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When did vaccines become polarized on partisan lines? A Creighton study tackles the question

Hint: It was before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Posted at 7:08 PM, Sep 01, 2022

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Annika Muse understands the challenges that await her on her career path.

Muse just entered pharmacy school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. She's one of four authors of a Creighton University study that shows when part of her aspiring field became partisan.

"It definitely gives insight to some of the difficulties that I might face in having interactions with patients when I'm attempting to give them some sort of counsel," she said. "Pharmacies play a huge role in trying to immunize people."

The study points to 2015 as the time when childhood vaccination policies became a polarized issue. It was published in the American Journal of Public Health by Kevin Estep, Ph.D., an assistant professor in Creighton's Department of Cultural and Social Studies. Only slightly more than half of childhood vaccination bills were partisan in 2013 and 2014, according to the research. But that increased to 85% by 2019 and 2020.

Now, he says the vaccination issue is more polarized between the two major political parties than even abortion was in 2011. When issues become more polarized, he said, bills on those topics become less likely to pass.

In late 2014 and early 2015, a measles outbreak began at Disneyland in California. Measles was declared to be eliminated from the United States in 2000. But the outbreak of measles in the first quarter of 2015 triggered a nationwide debate about school vaccination policies.

"I was on the ground talking with parents in California," Estep said, "And I realized this is going to be a big issue."

While it may have seemed to many that the topic of vaccinations exploded in partisanship around the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, Estep said data shows the increase in partisanship since the pandemic began is "clearly just a continuation of a trend that was happening for years beforehand."

Estep said the fact that public health policy could become a left-or-right issue is "in some ways disheartening."

"Because public health policy would work best if it was in some ways divorced from partisan conflicts, where we can just think about what's safe and what the evidence suggests," he said. "That's probably a better arena to make public policy."

But vaccinations are just one example of a topic that hadn't been polarized, but eventually entered the partisan sphere of influence, Estep said.

"We can think of it like an oil spill," he said, "It just continues to bleed out into more and more issues so that more and more areas of our lives that were previously not something that we thought of ... in terms of our partisan identity or commitments. Now they're tied to those things."

In the short term, he's not optimistic about the state of partisanship in everyday life. Nevertheless, Estep said he's naturally an optimistic person. He said some issues, like child labor laws, were once polarizing but today are not.

A link to the full study is here, but it requires paid access to the journal. In addition to Estep and Muse, Shannon Sweeney and Neal D. Goldstein authored the study.

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