Turning Zika Into Political Issue Could Create Public Health Disaster

Different treatment of two STD vaccines underscores how science can get politicized, but doesn't have to

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Jan 30, 2017 at 3:23 PM ET

As the last week has demonstrated on multiple occasions, science is frequently political. But there’s no predicting just which scientific issues cross over into the political arena. The United States might be a hotbed of climate denial and distrust of nuclear power, much unlike western Europe, yet opposition to genetically modified food has never been as intense here as it has been across the Atlantic. As a new study argues, issues affecting health and the environment, like management of the Zika virus, don’t have to become political — but once they do, it’s not easy to reverse.

The Zika virus has been tied to political issues on both sides of the spectrum. As researchers at the University of Pennsylvania point out, liberal commentators have connected the virus’s northward spread with climate change, while conservatives have argued Zika is a product of undocumented immigration. In a survey of 2,400 people, the researchers found that connecting Zika with one of these issues could skew public perception. Predictably, linking Zika with immigration made those worried about that issue care more about the virus. Those more concerned with climate change cared equally about Zika regardless of whether it was framed as an environmental issue or as a matter of public health, without any additional connection to a political issue.

But here’s the concern: If Zika was linked to climate change, then those who cared more about undocumented immigration saw Zika as less of a problem, and vice versa. It’s not difficult to see how that perception could grow from there. Make Zika a sign of the dangers of undocumented immigration, and it becomes a conservative boogeyman. Make it a harbinger of climate change’s far-reaching effects, and it becomes just more of that liberal fake news crap. The angry Facebook posts write themselves, and protecting people against Zika goes from an agreed-upon public good to a political battle.

The University of Pennsylvania researchers illustrate this in their paper by pointing to the very different public reaction to the HPV and HBV vaccines. The former protects against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, which can cause cervical cancer, and it’s recommended for universal childhood administration. That doesn’t happen, though, because attempts a decade ago by its manufacturer Merck to lobby state legislatures to mandate the vaccine backfired, creating a conservative firestorm over requiring a vaccine for an STD. This opposition in turn became a rallying point for progressive condemnation of Republicans’ anti-science and anti-women policies. The HPV vaccine had become political, and only about six in 10 girls now get the shots.

As for the HBV vaccine, there’s a good chance you’re asking, “Wait, what’s the HBV vaccine?” It’s a shot that protects against the sexually transmitted hepatitis-B, which can cause liver cancer. It generally doesn’t, though, because the HBV vaccine is routinely administered in infancy, with the nationwide vaccination rate about 90 percent. The researchers argue that the HBV vaccine succeeded where the HPV vaccine failed because its rollout was left to public health agencies, which aren’t seen as partisan like legislatures. It safely flew under the political radar and has remained there ever since, really coming up only when pediatricians tell new parents about it.

This doesn’t mean that Zika can’t be connected to larger issues: The climate change connection in particular has some specific science behind it to back it up, but the connection is far from absolutely demonstrated. It’s valuable to be mindful of how different issues interconnect — be they scientific, political, or somewhere in between — but it’s also valuable to make sure as many people as possible are protected against Zika. At a time when picking one’s battles feels particularly important, keeping Zika nice and nonpartisan could be a good call.