When politics trumps science and common sense

As I sit down to write this, I wonder how this blog and this blog post will affect any political future I may have. Then I remember that my aim is not to be a politician. Yes, I’ll try to influence policy, but I will certainly not sell my soul to The Devil like so many politicians seem to have done. Sure, their hearts are in the right place, and I believe they mean well for the most part. But many times they come out and do or say something that makes me wonder if they’re playing with a full deck of cards.

By now you should know about the outbreak of measles associated with Disneyland. Basically, someone caught measles and then went to “the happiest place on Earth” and spread it to unsuspecting (and many times unvaccinated) people there. Then those people took the virus to other places, and the outbreak continues apace. The really sad part is that we have pediatricians claiming that this outbreak is not serious, or that parents who want to avoid vaccinating their children have some sort of right to do so. (By “do so,” I mean putting their children at risk.) It’s comparable to a parent having a right not to put a seatbelt on their child, or to provide their child with a jacket on a cold day.

Parents do not own their children. Children are not property. Parents are the natural caretakers of their children and must act in the best interest of their children. But who decides what is in the best interest of the child? The government? Well, yes and no. We have laws in the books to protect children from many, many dangers. Actually, we have laws in the books to punish parents for placing children in many, many dangers. After all, we’re still automatons capable of making some messed-up decisions.

Consider, for example, our decision (whether conscious or not) of not washing our hands after using the bathroom. It is very well known that lack of hand sanitation after going to the bathroom leads to outbreak of diseases, especially diarrheal diseases. Would you like for someone with a diarrheal disease to go to the bathroom and not wash their hands and then come and handle your food? I wouldn’t. Hardly anyone would. This is why we are okay with laws that state that anyone who works in the food handling business and doesn’t wash their hands and then makes others sick can be held liable for their inaction.

Yet we have politicians who see hand washing regulations as too cumbersome for business:

“…North Carolina Senator Thom Tillis has gone further: laws requiring mandatory handwashing by food service employees are just regulatory burden.

According to Daily Kos, Tillis made the declaration at the Bipartisan Policy Center, at the end of a question and answer with the audience. He was relaying a 2010 anecdote about his “bias when it comes to regulatory reform.”

“I was having a discussion with someone, and we were at a Starbucks in my district, and we were talking about certain regulations where I felt like ‘maybe you should allow businesses to opt out,’” he said, “as long as they indicate through proper disclosure, through advertising, through employment literature, or whatever else.”

“That’s the sort of mentality that we need to have to reduce the regulatory burden on this country,” he added. “We’re one of the most regulated nations in the history of the planet.””

I don’t know if we’re “one of the most regulated nations,” but the hand washing regulation is not about placing a burden on businesses. It’s about saving lives and keeping people from getting sick. Senator Tillis seems to think that businesses would willingly advertise that they don’t enforce hand washing regulations. It’s like expecting a car manufacturer to willingly tell people looking to buy their cars that the car may explode if it goes over 55 miles per hour.

Then there is Senator Rand “Run From The Mexican Kids” Paul. He has long been associated with a group that has, among other things, claimed that HIV doesn’t cause AIDS. Now, when asked about mandatory measles vaccination, he says this:

“Though the senator cited alleged cases in which vaccines lead to “mental disorders,” he insisted that he does support vaccinating children.

“I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they’re a good thing,” he said. “But I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children.””

Again with the parents owning children thing.

One of the things that I don’t understand about people who say that the government is overreaching when it comes to health regulations is that those regulations didn’t come out of a vacuum. They didn’t come out of a socialist’s mind with an aim to destroy the free market. They came out of epidemiological work that tells us very clearly and with a lot of evidence that infectious diseases are passed on by people when they fail to do certain things… So we need to remind these people to do these things through “incentives” like warnings and fines.

In other words, we took a vote, and we decided that washing our hands was a good thing for all of us, and that it would save lives if the people washing their hands are food handlers, nurses, doctors, etc. It’s a regulation that only becomes unnecessary when we become 100% efficient at washing our hands (or taking our vaccines, or having safe sex, etc.)… When we become robots that can’t infect each other with viruses and bacteria. But all that is not a good political soundbite. To the conservatives, you sound conservative when you say stupid things like “the market will self-regulate” when it comes to hygienic practices and food. To the liberals, you sound liberal when you say stupid things like “it’s better to be natural” when it comes to vaccines and disease prevention.

The rest of us in the middle just shake our heads and hope that neither side prevails… Because Hepatitis A is a hell of a thing.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

5 thoughts on “When politics trumps science and common sense

  1. I contracted Hepatitis A as a child, it wasn’t fun, my liver is enlarged, but strangely performs incredibly well. I sincerely doubt that the virus helped, I likely had higher than normal liver capabilities before the virus and they’re moderately lesser after.

    Meanwhile, the article you cited, did cite the article I read a few minutes ago (my schedule is a royal mess, courtesy of life and working third shift).
    My opinion of that “gentleman” is, if he really wants to run us backward in history, let’s go the rest of the way. I or my family is sickened, I can burn the business to the ground. If one of my family dies, if he makes it to sanctuary, he can await my decision on accepting blood money or not (it would be not), then he is executed.

    As for children being property, you are of Mexican culture, we’re of more English culture origins (in spite of my mother being German, Dutch and a bit of Native American mixed in somewhere and my father being pure Sicilian in genetic heritage). Note the terms, “My wife”, “my husband”, “my boat”, “my car”, “my child”, “my dog”, etc. All in the possessive. Culture and language work hand in hand. They reinforce those that the culture valued at some point.
    Meanwhile, consider sending your child to a good school, but it practices corporal punishment. What would your reaction be if you learned that the teacher beat your child with a pointer or yardstick?
    It happened to me in my youth, the majority of times, the school rapidly changed its policy after getting to meet my mother. Twice, well, she accepted that I did misbehave in a manner consistent with such a practice that was common at the time. She was the origination of the stereotype of a German and Dutch person is a spitfire. I’ve watched her put strong men up against the wall, thoroughly cowed. I’ve watched her speak a few words that withered a “commanding” authority figure when he was wrong. She was utterly viscous when the situation required. Never harm a child around her, lest you catch a chunk of hell on wheels.
    I guess I did become the product of my genetics and environment. Harm a child, woman or my family, there is the wrath of God and then there is me and God agreed long ago to take the day off and simply receive petitioners when I get started. Those weren’t my words, of all people, our chaplain said those of me, wonderingly and mildly approving (still disliking the violence, but we were military).

    Still, one’s best weapon is always one’s words and one’s mind.
    I also recalled another article from the Daily Kos: http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/02/03/1362054/-SCOTUS-decides-vaccine-debate-in-1905?detail=email .
    You know, I always wanted to look up the case law on mandatory vaccinations, just life distracted me or I never got around to it, courtesy of a rather eventful life. I thanked the author.
    Another blog there showed vaccination rates vs disease rates, via several charts. Regrettably, I did have to offer a spelling correction for H. Influenzae, the author forgot the last ‘e’.

    Well, goodnight. I’m third shift, so it’s insane o’clock for me. Get to bed, I get six hours of sleep before I have to go to work. Fortunately, serving in the military taught me techniques to offset sleep deprivation for for extended periods, up to a month. Then, sleep debt must be paid off.
    I have no intention to go even half that long. It’s just that life has kept calling me out during the day.

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    • Mom actually sent me to a catholic school for a year. Those nuns were fierce. I remember getting my hands slapped with a ruler for all sorts of things. So, yes, from a cultural perspective, I once believe that children were the property of their parents. Then I got to think a lot about these issues in my public health career and changed my mind. Parents are the guardians of their children and are supposed to do what’s best for their child. If they don’t want to do that, then the children get taken away and — hopefully — get placed with a family who will.

      I hate sleep debt.

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