Rekha Basu: Stop rejecting science in favor of superstition and snake oil

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

Measles was eradicated 19 years ago in the U.S. — yet Rockland County, New York, 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 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, the No. 1 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 city council of Ida Grove, Iowa, for example, voted to stop fluoridating the water after a majority of residents surveyed indicated that’s what they wanted.

The anti-fluoridation movement isn’t religion-based; but, as with vaccine opponents, some of its most visible advocates approach the issue from an individual rights perspective, believing that government should not dictate what individuals or families do. The leader of the most prominent anti-fluoride group, Paul Connett of the New York-based Fluoride Action Network, has partnered with anti-vaccine forces.

Though his spokesperson wrote in an email that he sticks to valid science to show fluoride’s harmful effects, the Campaign for Dental Health points out that his facts come mainly from other countries where fluoride concentrations are higher. It notes the FAN website “promotes a conspiracy theory linking fluoridation with the atomic bomb and government scientists.” Connett has also been a repeat guest on a TV show hosted by 9/11 conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of Infowars.

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 each year in the U.S.

It’s cyclical, says Bob Russell, director of the dental division at the Iowa Department of Public Health, 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 quipped, 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.

How can we have come this far in rejecting myth and superstition in favor of science, yet remain so susceptible to baseless fear-mongering? Though there has always been some resistance to fluoride, says Russell, it tends to peak during periods of high distrust of government. The resurgence of fake science accompanies the proliferation of politically motivated websites spreading fake news. Emotion is substituted for facts, he said.

Some fluoridation opponents promote and sell so-called natural health alternative products and services that have not been scientifically reviewed or proven, according to health advocacy organizations. Russell points out that fluoride is a mineral found typically in rocks and herbs, that appears naturally in bodies of water.

Ensuring the proper level of it in drinking water supplies helps level the playing field for people who may not get regular preventive dental care, Russell said.

“The scientific consensus over fluoridation’s health benefits, safety, social justice and economies has been firmly established over six decades of widespread use in the United States and elsewhere,” according to Science in Medicine, a health policy organization that issued a paper slamming anti-fluoridation conspiracy theorists.

“Nevertheless, anti-science critics have never relented in their opposition — recycling previously disproven charges of harm, inventing new ones out of whole cloth, misrepresenting scientific facts and research, exaggerating risks, understating benefits, inappropriately invoking the precautionary principle, and accusing public health officials of corruption, conspiracy and ‘mass medication’ of whole populations.”

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 our 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.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Reach her at