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When vaccinations turn political

If any experience during the past 50 years has been common to every citizen of the developed world, it is surely the childhood vaccination.

Although such vaccinations were long largely taken for granted, questions have arisen over the past 25 years about whether vaccinations are entirely safe, with opponents suggesting they can cause seizures, paralysis, ADHD and diabetes.

Kevin Estep and Annika MuseDespite reassurances from the medical community, questions have persisted, causing Kevin Estep, PhD, assistant professor of cultural and social studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, to wonder if the debate has become less medical and more political.

A research study this summer, conducted by Estep and senior biology major Annika Muse, is taking a close look at vaccinations generally, not just COVID, although any conclusions drawn, Estep said, will likely also apply to the COVID vaccine.

“We are writing two closely related papers,” Estep says. “First, have proposals for ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ vaccine policies become more aligned with political parties over time? Are some policy proposals, such as adding or removing vaccine exemptions, more politicized than others?

“Second, building on independent research Annika began this past spring, we are examining how the demographic characteristics of state legislatures such as gender, race, education, religion and occupation affect their likelihood of sponsoring vaccine bills approved by public health officials.”

Estep says data has been gathered on more than 1,500 bills proposed in state legislatures between 1995 and 2020, along with data on individual characteristics of legislators.

It is widely assumed among scholars and public health officials that politicization is real, but Estep said he and Muse hope to develop empirical evidence one way or the other.

The goal, he said, is to submit both papers to peer-reviewed health journals this fall.

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