Criminal or cautious? Unpicking the anti-vax movement

I received my second Astra Zeneca vaccination just over a week ago, which is partly why I took some time off and have not posted for 2-weeks. I was slightly ahead of the curve for a 45-year-old in the UK due to lifelong respiratory issues. In December 2018, I was treated in the same hospital as Boris Johnson for Covid-19, as an outpatient, for secondary complications from seasonal flu when I was too busy working in Westminster to get the vaccine. I still experience symptoms to this day from the decision to not take the vaccine that year and will never know if it could have prevented my issues.

Much like everyone else, I am exposed to chatter on social media, particularly Facebook and sometimes, Twitter.

I came close to not having both my first and my second vaccination, despite being vulnerable to complications from Covid-19, because of the voice of anti-vaxxers but also politicians in other European countries turning this specific vaccine into a political football and that has made me feel angry. The fact that anyone should be made to feel afraid of having a vaccination during a pandemic is not just wrong but some argue it should be classified as a crime.

Where does all this furore over vaccination come from? Who are the voices of the movement?

Vaccine hesitancy was declared one of 10 global health threats in 2019 by the World Health Organisation. Both vaccine hesitancy and vaccine refusal have been implicated in outbreaks of invasive Hib, varicella, pneumococcus, measles, and pertussis. Measles, which was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, caused a record number of cases in 2014 (as cited in Ventola, 2016).

One prevalent fear about vaccine safety risks involves autism. Some parents have suggested that there is a causal link between autism and the MMR vaccine; however, numerous large-scale studies have failed to reveal any connection. One potential explanation for the suspicion that vaccinations cause autism may be because a diagnosis of autism often occurs between the ages of 18 months and 3 years, the same time frame in which children get the bulk of their vaccinations.

Another concern that parents say deters them from complying with the immunisation schedule is the large number of injections that are recommended. Parents have expressed concerns that the number of childhood immunizations could overwhelm the immune system and contribute to the increases in asthma and autoimmune diseases that have occurred in recent decades. However, so far, combination vaccines have demonstrated immune responses comparable to individual vaccinations.

Social media provides a platform to anti-vaccination activists that reaches an extensive audience, playing on people’s deepest fears, such as health anxiety in those with an underlying health condition during a pandemic, or parents seeking to act in the best interests of their children. Bäckström et al (2017) found that online wisdom from the crowd was seen as equally or even more credible than the advice of a physician.

The antivax campaigners who briefly halted immunisations at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles used a Facebook page to organise, says Allison Winnike, boss of the Immunisation Partnership, a non-profit that raises awareness of vaccinations (“Likes and protein spikes” in The Economist February 13th 2021).

Anti-vaxxers hold largely fixed beliefs that all vaccines are harmful, but vaccine hesitancy is not the same thing. The World Health Organisation recently published a report suggesting three main ways to overcome vaccine hesitancy: cultivating social influencers in favour of vaccination (countering disinformation); curating vaccine-enabling environments (ensuring vaccines are accessible to marginalised communities) and motivating individuals to get vaccinated.

The lesson? Anti-vaxxers are not necessarily the same as those who are vaccine hesitant.

Let’s take a look at the online “wisdom” of anti-vaxxers.

Source: Public Facebook page (name of poster cropped out)

In the UK, NHS nurse and mother-of-four, Kate Shemirani was suspended from practising for 18 months in July 2020 after sharing false theories about the virus, vaccines, and the 5G network. She continues to run a “natural” nursing practice from her home in Sussex.

Dr Vernon Coleman has alleged that pharmaceutical companies control the National Health Service. An anti-vaxxer, he has claimed GPs are among the top three causes of death in the UK. In the 1980s, Dr Coleman called Aids “the hoax of the century”. I have experienced the misfortune of having the prolific and persistent “wisdom” of Dr Coleman quoted at me by his devotees on Facebook multiple times now.

Dolores Cahill stated that there were no deaths from Covid-19 (in Ireland) beyond May of last year because coronaviruses do not kill beyond April when the flu season ends. The number of deaths in Ireland fell during the summer because months of public health measures meant it was circulating at a lower level but 384 deaths were confirmed in May; 86 deaths were confirmed in June; 25 deaths were confirmed in July; 14 deaths were confirmed in August, and 27 deaths were confirmed in September.

Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician recently tweeted that the longer you wear a mask, the more unhealthy you get. In a 2011 article titled The Ten Reasons To Say No To Vaccines, Sherri Tenpenny warned that “each shot is a Russian roulette; you never know which chamber has the bullet that could kill you”.

Dr Rashid Buttar claimed Covid-19 was engineered in a US laboratory with Bill Gates and Dr Anthony Fauci being integral to it. Buttar agreed in 2010 to accept a reprimand for allegations that he denies, such as exploiting patients by charging exorbitant fees for unproven therapies and ordering expensive tests to make more money.

The lesson? Check the credentials of the person you are taking medical advice from and treat their advice with the same level of suspicion you are showing the government.

No one wants to discourage people from airing legitimate concerns about vaccines but there seems to be no end to the spreading of misinformation. I was told, for example, that if I become ill as a result of the vaccine, I would be unable to claim compensation. What they actually mean is a Vaccine Damage Payment, which is a tax-free one-off payment of £120,000. The truth is that Coronavirus (COVID-19) is on the list of eligible vaccines.

The lesson? Google is your friend. Most of the time.

Efforts by Facebook and Twitter to deal with false claims through fact-checking and labeling misinformation have undoubtedly helped in some instances by flagging up the need to fully read what you share, and also by reminding people that there is a difference between evidence-based facts and opinion. Following the 2016 U.S. Election, Facebook started using external fact-checkers to identify, label, and reduce the visibility of false publications in the news feeds (Mena, 2020). Twitter announced the adoption of a ‘manipulated media label’ to warn their users about altered videos and photos (Twitter Safety, 2020). Twitter also broadened its definition of harmful content to include, among others, denial of health authority recommendations and any kind of “false or misleading information around Covid-19” (Gadde; Derella, 2020).

Not everyone is comfortable with the approach taken by social media organisations. “Censoring speech and pretending you can make it go away is really problematic,” says Matt Perault, a former director of public policy at Facebook who now runs Duke University’s Centre on Science and Technology Policy. Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory cautioned that “Social-media companies run the risk of turning what should be something that could be easily addressed with a label into forbidden knowledge” (“Likes and protein spikes” in The Economist February 13th 2021).

The lesson? Some believe that when it comes to anti-vaxxers, much can be learned from cults.

The pejorative label and negative attitudes towards cults promote an us-and-them viewpoint, creating martyrs and extending the length of time that members hold the new beliefs, thus encouraging further involvement in the movement and radicalisation. Use a more inclusive approach, where the same inquisitive dialogue and contextual understanding that is suggested for vaccine hesitancy is extended to members of the anti-vax movement.

A worthwhile goal, but one that is easier said than done.

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