There are stupid statements. And then there are statements so outrageous, so ridiculous and so dangerous that they standout with startling clarity. This week, just such a rare instance occurred. In the middle of a concerning measles outbreak in Washington state, and with cases being reported in many other regions, Darla Shine, the wife of former Fox News bigwig and current deputy chief of staff for communications in the Trump administration Bill Shine said that childhood diseases such as measles "keep you healthy & fight cancer."
In a series of tweets echoing the kinds of opinions she's held publicly for years, Shine lamented the fact her kids had received the MMR vaccine, which guards against measles, mumps and rubella. She added that people of her generation — Baby Boomers — were healthier now because they had measles as children. In other words, Shine implied that measles actually helps create a healthier population.
Boomers do not have more immunity now because they had measles, or mumps or chicken pox as kids.
Shine is not a public official, but her comments are worth addressing because they reflect the same kinds of dangerous inaccuracies repeated by the anti-vaccination movement more broadly. Let’s be clear, Boomers do not have more immunity now because they had measles, or mumps or chicken pox as kids. Medically, your immune system does not care if it is triggered by a vaccination or from picking up the measles from someone else. That is why vaccines work so well — the exposure produces the same immunity. (As an important aside, immunity does not always last a lifetime, whether built up after a bout of measles in kindergarten or, more sensibly, from a vaccination. Most Boomers should probably ask their doctor if they need a booster shot at this point.)
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But the core of Shine’s argument is an apparent admiration for the effects of actual diseases. Before 1963, when I was still in my Boomer youth, there was no measles vaccine but there were three to four million cases of measles a year. The Centers for Disease Control estimates there were 48,000 measles hospitalizations each year in the decade before the vaccine became available, 1,000 cases of brain damage, many cases of deafness and a minimum of 450 deaths.
By the time Darla Shine was born in 1968 there was a vaccine; by 2000 that vaccine had eliminated measles in the U.S. Even as measles was being eradicated, however, something else very bizarre was happening: People with no medical training were spreading fake and repudiated science claiming that vaccines were bad for us. In the beginning, many of these "anti-vaxxers" claimed that vaccines caused autism. Now that this claim was been thoroughly debunked, the movement seems to be shifting tactics, arguing, for example, that vaccines overload babies' immune systems (not true) or make us somehow weaker (also incorrect).
It is nothing short of cruel to suggest that women who inherit breast cancer should have been more willing to catch chicken pox.
The idea that getting infectious diseases helps one acquire “natural” immunity as opposed to the “unnatural immunity” provided by vaccines is a pernicious lie. Shine went so far as to suggest cancer can be battled by an immune system strengthened by measles. She should tell that to the thousands and thousands of people who have died from a myriad of cancers and who also had chicken pox or measles as children. As anyone even vaguely familiar with cancer knows, cancer couldn’t care less about the measles, vitamins or other mythical notions of immunity. It is nothing short of cruel to suggest that women who inherit breast cancer should have been more willing to catch chicken pox.
This cruelty has consequences. As more parents have refused vaccines, measles, mumps and other diseases began to enjoy a comeback here and in other nations also caught up in anti-vaccination nonsense.
Simply put, such ignorance puts all of our kids at risk. According to Clark County, Washington’s Public Health Department, one of its 53 cases involved someone who had received the MMR vaccine. Forty-seven of those suffering from measles were unvaccinated and vaccination was unverified in five cases. (Shine had claimed “many” of the kids infected in Washington had been vaccinated.)
As infectious diseases threaten to reappear, we need more vaccination not less. We could eliminate measles, greatly reduce cervical cancer and save tens of thousands of deaths caused by the flu if all Americans stopped believing what they read on Twitter and Facebook and instead listened to pediatricians, infectious disease experts, public health professionals and immunologists who know the facts about the safety and value of vaccines. Because for all her idiocy, Darla Shine ultimately is simply the symptom of a much bigger problem when it comes to fighting disease.