Late-night host John Oliver took on “anti-vaxxers” over the weekend and made a passionate case for immunizations.
“Despite their success, small groups are both skeptical and vocal about vaccines, which is nothing new,” he said Sunday on “Last Week Tonight.” “But these days their voice has been amplified by the human megaphone that is the president of the United States.”
Oliver cut to a video clip showing then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the campaign trail, saying that he supports vaccinations for children but, “I want smaller doses over a longer period of time because … you take this little beautiful baby and you pump — I mean it looks just like it's meant for a horse, not for a child.”
That's a point the president has made in the past.
No more massive injections. Tiny children are not horses—one vaccine at a time, over time.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 3, 2014
“That sounds like a decent compromise because it’s the middle-ground position, right?” Oliver said in the episode. “The problem is, it’s the middle ground between sense and nonsense. It’s like saying, ‘It would be crazy to eat that entire bar of soap, so I’ll just eat half of it.’”
But Oliver said it is not only Trump who is skeptical.
“I kind of get why vaccines can creep people out,” Oliver continued. “Vaccination can mean getting injected by a needle filled with science juice. Although, pretty much every medical practice sounds terrifying when you break it down like that. An appendectomy means removing one of your organs through stabbery. Antibiotics are poisons used to murder things living in you. And even exercise means forcibly burning up your insides. My point is, the human body is a true carnival of horrors, and frankly, I’m embarrassed to have one.”
In February, The Washington Post's Lena Sun reported on how “President Trump's embrace of discredited theories linking vaccines to autism has energized the anti-vaccine movement. Once fringe, the movement is becoming more popular, raising doubts about basic childhood health care among politically and geographically diverse groups.”
The anti-vaccine movement, which has been around for years, gained momentum in 1998 from a now-discredited study by conspiracy theorist Andrew Wakefield, who claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study was later determined to be fraudulent and retracted by the medical journal that published it. As a result, Wakefield lost his medical license. But people have continued to debate.
Some favor the president's approach — which has been dubbed “slow-vaxxing.” But, as The Post reported, some doctors warn that spacing out vaccinations can leave children without protection from disease.
“If infants don’t get vaccinated as recommended, it really increases the time they could be at risk of getting vaccine-preventable diseases,” Kristen Feemster, a pediatrician and infectious-disease specialist who is research director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said earlier this year.
Sun reported last month that vaccination concerns have swept through the Somali immigrant community in Minnesota, where activists invited Wakefield to talk to parents.
Immunization rates plummeted, and the first cases of measles appeared. Soon there was a full-blown outbreak, one of the starkest consequences of an intensifying anti-vaccine movement in the United States and around the world that has gained traction in part by targeting specific communities.
MMR vaccination rates among U.S.-born children of Somali descent used to be higher than among other children in Minnesota. But the rates plummeted from 92 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2014, state health department data shows, well below the threshold of 92 to 94 percent needed to protect a community against measles.
On “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver said parents are not just making decisions for their own children — others' children are affected by those decisions as well.
“When people hear about vaccines, so much of the emphasis is on nonexistent or wildly unlikely harms,” he said. “And we tend not to talk about the very tangible good that they do.”
Oliver talked about his own situation, saying his son was born prematurely after a difficult pregnancy and he has often worried about his son's health. However, Oliver said, he will vaccinate his child.
“It is likely that at some point you may hear scary vaccine stories from other parents or on the Internet, and it is hard not to be terrified when you encounter it,” he said. “Believe me, I’m someone who is scared of literally everything — the dark, the light, heights, depths, confined spaces, open spaces, strangers, intimacy, spiders and a sudden and mysterious lack of spiders.”
But, he said, “we are vaccinating him fully on schedule. And if I can overcome the temptation to listen to the irrational shouting of my terrified lizard brain, then I believe that everyone can.”
This story has been updated.