In this century, vaccine denial is primarily located in progressive hotbeds of states like California, rooted in distrust of science. It's an embarrassment for Democrats, who pride themselves on being more scientific than Republicans, to see that right-wing states like Mississippi and Alabama have negligible exemption rates while supposedly more educated places like California, Washington and Oregon lead the charge in bringing back dangerous infectious diseases. Even President Obama, who in 2008 catered to them by saying he believed vaccines might be causing autism, has come around on the issue, much as he changed his mind about same-sex marriage since then.

He is smart to do so. The legacy of vaccine denial is with wacky fundamentalists and John Birch Society members, not reasonable people. By calling on parents to vaccinate their kids he is standing up to constituents in counties that voted 80 percent for him, and he is to be applauded for that moral courage.

When outbreaks used to happen, it was easy to guess it was uneducated religious groups.
Dr. Paul Offit recounts such a tale in the New York Times.  Almost 25 years ago, two fundamentalist Christian churches, Faith Tabernacle Congregation and First Century Gospel Church, were at the heart of a measles outbreak in Philadelphia because they were against vaccination. In 2015, almost all of the exemptions are 'philosophical' rather religious, but the ignorance is the same. Instead of believing God will protect kids from illness, modern day vaccine deniers believe longer breastfeeding and organic food will do it. We got lucky back then, there were only 9 childhood deaths that could easily have been prevented, but we shouldn't want to prove we are doomed to repeat history.

Unfortunately, anti-science progressives may not be alone for long in this. Though they will still vaccinate their kids, Libertarians might suddenly enter into a bizarre political alliance with them, as they have done in small numbers on raw milk, because back then the government intervened and forced vaccines on those children. They were taken from their homes by government employees with guns and Libertarians never forget social authoritarian history. A century ago, 'in the public interest' reasoning set the stage for Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to make sterilization of "promiscuous" women legal. Eugenics was progressive social engineering wrapping itself in the flag of science and slippery slopes are rarely obvious until after the fact.

But it should never have come to that and wouldn't have if other religions had been willing to speak out.

Offit notes that a tenet of religion is to love your children.  No one likes to tell someone else how to practice their faith, he notes, and I applaud his diplomacy in stating that, but religion is all about telling people how to live their lives so I am happy to remind them it's okay to take a stand for what's right. To not do so is moral relativism. Religious groups of today are not the problem, and they should not side with vaccine deniers in the name of some vague natural law regarding personal freedom, they should instead tell their members to love their children - and to tell their neighbors to do so - more than they distrust science, just as they should have done back then.

Shame them a little if they don't, just like we do bigotry and other moral crimes. It works.

In the modern version of the anti-vaccine movement, progressives need to do better than Philadelphia religious groups did in 1991: they need to stop engaging in false equivalence every time some Republican botches a point about freedom and using silly gaffes to claim both sides are equally wrong. They need to see their neighbors for who they are, not circle the wagons against Republicans. In interviews with people in Marin Country and other anti-vaccine hotbeds, the common refrain is that citizens did not know how severe the problem was, even though every impartial analysis of the last decade (and a bestselling book in 2012) has mentioned that Marin, San Francisco and other enclaves likes Berkeley and Humboldt lead the country in opting out of vaccines. Marin has a school with only 26% of kids vaccinated - not exempted - vaccinated.

Yet the community didn't know?

Of course they knew, they just did not want to criticize someone's anti-vaccine beliefs, the same way religious people in 1991 Philadelphia did not want to criticize another church. California has 8X as many 'philosophical' exemptions as Texas has medical ones. 4 of the 5 top states are deep blue. No one in those states can claim they don't know.

If we care about kids, and people who can't get vaccines, we need to be as unflinching in our criticism during events as we are a generation later. And that means not glossing over the problem by pretending we don't know who is doing it.

What Would Jesus Do About Measles? By Paul Offit, Feb. 10, 2015 New York Times