Calling the Wrong Shot: How Have Anti-Vax Roots in Fear and Ignorance Driven Societal Harm?

Anti-Vax Movement Driving Factors:

  • Historical Amnesia – lack of collective memory for the brutal epidemics and horrors of life in prior generations
  • Autodidactism – people grant less respect to professional practices and take matters into one’s own hands
  • Individualism Parenting – parents think solely of their child in decision-making
  • Distrust in Government – manifested in the fear of compulsory vaccination laws



Before reading further, take this quiz (right click on the button below and select “open link in new tab”) to test your knowledge on the Anti-Vax Movement!  



History of the Problem

Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century Anti-Vaccination Propaganda (Green; Earl)

Immunization attempts in the United States date back to the 18th century, pioneered by ideas of variolation (the practice of inserting a small sample of material from a sick individual into skin of the healthy).  It was not until decades later that the more modern practice was brought to America, and with it, widespread opposition.  Here are the key events in the rise of the Anti-Vax Movement through history:

  • 1800s: First official vaccination against smallpox, spurring opposition often on religious fronts (thought of as the “devil’s work”).
  • 1880s: Several Anti-Vax leagues founded (such as the Anti-Vaccination Society of America) to advocate for the repeal of compulsory vaccination laws through the use of widespread propaganda.
  • 1940s/50s: Polio outbreak with the associated infamous 1955 Cutter Incident (contaminated polio vaccine), sowing distrust in companies’ regulation of vaccine manufacturing.
  • 1980s/90s: Measles outbreaks with MMR controversy, culminating in Andrew Wakefield’s later disproven MMR-autism connection study.


The Anti-Vax Movement Today

The Anti-Vax Movement is stronger now than it has ever been.  One of its biggest manifestations today concerns limitations on compulsory public school vaccination requirements.  While all states allow medical exemptions, 45 also accept religious exemptions (National Conference of State Legislatures).  Furthermore, fifteen of those 45 allow philosophical exemptions (National Conference of State Legislatures).  From 2004-2011, non-medical exemption rates in schools across the country increased from 1.48% to 2.2%, most in clusters, with some communities as high as 20% (Callender).

Vaccine opposition has also led to the reemergence of major diseases. By 2000, measles in the US was declared eliminated, in large part due to the large-scale implementation of the widely successful MMR vaccine (Measles & Rubella Initiative).  However, due to extensive MMR hesitancy stemming from autism qualms, measles has taken resurged in the past decade (Measles & Rubella Initiative). Notably, in the infamous 2014 Disneyland outbreak, at least 147 people developed measles, with nearly 50% having never received the MMR vaccine and many more undervaccinated (Novak).  Additionally, in the first 5 months of 2019 alone, there were over 1,000 measles cases in 28 states and 1,002 mumps cases (Kluger). The year opened with an outbreak in Clark County, Washington, with 72 measles cases (53 in children ages 1-10) and the governor declaring a state of emergency (Benecke & DeYoung).

Measles Resurgence in Recent Years (Akpan & Dennis)

As cases of vaccine-preventable diseases have risen, anti-vaccination has burgeoned into a major issue in society.  In fact, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of 2019’s top ten threats (Wang).  “The reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines… threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” WHO stated. “Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved” (qtd. in Wang).


How The Problem Continues to Grow

The main vehicle for the growth of vaccine-hesitant attitudes has been social media.  According to Benecke & DeYoung, in 2013, 50% of tweets concerning vaccination were anti-vax.  Furthermore, in 2018, 32% of Youtube videos regarding immunization opposed vaccines, and another study found that of all Google search results for terms like “vaccination” or “immunization,” 43% were anti-vax (Benecke & DeYoung).  This fallacious dissemination is further exacerbated by the anti-vax testimonials of influential figures such as Jenny McCarthy, Robert F Kennedy Jr., Alicia Silverstone, and Jim Carrey (McClure, Cataldi, & O’Leary). The danger these internet messages present is profound, and in this way, the rapid spread of misinformation on social media has effectively created a society in which highly-trained physicians and shallow internet blog posts rival each other for medical authority.

In addition to efforts on social media, there are many organizations that have dedicated themselves to spreading the vaccine-opposing sentiment.  According to Kluger, every state except Alaska and West Virginia has at least one anti-vax organization, at least four of which have political action committees (PACs).  These groups are often classified as smaller, grassroots, and more local.

Anti-Vax Protesters in Houston (Fox)

Another tactic that has proven particularly dangerous is the anti-vax community’s deliberate predation of culturally isolated communities, as notably exemplified by Wakefield’s specious MMR-autism campaign (Beinart).  From 2010-2011, Wakefield and his followers spread vaccine-opposing pamphlets throughout a secluded Somali community in Minnesota, with drastic effects: from 2004 to 2014, the group’s MMR vaccination rate plunged from 92% to 42%, and in 2017, children of Somali descent made up the majority of all measles cases for the year (Beinart).


Counter-Strategies Currently Implemented

As the Anti-Vax Movement poses a significant threat to public health and safety, multiple counter-strategies have been deployed:

First, there have been a series of small, more local initiatives aiming to spread vaccine awareness.  Examples include Immunize Texas, Immunity Community, and Colorado Parents for Vaccinated Communities (Kluger; McClure, Cataldi, & O’Leary).  

Secondly, people have begun to realize the importance of the pediatricians’ role in the counsel of vaccine-hesitant families, and many have sought to determine the most useful language strategies to connect with and encourage families in their decision-making.  According to McClure, Cataldi, & O’Leary, studies have shown that the most effective tactics are taking a presumptive approach (pediatrician talks to the hesitant in presumption that they will vaccinate) and the practice of motivational interviewing (tones are more conversational, and pediatricians work to share personal anecdotes).  An additional strategy is evidence-based communication, in which pediatricians focus on pro-vaccination facts rather than rebutting myths to avoid enforcing confirmation bias (McClure, Cataldi, & O’Leary).

Key Principles of Motivational Interviewing (Benzo)

A final and key emerging step is the practice of limiting misinformation through social media.  In 2018, Facebook deleted dozens of misinformation pages and a year later partnered with Instagram in the installation of educational pop-ups in response to searches related to vaccination (Parikh; The Medical Futurist).  Twitter followed suit with the institution of accurate information through in response to such vaccine-related searches in that same year, while Pinterest simply blocked any anti-vax searches (Parikh; The Medical Futurist).  Additionally in 2019, Amazon removed five anti-vax documentaries from Prime, and Go Fund Me blocked all anti-vaxxer campaigns (The Medical Futurist). As the Anti-Vax Movement leverages misinformation through social media platforms to prey on people’s fears, dissemination of facts in a readily accessible manner is essential to countering the false narrative.


For-Now Solutions to Build on Present Tactics

Although great strides have been taken already, there are many more potential opportunities to help combat the Anti-Vax Movement.  In order to protect the public health and safety of all, we must work together to support vaccines through the widespread distribution of accurate information and increased empathetic communication.

On a more individual level:

  • Actively underline vaccination as the norm
    • Spread pro-vaccine facts and anecdotes to the hesitant
    • Foster connections both on an informative and emotional level
  • Support pro-vaccine legislation and politicians
    • Enforce current public vaccination standards
    • Limit exemption requirements


Macro-Level Solutions

  • Organization-driven public information initiatives (similar to Australia’s $12M public service campaign) to spearhead the movement
    • Advertising campaign like that of the anti-smoking effort – connect to the hesitant both through the spread of accurate information and by influencing people on an emotional level
  • Effectively counter misinformation in the media
    • Build on social media platforms’ present efforts in not only taking misinformation down, but also filling that void with more accurate information (similar to Facebook and Instagram’s educational pop-ups)
  • Further promote tactics used by pediatricians in best guiding hesitant parents, (presumptive approach, motivational interviewing, and evidence-based communication) – foster trust relationships
    • Incentivize doctors economically, with one example being the modification of insurance reimbursement policies to reward doctors for time spent informing families about the safety of vaccines



From the apprehension of defying God’s will to the fright of contamination and ultimately to the panic of contracting autism, the Anti-Vax Movement has taken hold and grown significantly in America.  Though their actions may have seemed trivial at first, history reveals that supporters of the initiative are in it for the long run and are steadily chipping away at the health of society.  The key to combat this growing movement is understanding the movement’s roots of historical amnesia, autodidactism, individualism parenting, and distrust in the government, and in addressing the heart of the issue: fear and ignorance.  In this way, we must aim on both an individual and societal scale to not only disseminate accurate information regarding vaccines, but to also connect with the hesitant on an emotional level, through the spread of personal anecdotes and the fostering of trust relationships.

Now in 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic is threatening billions of lives.  The need for vaccination has never been more clear – life without vaccines would multiply the current threat exponentially, facilitating the spread of preventable diseases throughout the world, devastating economies and killing millions.  Every day, the Anti-Vax movement brings us closer to this dystopian future. Counteraction now is imperative – in triumphing over these fronts of fear and ignorance through empathy, unity, and facts, we can rest assured of the protection of health, safety, and justice for all.

Ethan Lindenberger’s Call to Action


Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave any comments below!  I’d love to hear if you have any questions, constructive feedback, or just more generally what you think about the overall website and proposed solutions! 🙂

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  1. April 23, 2020 by Carl Thiermann

    Sophia—I was very impressed with your project! The research is excellent, easy to follow, and very disturbing—given the universal need for the covid-19 vaccine—it’s hard to understand the thinking of parents who were likely protected from measles, mumps and polio in their childhoods through vaccination. I also appreciated the thoughtful blend of data, graphs, and video. Bravo!

    P.S. Nice background on the opening video—much more welcoming than a stark background.

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thanks Mr. Thiermann! I’m glad you liked the video background. 🙂 It will be really interesting going forward to see how vaccine attitudes change after covid, now that the general public has a much greater sense of the effects of a disease that is not constrained by vaccines.

  2. April 24, 2020 by Margaret

    Nice! I leaned a lot and the video was great!

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you!!

  3. April 24, 2020 by Theo Kokonas

    What a great project Sophia! Well researched and well explained, you tackle a big topic that’s of critical importance to the modern world, and while I was aware of the history of vaccination itself, I had no idea that the anti-vax movement had such a long lineage (and it’s funny to see how, in 200 years, their arguments haven’t changed a whole lot). You also touch on the massive amount of misinformation that exists about vaccines, and about how it’s more important to incorporate pro-vaccine facts rather than rebut against anti-vaccine myths–that’s a technique that I’d never thought of, and while I don’t regularly interact with anti-vax people, the next time that I meet a skeptic I’ll be sure to use the methods you outlined. Great work, and thank you for taking time to share this with us!

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to look at my website! It was definitely very interesting to research how the Anti-Vax Movement grew and developed in America and making those connections between historical themes that reappear in the present. And I’m so glad to hear that you learned something new about countering misinformation! I hope that eventually these techniques and others become more familiar to pro-vaccine supporters to implement across society.

  4. April 24, 2020 by Unk Mike

    Wow! This paper is professionally written, well presented and a joy to read. I learned a great deal about the growing misinformation of vaccines and how families are opting out of receiving and, in contrast, how important they are to the health and well being of society. The video was super and fun and nice to have a personal take on the state of vaccines in the US from the wonderful author. Thank you Sophia!

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you! I’m glad you learned something new about the growing misinformation, and it was definitely a great experience to research the importance of vaccines throughout history and society today.

  5. April 24, 2020 by SFJ

    Terrific paper and well thought-out and researched message. Great job!

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thanks so much!

  6. April 24, 2020 by PRADIP ROYBURMAN

    A thoughtful analysis of the ignorance that still prevails to undermine merits of vaccination! Well surveyed, well written and interestingly organized! Much kudos to Sophia for drawing attention to a matter which is not only timely but also critical in health and survival in global perspectives.

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you, I really appreciate it! I learned a lot in researching this issue about the importance of vaccination to society and I hope others do too. 🙂

  7. April 24, 2020 by Soraya

    [* Shield plugin marked this comment as “Pending Moderation”. Reason: Whoops. Google reCAPTCHA was not submitted. *]
    This project was really informational and I enjoyed learning more about anti-vax!

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thanks, Soraya!!

  8. April 24, 2020 by Sachin RB

    Awesome site! It looks like you put a lot of effort into it, I learned a lot!

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you so much, I’m glad you learned a lot!

  9. April 24, 2020 by SDJ

    Such a well presented and important topic, which is particularly relevant now as we enter a time of exploring Covid-19 vaccinations! You clearly worked hard to research and analyze this information. I really enjoyed the video introduction, fun quiz, and additional graphics that you included. I also liked how you framed the Anti-Vax movement perspective, to provide us with insight, then suggested ways to counter these views with facts and empathy, while working to maintain good relations in our communities. We have come so far over time in managing infectious diseases and need to continue to progress as a society. Awesome work!

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you! I really enjoyed making the quiz and introduction and picking out the graphics. It has become more apparent over time that we have to foster increased empathy in addition to facts in order to counter misinformation.

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you, I really enjoyed creating the quiz and picking out the graphics! It will definitely be interesting to see what happens with the covid vaccine and its effects on the Anti-Vax Movement.

  10. April 24, 2020 by Adam

    I really enjoyed the analysis on the background as well as solutions implemented! I didn’t realize beforehand the techniques and extent of support for the anti-vax movement in more culturally isolated communities.

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thank you! And exactly – I was particularly shocked while researching by tactics of preying off fear and division in culturally-isolated communities!

  11. April 25, 2020 by Bob G.

    Excellent website! Calls out the ongoing conflict between the needs and rights of the individual versus those of society. Humans are inherently social. We depend upon each other to survive. In this sense, we should all be vaccinated. However, the way humans progress and evolve is through change– change based on the individual and their variation from the norm. I am a staunch supporter for vaccination. Reading your essay helped me better understand the anti-vax movement in conflicting ways:
    – great to learn their tactics of misinformation, so that we can better counter
    – good to hear more of the roots and legitimate concerns, so that we can approach the issue with empathy

    • April 25, 2020 by Sophia

      Thanks, Bob! Driven by these similar values of individualism, the Anti-Vax Movement proved to be a very interesting example in looking at the boundaries between personal freedoms and public health/safety. I’m glad you enjoyed the website 🙂

  12. April 25, 2020 by Matthew G

    Awesome! Outstandingly done, Sophia! I’m so impressed with how you stated the history and facts and backed up your statements. Really proud of you and the awesome job you did here!!

    • April 26, 2020 by Sophia

      Thanks so much for your nice comment, I really appreciate you taking the time to check out my website!

  13. April 26, 2020 by Mina

    This presentation was so well done! I didn’t realize that social media played such an important role in the movement. I also thought the quiz was a nice addition.

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      Thanks, Mina! It’s definitely been really surprising to learn about how much misinformation is spread so quickly through social media.

  14. April 27, 2020 by Grace

    Hi, Sophia! This project was awesome. Your page was well done, informative, and I appreciate how you’ve explained both sides of the anti-vax movement. The influence from different forums, such as Facebook, is surprising. My question about the micro and macro solutions is how you might promote vaccination without verbal promotion. Are there organizations people can donate to or specific ways to have a conversation with someone about being pro-vax?

    • April 27, 2020 by Sophia

      My comment is below, sorry something happened with it 🙂

  15. April 27, 2020 by Sophia

    Thank you so much, I really appreciate it! That’s a great question – there are multiple ways to promote vaccination nonverbally, including the support of pro-vax legislation and politicians (through voting and staying educated) and donations to organizations that are working to disseminate pro-vax information and anecdotes (like Vaccinate Your Family, Voices for Vaccines, and the Immunization Partnership).

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