Peter Hotez says the anti-vaccine movement is a national health threat
Peter Hotez never imagined his work as a vaccine scientist would lead to death threats, people stalking his home in Texas and the need for security when he speaks publicly.
But then he never imagined a disinformation campaign that is not only targeting science but portraying scientists as “public enemies of the state.”
“It’s so tragic to see this happening in America,” said Hotez, who spoke Thursday night in an event hosted by Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and sponsored by The Integrity Project, which pursues research and education to address the use of misinformation in the public sphere.
The event, held at the Beus Center for Law and Society on the Downtown Phoenix campus, was moderated by Sherine Gabriel, executive vice president of ASU Health and University Professor of the Future of Health Outcomes and Medicine in the College of Health Solutions.
Hotez, an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine and American Academy of Arts and Scientists, has led or co-led the development of vaccines for parasitic infections and several coronavirus vaccines, including two low-cost COVID-19 vaccines that have been administered to 100 million children and adults in India and Indonesia.
He's also written several books, including “Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism,” about his daughter, Rachel, and his current offering, “The Deadly Rise of Anti-science: A Scientist’s Warning.”
Hotez said the anger and, in some cases, threats, toward scientists who believe in the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines is reminiscent of 1930s communist Russia under Joseph Stalin, where scientists could be exiled, imprisoned or murdered.
“We’re not throwing scientists into prison yet, but that could be the next step,” he said.
Hotez said the anti-vaccine movement is a national health threat.
He said the World Health Organization is putting together an immunization agenda for 2030 that has been called “the big catch-up,” noting that the global coverage of children being immunized dropped from 86% in 2019 to 81% in 2021. In addition, Hotez said, the number of completely unvaccinated children has increased by 5 million since 2019.
“That’s a big concern,” he said. “And I’m worried that we’re not going to bounce back because in addition to all the social disruption from the pandemic, there has been a permanent tear in public trust.”
That tear, Hotez said, began in 1998 when an article in the scientific journal Lancet linked vaccinations for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) to autism.
The findings were ultimately debunked, and Lancet retracted the article, but that didn’t stop the anti-vaccine movement from spreading disinformation.
“If you go to Amazon.com (and look up) books on immunizations, it’s almost all anti-vaccine conspiracy books,” Hotez said.
The anti-vaccine crowd got a second wind in 2015, Hotez said, when the California Legislature, responding to a measles outbreak, voted that children couldn’t go to school unless they had a full complement of immunizations.
“I supported that, and it had the effect of taking care of the measles problem, but it also created a backlash,” Hotez said. “Especially in Texas, where under this propaganda of medical freedom, parents said, ‘Hey, you can’t tell us what we have to do with our kids.’"
Hotez said he’s concerned that rather than taking some time to reflect on their views, people who oppose vaccines are “doubling down.”
“And the doubling down is going to amplify the lie,” he said. “The extremists are trying to rewrite history where they’re saying it’s the vaccines that killed Americans, and scientists invented the virus."
Hotez said the disinformation campaign is being aided by two allies: Russia and artificial intelligence. He said Russian President Vladimir Putin identifies “inflammatory wedge issues,” such as vaccines, that divide U.S citizens and then fills the airwaves with anti-vaccine propaganda.
“He uses it to divide the country further, and there’s no regulation,” Hotez said.
In the case of artificial intelligence, Hotez cited an article in the peer review medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine that found that ChatGPT, in just 65 minutes, produced 102 blog articles containing more than 17,000 words of disinformation on vaccines and vaping.
“That disinformation will soon become infinite,” Hotez said.
Hotez was asked what scientists and educators can do to counter the disinformation campaign.
“I think historically, medical schools and many medical sciences have been walled off from all the other intellectual endeavors,” he said. “There’s no mechanism to talk to social scientists, political scientists or psychologists. I think part of the answer is going to come from getting different disciplines to engage in uncomfortable dialogue. Breaking down these silos so people in different areas of the university can talk to one another. I think that’s going to be a big help.
“Maybe we should also teach communication in our graduate schools, our postdoctoral fellowship training, our medical schools and residency training. Not everyone wants to do it. They want to keep their head down, see their patients and write their grants or their papers. That’s fine.
"But there’s a subset of young people whose commitment to public service is at an all-time high. Let’s teach them how to communicate.”
Top photo: Peter Hotez of Baylor University speaks Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Beus Center for Law and Society in downtown Phoenix, about his vaccine research and the anti-science and medical misinformation movement. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU News