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Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

The Moment Vaccine Skepticism Went Mainstream

The 2015 measles outbreak at Disneyland helped vaccine hesitancy into a movement.  

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In early 2015, as news broke that a significant measles outbreak had started at Disney, Carl Krawitt found himself outraged. Krawitt’s son Rhett had been battling leukemia since he was two-and-a-half. That meant his immune system was too weak to handle routine childhood vaccines. Something like measles could be extremely dangerous for Rhett, so it was crucial that others around him be vaccinated. But Rhett had recently started kindergarten in Marin County, a county with triple the vaccine exemptions of the California average. Measles requires more than 95% of kids to be vaccinated in order to prevent outbreaks. Krawitt was blown away by the fact that they couldn’t take peanut butter to school because some kids had allergies, but putting his son’s life at risk by forgoing vaccination was totally allowed. The Krawitts began speaking out about this, and Rhett became the face of a bill that sought to tighten vaccine laws in the state. The bill passed. Vaccination rates went up. But that wasn’t the only outcome of the bill.

“The anti-vaxxers came out,” Krawitt recalls. “They threatened us, they threatened my kid. They told lies. And it was scary.”

The Disneyland measles outbreak was a tipping point. The outbreak made clear that number of people opting out of vaccination was significant. But it also changed the people protesting vaccines. Before that, activists speaking out about vaccines had mainly been parents concerned about the safety of their kids. The push to get rid of vaccine exemptions changed the conversation. It became political. It became about choice and freedom and democracy.

This is where we really saw this coalescence around the idea of vaccination as a civil liberties issue,” says Amelia Jamison, a doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University who studies health misinformation.

In the third episode of Doubt, a new series from the Prognosis podcast that explores vaccine hesitancy, we look at this moment in time, and how it would foreshadow what we’re living through now, a moment in which millions of Americans feel they do not trust the government when it comes to public health policy.

“The anti vaxxers kind of felt endangered or in peril,” says Jamison. “And then they started to mobilize and help organize themselves in ways that they could protest this bill.” The aftermath of the Disneyland outbreak was the moment when this group of people would really become a movement.