Bevin reckless to disregard science on chickenpox

Published 6:24 pm Monday, April 1, 2019


Guest Columnist

When Gov. Matt Bevin volunteered to a Southern Kentucky radio audience March 19 that he had exposed his nine children to chickenpox, and questioned the need for vaccinations and laws requiring them, it was more than the latest example of him being reckless with his mouth. It was a new low in public officials’ willful ignorance or disregard of science, an alarming trend that is taking us to new highs in risks to our safety.

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This is happening all over the place:

The Trump administration tries to avoid even using the phrase “climate change,” though the scientific community regards it as a fact, largely caused by humans, that may be nearing a tipping point where corrective measures can’t reverse it.

State and local officials in Kentucky won’t ban smoking in workplaces and public spaces, ignoring scientific research that shows cancer can be caused by secondhand smoke – and even “thirdhand smoke,” the solids deposited by smoke.

Local officials, especially county fiscal courts, won’t allow syringe exchanges that prevent disease outbreaks, steer addicts into treatment and prevent accidental sticks by discarded needles – despite research showing that providing clean syringes doesn’t encourage drug use.

Disregard for science is more common among right-wing Republicans and those who like the political contributions from industries who want to argue with science, but it must be said that left-wing Democrats seem increasingly ignorant of “the dismal science,” economics.

Especially at the ends of the polarized political spectrum, a new media environment has made it easier to believe what you want to believe, and to ignore the facts, because you have so many sources of information that can support your beliefs or world view.

Most of those sources are more interested in opinions than fact and have made it more difficult for human beings to agree on a common set of facts. That complicates our democracy and our republican form of government, so it’s all the more important for political leaders to set the right examples.

That’s why Bevin should be held accountable for his remarks about vaccination.

They encouraged the discredited belief that vaccines are dangerous, and showed dangerous ignorance.

Chickenpox can cause serious complications and death. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, “There is no way to tell in advance how severe your child’s symptoms will be. So it is not worth taking the chance of exposing your child to someone with the disease” in order to immunize them. And if you have chickenpox as a child, you’re more likely as an adult to develop shingles, a painful rash.

The governor needs a basic lesson in public health. He said on Bowling Green’s WKCT, “If you’re worried about your child contracting something like chickenpox, then vaccinate your child; don’t worry about what someone else is doing.”

Bevin appears ignorant of “herd immunity,” which occurs when enough people in a place have been immunized to protect those who have not been. We need it; some people can’t be vaccinated because they’re too young, their immune systems are too weak (from cancer treatment, for example) or they have certain diseases. Herd immunity has been weakened in places with declining vaccination rates; some are suffering measles outbreaks.

Bevin also incorrectly said that the requirement for vaccinations is federal. It’s not, though the CDC recommends them. The government that requires the shots is the government he heads, but he called the rule “absurd.” That adjective applies better to him than a well-founded, longstanding policy.

I asked Health Secretary Adam Meier, who was Bevin’s first deputy chief of staff, if his knowledge of the governor’s feelings about vaccines played any role in their decisions about responding to the hepatitis A outbreak that has killed at least 52 Kentuckians – a response that was inadequate. He didn’t answer directly; his spokesman said in an email, using present tense, that the response “is guided by a group of subject-matter experts . . . making evidence-based decisions with the best data available at the time and in concert with our local health departments. There has not been, nor will there be, any hesitancy of the team to recommend, purchase, or distribute vaccinations” for hepatitis A.

In 2017, Meier’s cabinet made it easier for parents to invoke the religious exemption to the law that requires vaccination to attend school, by no longer requiring a signature from a health-care provider. The next year, the number of parents claiming the exemption rose 59 percent, and Kentucky’s rank in the percentage of children with vaccinations declined.

The cabinet said in 2017 that the changes had long been sought, and parents were having trouble finding providers to sign – and some who did charge a fee. Maybe the change was needed. But it’s beginning to look like a bad idea since the boss needs science lessons.

Al Cross (Twitter @ruralj) is a professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media and director of its Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. His opinions are his own, not UK’s.