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Stop rejecting science in favor of superstition

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There are about 700 cases of measles cases reported in the United States now. Measles, once considered eradicated in the U.S., has surged because of the number of unvaccinated children.

Measles was eradicated 19 years ago in the U.S., yet Rockland County, N.Y., and parts of Brooklyn are under states of emergency because of measles outbreaks.

There were 387 cases of measles reported in the country between January and March. That’s primarily because people who never were vaccinated traveled abroad, contracted the disease and brought it back, where it spread among others who were never vaccinated. And a major reason they weren’t vaccinated more than 50 years after the measles vaccine became available, is because of their religious beliefs. Parents of unvaccinated children have responded to the New York emergency declaration by filing a lawsuit seeking to halt the vaccination requirement.

On a parallel issue, Americans stopped losing their teeth to decay after communities began adding fluoride to their drinking water in the late 1940s. In the 1900s, a frequent reason for admission to Mayo Clinic was tooth infection, says an Iowa health official; everyone had dental decay or lost teeth.

But due to an amalgam of conspiracy theories, some by promoters of alternative, unregulated health products, some people are turning against fluoridation. The latest to do so publicly in Iowa is the northwestern city of Ida Grove, whose city council voted to stop fluoridating the water after a majority of residents surveyed indicated that’s what they wanted.

A 2018 report from the federal Centers for Disease Control listed more than 400 non-fluoridated Iowa water systems, each relied upon by anywhere from 30 to more than 2,500 people. Often in these small water districts, they remove fluoridation without notifying the state; the water operators may even do so without informing city elected officials, says Bob Russell, director of the dental division at the Iowa Department of Public Health.

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"When it’s removed, we do see a stark increase in decay," he said. It might take a dental hygienist to start noticing the results.

Why are communities revisiting debunked theories after the scientific community has exhaustively documented the health benefits of fluoride and vaccines? Before the measles vaccine became available in 1963, the disease infected 3 million to 4 million people and caused 450 deaths and 4,000 cases of encephalitis a year in the U.S.

It’s cyclical, says Russell, observing that most people in their 40s, 50s and younger have had the benefit of fluoridated water and don’t realize how bad it was before.

"We are the victims of our successes," he said, telling stories of the pre-fluoridation 1920s, when women getting married might get dentures as gifts, and men couldn’t attend religious services because they didn’t have six functioning teeth.

State governments like Iowa’s require vaccination certificates for children to attend public and private schools, licensed child care centers and preschools. But exemptions can be granted for medical and religious reasons. More than three times the religious exemptions from vaccinations were granted in Iowa in 2017-18 than 10 years earlier — 8,740 compared to 2,572.

How can we have come this far in rejecting myth and superstition in favor of science, yet remain so susceptible to baseless fear-mongering? Although there has always been some resistance to fluoride, says Russell, it tends to peak during periods of high distrust of government. Emotion substitutes for facts, he said.

As an engaged public, we should all hold our government and institutions accountable and be skeptical when there are legitimate indications of wrongdoing. But we need to be discerning and base judgments on evidence, not on fabricated theories stemming from some ideological agenda or promoting someone’s snake-oil sales.

The people most likely to suffer when fluoridation is removed or vaccines are withheld are typically those who can least afford to compensate for those lacks, and may be most susceptible to factual fabrications. Public officials must keep fighting back to protect their health.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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