This pediatrician has a stark warning about the risks of 'anti-science'
Progress against killer infections like measles could be undone, says Dr. Peter Hotez
A pediatrician, author and co-inventor of a low-cost COVID-19 vaccine warns that the anti-vaccine movement has morphed into a political force that threatens the world's gains against deadly childhood infections like measles.
Dr. Peter Hotez, author of the new book The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: A Scientist's Warning, says the movement is well organized, well financed and includes powerful organizations in the U.S. such as the Republicans' House Freedom Caucus, certain senators and what he calls "contrarian-" and "pseudo-intellectuals."
Some are now looking to target routine childhood and adult immunizations, he told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman.
Hotez says his previous book, 2018's Vaccine Did Not Cause Rachel's Autism, on the genetic roots of his adult daughter's neurodivergence, made him "Public Enemy Number One or Two" with a couple of anti-vaccine groups, which have long made debunked claims that vaccines cause autism.
More recently, he and Maria Elena Bottazzi, who are both co-directors of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, were co-nominated for last year's Nobel Peace Prize for their work developing Corbevax, a cheap vaccine to protect people from severe effects of COVID-19. It's already reached nearly 100 million people in places such as in India, he said.
He says he's been stalked at home and confronted outside a public talk, in addition to getting online threats.
The long-simmering yet mostly fringe resistance to vaccines became more politicized amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when adherents rallied around concepts of health or medical freedom, fanned by extremists on the far right such as the Proud Boys.
The increasing hostility of what Hotez calls the "anti-science" movement worries him.
"They don't leave a lot of information in their emails when they say 'the army of patriots' is coming to hunt me down," he said of his most extreme critics. "But the nature of the attacks, in terms of its political references, leads me to think that a lot of it are based in extremism on the far right and their adherents."
In the dedication of his latest book, Hotez lists law enforcement agencies helping to protect him, such as the Houston Police Department and security at his hospital.
Hotez writes that the movement is globalizing beyond the U.S., including events like last year's trucker convoy in Canada.
"There's no question that the U.S. anti-vaccine movement made an effort to pile on and to exacerbate what was happening in Canada," he said in an interview.
But Maya Goldenberg, a professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph, views the anti-vaccine sentiment differently.
"I don't think it's anti-science," said Goldenberg, author of Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science. "I think it is some mistrust of scientific institutions and the power that scientific institutions wield."
Building trust with patients
During the rush of the COVID emergency, governments perhaps missed demonstrating how they work in the public interest, which may have fuelled vaccine hesitancy, she says. Amid the lockdowns and other restrictions, for instance, some small business owners felt governments considered their interests "disposable," at least temporarily.
"We need more unity to deal with difficult circumstances," she said. "We don't get it when people think that the powerful get to decide and regular people are harmed by those decisions."
What helps change the behaviour of vaccine-hesitant parents? Building their trust.
Dr. Cora Constantinescu runs a vaccine hesitancy clinic for families at the University of Calgary. The pediatric infectious disease physician has witnessed first hand how public information campaigns don't actually change behaviour among those parents.
They needed to feel supported rather than judged or discriminated against, Constantinescu says.
"When we ask them what can build trust in governments and health agencies, our vaccine-hesitant parents said seeing frontline health-care providers being involved in the policy decisions," she said. "I don't think that that has improved."
Every clinician, whether a physician, nurse or lab technologist drawing your blood, has a chance to build positive interactions with their patient. Over time, those encounters foster trust, she says.
But in Hotez's view, it will take more than one-on-one, personal interactions to counter the political reach of the anti-vaccination movement. He says he suggested to Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus — director-general of the World Health Organization — that the UN agency bring in other experts, like those who counter global terrorism, nuclear proliferation or cyberattacks.
The movement "is really destroying the fabric of society," Hotez said.