OMAHA — The political divide over childhood vaccines emerged before the COVID-19 virus. But partisan discord over them has grown faster than the hot-button issue of abortion.
That’s according to research led by Kevin Estep of Omaha Creighton University and recently published in the American Journal of Public Health.
Estep, an assistant professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies, and his team based the study on about 1,500 state bills and 230 legislative votes across the country over 25 years.
The project looked at legislative trends from 1995 to 2020. But the authors expanded their research beyond the published article to see if trends continued during more recent legislative sessions that took place during the COVID-19 pandemic. 19.
They found that COVID-19 “added fuel to the fire,” Estep said. “It’s probably more divided now than ever.”
Public health is at stake
Among the team’s findings was that, a decade ago, being labeled a Democrat or Republican had relatively little influence on how a state legislator decided on vaccination-related policy, such as whether a parent should have more or less ability to choose their children. out of vaccines.
“Ten years or so ago, party affiliation would have given us relatively little ability to predict what position a legislator will take,” Estep said. “That’s not the case today.”
The researchers said lawmakers were more likely to align with people from their preferred political party on vaccine bills in 2019-2020 than with their party on health-related bills. abortion in 2011-2012. That latest two-year stretch came during a peak in the polarized conflict between the Tea Party and then-President Barack Obama’s administration.
At no time during his research period was immunization more divisive for lawmakers than abortion, Estep said. But the rapid pace at which the vaccination divide has widened is what made the issue stand out, he said.
The divide is disheartening because public health is at stake, said Estep, who teaches public health, health policy and health administration.
“Do you want to see clearly: What are the facts and what does history tell us about what will help in this particular situation? But whenever things get clouded or clouded with partisan ideology, it becomes difficult to see those facts and that can obscuring good policymaking that is in the public interest,” he said.
The measles outbreak in California was a turning point
Creighton students Annika Muse and Shannon Sweeney, and Neal Goldstein, an epidemiologist and public health expert at Drexel University, assisted in the analysis.
The team wrote, “Increasing partisan polarization could alter vaccine policies at the state level in ways that jeopardize childhood immunization rates or weaken the response during public health emergencies.”
Estep said the results of the study, called “Partisan Polarization of Childhood Vaccination Policies 1995-2020,” contradict popular notions that political polarization on vaccines began with COVID-19.
He said that from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, safety concerns dominated discussions surrounding immunizations for children. When scientists offered more evidence, he said, they raised objections about safety lost steam and critics focused on civil liberties and parents’ rights.
What is different is that there are more and more issues in this partisan divide
– Kevin Estep, Creighton University
A turning point in driving the political divide came with the measles outbreak associated with Disneyland in 2015, Estep said. California’s decision to tighten the exemptions led to cries of government overreach in what was seen as a liberal state led by a Democratic governor, Jerry Brown.
“The 2019 measles outbreak put vaccines back in the spotlight, forcing state legislatures to weigh calls from public health officials to restrict the exemptions against demands from those who saw it as a violation of parental rights. Our results suggest that this second round of ‘take-off’ conditions further consolidated party lines.”
In the following years, more states proposed legislation to restrict or expand parents’ opportunities to opt out of exemptions.
“In the past (legislators) would not have had to make these decisions based on their ideological commitments about state and individual rights, but now, because it’s framed in those terms, they feel pressured to form their position on from their ideological commitment. ” said Estep.
The researchers said discord was less for some proposed vaccine policies than for others. Bills related to HPV became more partisan, for example, than those related to chickenpox or measles, mumps, and rubella.
Estep said the divide between Republicans and Democrats was evident on responses to public emergencies, such as whether to allow mercury-containing vaccines during outbreaks and whether to ban unvaccinated children from schools.
“What’s different is that more and more issues are falling into that partisan divide,” Estep said. “Previously, non-political issues have been tainted with partisan ideas and policies, so the opinions and attitudes of ordinary people and elected officials tend to align with the party.”
If there is a “silver lining,” Estep said, it’s that state-level bills heavily influenced by Republicans or Democrats are less likely to pass into law.
“By its very design,” the article said, “legislation in the United States requires compromise and coalition building, which could protect public health from the worst effects of polarization.”
Also, Estep said, the “conservative versus progressive” conflict isn’t that old when it comes to childhood vaccines.
“For most of the time in our study, this was not a particularly divisive issue,” he said. “It’s possible to get back there, but it takes effort.”
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