Rethinking Anti-Vaccination

Will Sutton

A screencap of an article from the site that incorrectly claims that vaccines cause autism. The article was posted in November 2017.

Will Sutton, Photography Editor

While scrolling through Facebook recently, I came across a peculiar article in my news feed: “NOW IT’S OFFICIAL: FDA ANNOUNCED THAT VACCINES ARE CAUSING AUTISM!”

This was an obvious case of fake news, but what concerned me was not the article itself, but the friend who shared it. I spend a week every summer in central Appalachia, and, as a result, I have a dozen or so Facebook contacts that hail from the poverty-stricken region. The Facebook poster, Mary*,was from a poor county in Kentucky, who lives with her two young children.  Reading her post and the surprising number of agreeing supporters made from members of her community worried me. 

The Anti-Vaccination movement is propped up by more than just fake news. It is a decentralized, but stubborn, collection of right-wing conspirators, leftists opposed to “unnatural solutions,” and religious purists. These “anti-vaxxers” are often influential American figures like actress Jenny McCarthy, actor Jim Carrey, and, most importantly, President Donald J. Trump. The movement thrives on fear mongering and pseudo-science, arguing that vaccines are unnatural, unsafe, and the work of profit-hungry “Big Pharma.” The movement found its first stronghold in California, and for the last decade has fought against mandatory vaccinations for those attending public schools.

But let’s return to Mary and her two children and their home in Kentucky, which is far from California. While affluent anti-vaxxers McCarthy or Trump have immediate access to healthcare and the money to pay for it, the nearest hospital to Mary is a 40-minute drive, and her minimum-wage job could never cover the costs of measles treatment. While McCarthy or Trump’s children play in safe, clean yards and public parks, Mary’s children construct playthings out of scrap metal and regularly tumble with roaming neighborhood dogs. Further, while McCarthy’s or Trump’s children will receive sufficient education to realize the full benefits and safety of vaccines, Mary’s children will receive a substandard education at an underfunded and understaffed public school, and perhaps never understand the massive flaws in the anti-vaxxer argument.

Junior James Winikoff, who volunteered in Appalachia last summer, commented that “When you’re not exposed to different viewpoints, when all your news is coming from conservative news sites, when you’re taught from a young age to distrust government institutions- the anti-vaxxer lie is perfect for [residents of Appalachia].”

These privileged proponents of anti-vaccination may not realize it, but their network of influence, propaganda, and fake news has reached the uneducated poor of this country. These citizens face a very tangible danger of acquiring a disease like measles, tetanus, or rabies, and a very tangible danger of not being able to receive treatment for the disease that they should have been vaccinated against to begin with. Thanks to the propaganda of the wealthy and conspiratorial, including the widely-emulated Donald Trump, Mary’s son is one slip-on-a-rusty-nail away from a life-threatening tetanus infection. Already, the anti-vaxxer movement is damaging our citizens: in May 2017, Minnesota faced the largest measles outbreak in the last 30 years, according to CNN.

Most in the Massachusetts (and nearly all at HHS, based upon the informal polling of each of my classes) agree with the scientific consensus that vaccines are beneficial and safe. “Anti-vaxxers are such goofballs” joked Senior Evan Goddard, when asked about the topic. Goddard’s testimony displays a common Massachusetts view which equates anti-vaxxers with loony celebrities who ignore science and, besides perhaps hurting their own children, are largely harmless.

But I invite you to rethink the way you think of anti-vaccination. It is not comical nor harmless; it irresponsibly employs fear-mongering tactics that naturally appeal to the nation’s poor and uneducated – those who need vaccines the most. It is a severely dangerous movement, irresponsible at best and darkly classist at worst.

The best anybody can hope to do is get their flu shots this winter, vaccinate their children, and challenge anti-vaxxers whenever given the chance. Confront them with the wealth of scientific evidence, challenge them to protect their children, and force them to realize the implications of their actions. Challenge the movement, promote the truth about medicine, and maybe we can help people like Mary, those who are truly being harmed by the scourge of anti-vaccination.

*Names have been changed to protect subject’s privacy.