On Thursday, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin said he intentionally exposed all nine of his children to chickenpox rather than give them the vaccine. Speaking to local news station WKCT, he said: “I went and made sure every one of my kids was exposed to it” when he learned his neighbor had the disease. In exposing his unvaccinated kids to someone with chickenpox, he not only endangered them but fueled the flames of a common fear held by the anti-vaccine crowd: that the federal government will “force” vaccines on people.
What Bevin did with his kids was more of an awkward drop-in on a miserable pox-stricken neighbor than a classic chickenpox party, in which parents gather to intentionally expose their kids to chickenpox to confer immunity. These parties were more common until the mid-90s, when the chickenpox vaccine was developed. The vaccine, which the CDC estimates can actually prevent 3.5 million cases of chickenpox per year, confers the benefits of exposure without exposing kids to the more potent, “wild-type” varicella virus.
Bevin was making a statement about his opinion on vaccination, but in voicing his outdated views, he shared a false and dangerous idea about vaccine policies in general.
“If you are worried about your child getting chickenpox or whatever else, vaccinate your child,” Bevin said. “But for some people, and for some parents, for some reason they choose otherwise. This is America. The federal government should not be forcing this upon people. They just shouldn’t.”
A Chickenpox Outbreak in Kentucky
Bevin’s comments come on the heels of a 32-patient chickenpox outbreak at Assumption Academy, a Kentucky Catholic school. On March 14, the Northern Kentucky Health Department released a statement saying that any student who hasn’t gotten the chickenpox vaccine is temporarily banned from attending school. The ban has prompted one family to sue the Northern Kentucky Health Department for infringement on their right to religious freedom.
These events are likely what prompted Bevin to claim that the federal government is “forcing” vaccines upon people. In doing so, he has tapped into a far more pervasive anti-vaxxer narrative, one that recently resurfaced in the wake of statements made by former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. In the midst of a measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest in February, Gottlieb warned that the outbreak could “force the hand of the federal government” to crack down on vaccine laws. That comment sent some anti-vaxxers reeling.
Federal Law vs. State Law
As of now, there is no federal vaccination mandate. Individual states make their own policies. Many states still allow for people to refuse vaccines on religious or personal grounds and still attend school, and there are only three states that don’t allow parents to do so: Mississippi, West Virginia and California.
The ongoing ban on unvaccinated students in Kentucky schools is characterized by the Northern Kentucky Health Department as “an appropriate and necessary response to prevent further spread of this contagious illness.” These contagious illnesses might not be so much of a problem if states did have tighter vaccine policies.
For example, Washington State has moved forward with a bill to ban non-medical exemptions (NMEs) to vaccines. But this move was in response to a measles outbreak in the pacific Northwest that reached over 70 cases and has cost Washington state over $1 million. That measles outbreak, alongside the fact that 2019 has already had more measles cases than most years in the past decade has prompted conversation about cracking down on NMEs — especially because places with large populations of NMEs which have been called “hotspots” for disease outbreaks.
How to Talk About Vaccines
But as Oakland University bioethicist Mark Navin, Ph.D., previously told Inverse, we must think carefully about how we implement and discuss more stringent policies so we avoid exactly the type of rhetoric Bevin is using. Navin makes it clear that vaccines are medical tools that can protect human health, not an issue to be used as a political platform.
“We need to be really sensitive to that when we’re thinking about policy changes that take away rights that parents used to have, particularly when it comes to non-medical exemptions,” Navin says. “President Trump in the campaign said that he was committed to a robust parental right to sent unvaccinated kids to school. I do not want to contaminate immunization policy discussions with political polarization. That scares the heck out of me.”
Stating, even casually, that the federal government is “forcing” vaccines upon people is a dangerous accusation to make, and could inspire people to become even warier of vaccines than they already are. If we learned anything from the measles outbreaks this year, the way we talk about vaccines can be as impactful as the vaccines themselves.