The danger of the anti-vaccination movement’s social media influence

By John Vandewater, '20


|Photo: Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz, U.S. Air Force

By now we have all heard the recent news of measles outbreaks throughout the United States. What you may not have heard is the extent to which the population of the anti-vaccination movement (anti-vaxxers) has significantly increased in the past decade. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the number of unvaccinated school-age children has quadrupled since 2001.

Consequently, it comes as no surprise that many states have experienced outbreaks of measles due to the unvaccinated population of children in these locations. How does this affect us? According to the CDC, the state of Texas has approximately 60,000 children attending public schools that are unvaccinated, over 300,000 homeschooled children with no status of their immunizations, and 100,000 school-age children that have received zero vaccinations–and these numbers are rising.

The Why and How

Most of this is thanks in part to an extremely militant anti-vax campaign waged by self-educated parents, questionable research, and several powerful political action committees (PACs). What began as a study that had “proved” autism was linked to vaccinations, has become an anger filled personal freedom debate. Organizations like Texans for Vaccine Choice, who are mostly masquerading as personal freedom fighters, have clouded this issue with massive amounts of money, propaganda, and power. Most of their disinformation campaign is rooted deeply in internet social media and aims to create a fear that vaccinations are somehow dangerous to children, even though medical research proves opposite. For example, one of the most common major immunizations under attack is the Measles, Mumps and Rubella Vaccine (MMR). For this specific shot, which does have the highest number of reported reactions, CDC statistics state that approximately one child per every 4,000 will experience the immunizations worst side effect, fibral seizures. However, what the large majority of anti-vaxxer advertising will not tell you is that these reactions occur mostly in children with weakened immune systems or those individuals diagnosed with immune deficiency diseases.

One of the major problems in combating this hype is that the amount of information produced by anti-vax groups severely outnumbers the public voice of un-biased scientific research. The CDC has a website with statistical information, but its influence is minimal. The United States Surgeon General’s office and the past few presidential administrations have been mostly silent on the issue. Doctors and academics who speak out against this pseudoscience are often harassed with threats of violence and even death. As a whole, the anti-vaccination movement has become increasingly hostile to anyone voicing their opinion in support of factual history and science. My own Facebook page is riddled with poor arguments and hateful responses from the few anti-vaxxers I do know. This is mainly because I choose to vaccinate my own children and encourage others to do so as well. So, why does this subject raise such an emotional debate? Why is this growing movement becoming progressively contentious and combative? The answer is simple, fear.

All things considered, I do not want to downplay the fact that some children with immune system diseases and genetic mutations should not receive immunizations that are contrary to medical advice. Vaccinations cannot and were never intended to be a single solution for every human being. However, the limited number of the population belonging to this group is quite small. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), less than 2 percent of the world’s population meet the current criteria for choosing not to be vaccinated. Although this is a global statistic, I am utilizing it due to the lack of statistics of the American population that meet these recommendations. Locally, understanding that these incredibly small numbers of children could be harmed by a shot in the arm is understandably concerning to most parents. Nonetheless, it is much more responsible to have a child tested for every medical disorder that would cause a reaction to certain immunizations than to risk the overall health of their child or anyone else’s. Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and the co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development believes that Texas is particularly at risk of outbreaks due solely to the numbers of exemptions granted by the state due to “reasons of conscious.” This should be alarming to anyone that works at an institution of learning or is responsible for a child that attends them.

The Who and Where

If this many of our fellow Texans are unvaccinated, who are they? Where are they from? The state of Texas reports that the vaccine exemption rates are highest in Austin, but also high in Plano, Denton, and Fort Worth. Be that as it may, the personal scale of anti-vaxxers is much broader and more difficult to nail down. Most parents included in this movement are lower to middle class but certainly not by a huge margin. Economically speaking, there really is no specific income bracket to fit this group into. Anti-vaxxers come from both ends of the political spectrum, and in Texas, this debate definitely ventures towards political rights. The major anti-vaccine PACs often use very political language that includes fear mongering terminology like “medical freedom” and “personal choice.” What these organizations and this particular message fails to mention is that other families also have a fundamental right to be protected from contagious infection. They’re entitled to protection from infections that were uncurable just over a half of a century ago.

Vaccines have eradicated a plethora of awful diseases that most of us are not old enough to have physically or visually experienced. Polio, smallpox, yaws, rinderpest and malaria are all but extinct. The WHO and the CDC statistics claim that vaccines save 2-3 million people from death every year. Even if we are not faced with more than a few deadly diseases here in Texas, isn’t some protection for you or your children better than none? Shouldn’t we use every means necessary to protect ourselves from possible sickness or disease? I have spent several years in countries where people stand in line for hours and walk miles to get the immunizations that we seem to be taking for granted. The rhetoric being used by the anti-vax crowd to dissuade these drugs is working because it is emotionally appealing. Arguments such as “Don’t you care what the government is putting in our children’s bodies?” or “Don’t you know that unresearched vaccines are largely profitable for big pharmaceutical companies?” Although it is tempting to be lured into this mindset, these appeals are also easily refuted. Furthermore, the only way to help people understand the effectiveness of vaccination is to confront them directly. No matter how many times it takes, changing one mind and possibly saving a single life is worth the argument. Yes, there are chemicals in immunizations. No, they are not toxic, and no they do not cause Autism.

In closing, the anti-vaccination movement is growing and it is dangerous. Illnesses we thought were long forgotten are reemerging right here in our very own state. Luckily, most of them have been contained thanks to reporting requirements and education on the seriousness of these contagious diseases. That being said, what is the solution to the problem? Should Texas pass a law requiring immunizations to attend public schools and state funded universities? I am not absolutely sure that more law is the correct answer, but the conversation should most definitely be on the table.

For more information or to find statistics and timelines concerning vaccinations, please visit the World Health Organization website at www.who.int/topics/immunization/en/ or the Center for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov/vaccines.