths call it the “vital force” but the meaning is the same. Naturopathic treatment ideas are grounded in the belief that they are restoring the vital force, rather than being based on objective science. The practice itself has evolved into a mix of disproven or unproven health practices including homeopathy, acupuncture and herbalism. Pretty much anything goes, as long as it aligns with the vitalistic belief system. Naturopaths can give good health advice – much of the basic dietary advice they offer is sound. Yet this isn’t a position arrived to because of the evidence, but rather despite it: The philosophy and the science just happen to align.