Kentucky governor's comments about vaccines adding to misinformation, experts warn

The Republican governor questioned the necessity of certain vaccines.

March 22, 2019, 4:50 PM

The governor of Kentucky isn’t the only notable politician to question the necessity of vaccines, but experts warn that such comments are not happening in a vacuum, and could be exacerbating the confusion.

Gov. Matt Bevin said during a recent radio interview that he and his wife decided to take their nine children to so-called 'pox parties' to expose them to the chicken pox rather than having them vaccinated for the disease, and questioned why such vaccines are mandatory.

"Why are we forcing kids to get it?" Bevin said of the chicken pox vaccine in the interview with WKCT, a radio station in Bowling Green.

"If you are worried about your child getting chickenpox or whatever else, vaccinate your child. ... And in many instances, those vaccinations make great sense. But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise," he said.

"This is America. The federal government should not be forcing this upon people. They just shouldn’t," Bevin said.

In addition to taking issue with so-called ‘pox parties,’ where parents bring their young children who have not been exposed to chicken pox over to the homes of children who have the disease in order to expose them without having to get the vaccine, Peter Hotez, a vaccine advocate and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said that there are widespread implications for the governor’s comments.

“I think when the governor makes statements like he did, it erodes public confidence in vaccines,” Hotez said.

“Remember this is not happening in isolation. If this was just a one-off statement, it wouldn’t be so damaging,” he said.

PHOTO: A boy receives vaccine injection in this undated stock photo.
STOCK PHOTO/Getty Images

Hotez points to the “almost 500 anti-vaccine websites on the internet” as part of the problem as well.

The misinformation in the digital sphere has been cited as problematic before. When 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger testified before a Congressional committee on March 5, discussing his experience getting himself vaccinated in spite of his mother’s anti-vaccination beliefs, he said that the misinformation online played a role in her beliefs.

"My mother would turn to anti-vaccine groups online and on social media, looking for her evidence in defense rather than health officials and through clinical sources," Lindenberger said.

Daniel Salmon, the director of the Institute of Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, told ABC News in January how there are numerous legitimate-looking websites online for anti-vaccination organizations that have names very similar to the acronyms for several valid, official medical associations.

"For me, I know the difference, but the average parent is never going to know the difference. They're pseudo-science," Salmon said, adding, "it’s not a coincidence" that the acronyms for the misinformation campaigns are close to those of valid groups.

“The CDC website has all the information you need but the problem is it’s very difficult for a non-health professional to mine the website,” Hotez said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Social media platforms are taking some steps to reduce anti-vaccination groups’ online footprint. The Daily Beast reported Friday that GoFundMe is banning anyone raising money to spread misinformation about vaccines from using their platform.

That step comes after Facebook and Instagram announced certain steps that they are taking in the same vein, but Hotez thinks that their efforts, as well as similar steps by Amazon, do not go far enough.

“What Facebook and Amazon are doing are taking cosmetic measures to give the appearance that they care and that they're doing something... but the steps they've taken thus far are meaningless,” he said, adding that the most virulent anti-vaccine voices on social media are still “pervasive.”

Hotez – who has published a pro-vaccine book -- cites the number of “phony books and phony doctors” who have their books available for sale on Amazon, many of which are labeled as best sellers.

“The defense of vaccines in the United States is left to a handful of academics like myself,” he said.

Ruth Carrico, an associate professor in the infectious disease division at the University of Louisville, told ABC News that she was “trying to give [Bevin] the benefit of the doubt” after hearing his statements about whether or not vaccines should be mandatory.

“I think certainly it’s great to live in a country where we have free speech… however I think the message that was conveyed was not a message of public health and certainly not one for the 21st century,” Carrico said.

“I think the responsibility of a governor is to lead the people, and in leading the people you listen to the people and that means not only the general public but you also listen to the scientific evidence,” she said.

“I think that it would be hard to find someone that would disagree with the statement that in the 21st century it is unacceptable for a child or adult to suffer or die from a disease that is vaccine preventable,” she said.