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Measles: right-wing extremism and the return of epidemics

Left JAB by John Bell

March 3, 2024

In 2022, 2.9 million Canadians visited Florida, many of them during the Spring Break school holiday. Numbers for 2023 aren’t out yet, but 1st quarter data suggested it was going to be an all-time record year.

I visited Florida in the early 2000s and returned with very pleasant memories of winter bird watching, and visiting with a delightful elder living there.

People visiting Florida in 2024 may return with something more than memories. Florida is site for a dangerous outbreak of measles. And every action and decision of the Florida government seems designed to empower the epidemic, not contain and end it.

Measles is one of the most virulent viruses we know. It especially, but not exclusively, attacks children. It is also one of the easiest diseases to contain, since effective vaccines were developed in the 1950s. I can remember, early in elementary school, being led to the auditorium where our whole class was administered oral vaccines (cherry flavoured). It was mandatory, and hugely popular, as were vaccines for other plagues like diphtheria, polio, whooping cough and others. We were taught age-appropriate lessons about public health and science to prepare us.

The scientists who developed these vaccines were celebrated as life savers and people like Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk were household names. Salk was the first to develop the polio vaccine, unveiled the very month of my birth in 1955. He refused to patent or profit from his discovery, shared the science, and within a few years inoculations were available in over 90 countries. In 1961, Albert Sabin further refined the vaccine into an easy oral form, more suitable for kids.

Beside inoculation, measles is easily contained by a period of isolation. Just keeping an infected kid home from school keeps the whole community safe.

Mine was the first generation not to have classmates in leg braces, with limbs deformed for life by polio; the first not to lose friends and family needlessly to the encephalitis often caused by measles.

According to the Center for Disease Control, about 1 in 5 children who become ill with measles end up in hospital. And 1 in 1,000 can develop encephalitis, or brain swelling that can have lifelong neurological and autoimmune effects. Between one and three children in a thousand will die.

Joseph Lapado is Republican governor Ron DeSantis’s appointed Surgeon General, a position he won based solely on his opposition to COVID vaccination, and all public health mandates. In January he essentially ended the administration of all COVID vaccines and boosters.

He recently issued a letter to Florida parents concerning the measles outbreaks. In it he not only refused to mandate vaccination and isolation to contain the disease, he went against scientific evidence and over 50 years of safe clinical experience. His office “is deferring to parents or guardians to make decisions about school attendance.” He is essentially rewarding the deluded community of vaccine skeptics, many of whom were drawn to Florida by its radical right-wing political response to COVID. 

Dr. Paul Offit is director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which has worked to contain a recent measles outbreak among children in that Pennsylvania city. “This is a state surgeon general saying that he is not going to enforce any of the tenets of public health in the name of freedom. He wants freedom at the expense of putting children in harm’s way,” he wrote.

It is slightly unfair to single out Florida for allowing the return of measles. Twelve other states have reported outbreaks, and more are certain to follow. Viruses don’t respect borders. But Florida stands out by instituting measures and guidance designed not to control the disease, but to deliberately enable it.

John P. Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College told the press: “The reason why there is a measles outbreak in Florida schools is because too many parents have not had their children protected by the safe and effective measles vaccine. And why is that? It’s because anti-vaccine sentiment in Florida comes from the top of the public health food-chain: Joseph Ladapo.” He should have included DeSantis.

Maybe measles is not taken seriously because it is “just” a children’s disease. While it primarily attacks kids, unprotected adults are not immune. While adult measles is rarer, it is far more dangerous, with a death rate of about 15%. It can cause a range of neurological problems, seizures, loss of memory and intellectual disability. It is particularly dangerous to pregnant women, causing birth defects, premature birth, stillbirth and miscarriages.

Whatever the case, the rise of vaccine skepticism is rooted in the rise of a narrow, fascistic definition of “freedom” as a purely private, personal virtue completely divorced from any social responsibility.

As the experience of COVID has taught us, almost every political jurisdiction is willing to put business-as-usual ahead of public health. Some, like Florida, Texas, Alberta and Ontario seem to embrace the rise of easily preventable death with particular enthusiasm. 

They adhere to their “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” ideology. They are devoted to the distorted belief that a cull, even a cull of vulnerable children, is acceptable if it strengthens the “herd”. A pediatric measles death rate of 1 in a 1,000 doesn’t seem unreasonable to them. Who cares if the deaths are preventable – prevention costs money.

At the time of publication comes news of first measles outbreaks in Ontario and Quebec. 

We are seeing the unnecessary return of measles first as it is so contagious, but the re-emergence of other deadly or debilitating diseases will not be far behind. Far-right political opportunists like Pierre Poilievre, Danielle Smith, Doug Ford and Ron DeSantis will continue to amplify the deluded, anti-science ideology of their conspiracy-theory driven followers.

We are in a climate in which political leadership, encouraged and deeply funded by corporate interests, is riding high on “social Darwinist/survival of the fittest” ideology and the denial of social connection and solidarity. They are literally getting away with murder.






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