Does fluoride have lessons for the vaccine debate?

Published on
November 11, 2016

“Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face,” says U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove,” during one of the best sequences ever put on film.

That was 1964, nearly two decades after the public health benefits of fluoridated water had been so thoroughly documented that cities started putting fluoride directly into their municipal water systems. The idea that fluoridation could be a plot by the Soviet Union to destroy America was an obvious joke but it was rooted in a real anti-fluoride movement. From the 1940s through the 1960s, groups like the John Birch Society were vocal opponents of water fluoridation.

Leap forward 50 years, though, and most Americans now have fluoridated water running through their taps.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s estimates for 2014, about 74 percent of the U.S. population that has access to public water systems had access to fluoridated water — a total of 211.4 million people.

The CDC still wants that number to grow, but it’s nearly reached its goal. As it states:

CDC monitors the progress of the nation and individual states toward meeting the Healthy People 2020 objective on community water fluoridation — that 79.6% of people on public water systems will receive water that has the optimum level of fluoride recommended for preventing tooth decay.

So there’s only a 6-percentage-point gap between the current level and the goal. Public health officials would love to see a gap that small for the full range of vaccinations that are available. By contrast, an estimated 72 percent of all children aged 19 to 35 months had completed the full series of seven childhood vaccinations, which includes vaccines for diseases such as chickenpox, polio and measles.

What’s the ideal percentage of coverage? At least 80 percent, and for some vaccines an even higher coverage rate is better to protect a community from outbreaks. For vaccines such as the HPV vaccine — which prevents cervical cancer and cancers of the penis, throat, and other areas — the coverage rate is much lower. The CDC reports that among adolescents ages 13 to 17, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys were vaccinated for HPV.

What does this all have to do with fluoride? Well, despite the fear-mongering of people like Dr. Oz and Erin Brockovich, the U.S. has moved decisively toward fluoridation in water, which shows that it’s possible to move out of an area of doubt and confusion and into an era where good science is accepted and appropriate public health measures are taken.

How do we do that? For one, by taking the high road. I wrote about not making folk heroes out of vaccine doubters by refraining from using over-the-top language when characterizing their views.

And a big lesson from what the fluoride crowd is to stick to the facts. The American Dental Association provides a nice FAQ on its website that does not entertain the more out-there claims made by some who still argue against putting fluoride in the water supply. Instead, it just presents the facts, including this one:

Water fluoridation is safe, effective and healthy. Seventy years of research, thousands of studies and the experience of more than 210 million Americans tell us that water fluoridation is effective in preventing cavities and is safe for children and adults.

Something very similar could be said about vaccines, and those who want to see more children and adults vaccinated against a range of diseases would do well to take a similar tack.