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
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History of the Problem
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).
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.
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).
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 vaccines.gov 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
- 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.
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